V/H/S 2 or "I'm Only In This For Gareth Huw Evans"
I hope that's how a lot of people approach this film. Not because they enjoyed the first film - if anyone really did - but because they'd been so ravenously enthralled by Gareth Huw Evans' previous film, The Raid: Redemption, that they now seek out anything he does with great relish. The Raid is one of the greatest action films of the last few decades. It's largely undeniable. Ever since stumbling upon it during a marathon IMDb trawl, I've told everyone I know to watch it. Granted, I'm a glutton for martial-arts films, but I sat down and watched it with them and no matter their predisposition, the film always elicited a series of cringes and gasps. The obsession I have with this film is not due to its display of astounding physicality or its shocking violence, but due to Huw Evans' complete mastery of handling action. Though the film is a blistering 90 minutes of frenzied silat, it ties together a cohesive narrative into a palpable climax; brought to psyche-shattering life by engaging characterisations and an unflinching adherence to structure. The film felt fresh even though it was as simple a premise as you could ask for: a SWAT team have to fight their way through a slum-apartment block to reach a brutal crime lord.
Evans understands the balancing act all martial-arts films take part in, just as Jackie Chan did with the seminal Police Story. The dilemma is that, to stage action with impact (emotional, I mean), it has to be framed in a way that feels necessary and tied to the rest of the film. It's about a character you feel for beating the odds and it's about pacing an otherwise incongruous display of violence.
The Raid is exemplar of the way Evans builds tension. The film is frantic, yes. In fact, it's more than that. It's an explosion of bone-crushing, neck-breaking and throat-slitting noise. There isn't much in the way of plot development either, nor is there much (if at all) character development outside its opening 15 minutes. What it does have though, is an incredibly tangible build in tension. Every fight scene ups the brutality - from a succession of multiple-stabbings to tackling-a-maniac-out-the-window to slamming-his-face-onto-the-jagged-splinters-of-a-broken-door. But it's not violence for violence's sake and at no point does it feel gratuitous. The rise in brutality is actually used to cement our investment in the characters. When we see a man hacked to death with an axe, that reflexive gut reaction immediately makes us feel the danger the main characters are in. This is compounded with an emotional grounding in our protagonist and unlike action-films of late, we actually care about Iko Uwais. We're told why in the first few minutes - he's got a baby on the way. That's all you need. So when the visceral nature of the violence (not its frequency, as is often employed) is increased, we're pushed further to the edge of our seat. Therein lies Huw Evans' forte: escalation.
NOTE IT: From here on out is spoiler-rich territory, which will definitely ruin the entire experience for you. ALSO, Huw Evans co-directed Safe Haven with Timo Tjahjanto, not to exclude anyone.
The most intriguing aspect of his contribution to found-footage anthology V/H/S 2 is simply that it departs completely from his previous work. Safe Haven marks his first foray outside action. And what a foray it is. Playing up to V/H/S's gimmick, the story is told from the various cameras employed by a team of journalists investigating a controversial cult figure. They're lured into his labyrinthine compound with the promise of a reveal-all interview, only to discover his underlying motives are concerned with opening the gates to hell (or some manifestation of it). The other films included on V/H/S's billing are concerned with form over content and like the trap of staging action, they subject the audience to a series of scares with no progression or grounding. Safe Haven utilises form to inform the content and actually provides characters with depth. Along its meagre runtime, the film splinters into different points of view and even goes so far as to introduce a tumultuous love triangle about half-way through. That's the formula - personal characters thrown into an intense situation, so that the scares actually evoke a sense of horror and not fright - a point the other films missed altogether.
As the shit (and a copious volume of blood) hits the fan, the film cuts back and forth between the characters, highlighting their isolation in relation to their environment and each other. It's the perfect scenario to show off the capabilities of the genre. The 1st person perspective leaves you completely exposed to almost unbearable tension and the effect of having a knife-wielding maniac stare down the lens is ineffable. Huw Evans is well aware of this and has you staring into the eyes of a series of hell-bent characters, played wonderfully by an all-Indonesian cast. What proves most effective, however, is the logical and realistic way it introduces its supernatural elements. At no point do you have to actively adjust or make sense of the lunacy and for much of its half-hour-or-so runtime you think it's simply going to avoid the fantastical altogether. Such is the fluid progression of the plot that it's only looking back do you realise that you've just seen mass-suicide and the graphic birth of a horned demon. And again, it's that relatively slow-burning escalation of tension and viscera that draws you in. Safe Haven runs at a rollicking rhythm: the beats in action and scares are doled out so organically that you're constantly unaware of what you're going to be subjected to next.
And in that sense (and many others), these elements are as well-handled as they were in The Raid. Both films have splintered points of view. Both films provide a clear sense of space and location. Both films feel organic in the way they build to their frantic climaxes. But at the centre of it all, both films ground the action in realistic characters. There's no trickery, no subversive writing tactics, no gimmicky hooks. They're just stories told the way they should be.
((A SIDE NOTE ON CINEMATOGRAPHY) It has to be noted here that Huw Evans also boasts an uncanny knack at framing action. Unlike the segment that follows, aptly titled: 'Slumber Party Alien Abduction', the shaky cinematography in Safe Haven doesn't become nauseating, even as the characters are running around frantically trying to avoid their inevitable introduction to hell on earth (literally, I think). The effect is pure visual communication as every movement is clear and precise, allowing you complete viewing freedom. It's that one thing we all want - to leave a cinema with a clear-cut logistical understanding of what we've just seen.)