Written by: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Evans, Jason Eisener & John Davies, Eduardo Sanchez, and Brad Miska
Directed by: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez & Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Evans, and Jason Eisener
Starring: Adam Wingard, Epy Kusnandar, and Lawrence Michael Levin
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Who's tracking you?
When we look back at the original V/H/S in a few years, I think it’ll rightfully be heralded as a genre zeitgeist since it provides such a potent snapshot of the era in its collection of talent, its nostalgia fetish, and its employment of found footage. But also believe it’ll be considered a bit of a footnote thanks to its sequel, which improves upon the formula considerably. As much as I enjoyed the first film, V/H/S 2 is the real deal and makes for a tighter, leaner, and meaner experience all the way around. You might even say it makes V/H/S look like Beta.
Structurally, the sequel mirrors its predecessor with a frame story (Simon Barrett’s “Tape 49”) centered on a private detective’s (Lawrence Michael Levin) investigation of a missing college student. With his girlfriend (Kelsy Abbot) in tow, he breaks into the student’s house and discovers an eerie shrine of computer monitors and VHS tapes. Despite the presence of sinister noises that all but scream “get the hell out,” the duo proceed to poke around the house, and the girlfriend is charged viewing some of the tapes, whose nightmarish contents serve as the anthology’s segments.
Barrett’s frequent partner-and-crime Adam Wingard directs and stars in the opening number, “Phase I Clinical Trials,” a cool little ghost story. Following a car accident, doctors place an experimental, cybernetic implant to replace a survivor’s missing eye (Wingard). To collect data, the team has outfitted it with a camera, thus allowing the short to skirt around the issue of having its protagonist lug around a camera like a dope. His new eye has also granted him the unwanted ability to peer into a ghastly dimension, as he finds himself haunted by violent spirits
Obviously, I’m obligated to acknowledge The Eye here since its premise is strikingly similar. However, that’s sort of indicative of V/H/S 2 as a whole: a lot of its content is quite familiar but is delivered with a fresh spin or flair. In this case, Wingard especially captures this franchise’s signature mix of raw, grisly violence and chilling imagery—it’s a segment that certainly seeks to make you squirm, but it also wants to make your skin crawl a little bit first. Unlike the opening segment from the previous film (which felt a full-throttle attempt to mimic the feeling of rolling around in a kettle drum), this one bothers to work up to its scares by couching viewers in an unsettling atmosphere before unleashing its uncomfortably gory climax.
Found footage godfathers Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (The Blair Witch Project) co-helm “A Ride in the Park,” a segment that provides further evidence that V/H/S 2 isn’t going to shy away from familiarity because here’s another goddamn zombie movie. But unlike most (any?) zombie movie before it, “A Ride in the Park” is delivered almost exclusively from the point-of-view of the zombie itself, a hapless bike-rider (Jay Saunders) who stumbles upon an undead outbreak during his trip to a park. With his Go-Pro helmet-cam still attached, he’s mauled by and eventually transforms into one of the horde, which is a killer gimmick.
The aesthetic implications of this are obviously noteworthy, as the unique perspective breathes some life into well-worn territory (and brings audiences face-to-face with the incredible gore effects—you’ve seen gut-munching before, but this stuff is visceral as hell). More than that, though, the hook has the effect of highlighting the existential horror of becoming the undead—you often hear characters discuss this (how many zombie movies include an exchange where characters force their loved ones into a pact to dispatch them should they fall victim?), but “A Ride in the Park” allows you to see and feel the agony of that transformation. It also still functions as a function for kick-ass zombie mayhem to boot. That I have this much effusive praise about anything involving zombies speaks volumes.
The anthology’s crown jewel is Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Heaven,” which tackles even more familiar stuff, as it finds a news crew investigating and interviewing the leader of a cult (Epy Kusnandar). Their visit is an uncomfortably welcome one because the enigmatic “Father” has chosen this particular day to reveal his ultimate stage of enlightenment. You know that it ends badly, but I doubt you can anticipate just how badly. “Safe Haven” gets out of hand in a hurry and in the best way possible. Anyone familiar with Evans’s two Raid films will recognize the “holy shit” sense of escalation, only it’s mixed here with a healthy dose of “what the fuck?!” moments that’ll leave you wondering how you arrived from point A to point B even as Evans plows through the expected cult signposts (ritual suicide, demons). Kusnandar is an especially sinister presence and is set to haunt your nightmares forever. Having watched this just a couple of months after Ti West’s The Sacrament, I find it hard not to note how “Safe Haven” is just as accomplished (if not more so) despite the condensed runtime (that’s not a knock on West—it’s merely very high praise for Evans and Tjahjanto).
Coming down from such a high is inevitable, but Jason Eisner’s capper isn’t exactly a free-fall. While it’s proof that even the strongest anthologies sometimes fall prey to ending on a lesser note, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” is a no-frills blast that delivers exactly what the title promises: a group of kids have a slumber party, which devolves into a prank war until the festivities are interrupted by extraterrestrials. Somewhat ironically, Eisner’s segment is the only one that isn’t wrapped up in an overly-familiar sub-genre (I’ve always thought we could use more straight-up horror alien invasion flicks), yet it’s arguably the least memorable of the bunch. That speaks more to the strength of the rest of the film, though, because “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” has its moments: the arrival of the alien craft is particularly unnerving, and the decision to mount the camera to the family dog provides yet another different perspective. Eisner’s take feels more frenzied and chaotic—when the short eventually degenerates into the camera shakily capturing the characters running through the woods from the invaders, it’s sort of the poster child for the aesthetic that turns off so many from found footage.
Regardless of that slight misstep, V/H/S 2 still makes for a breathless, nigh-peerless set of deranged transmissions. Its filmmakers’ commitment to authenticity is laudable; even when Eisner and Evans are dealing with out-of-this-world creatures (and I especially love the former’s choice to go with a typical Gray Man design), the proceedings are utterly believable. More than anything, both V/H/S films have managed to tap into that bizarre space between dreamscapes and waking life—call it the twilight zone of modern horror anthologies, I suppose. These films just feel like discarded dispatches from the dingiest, foulest corners of the earth, and, taken as a whole, V/H/S 2 is an especially disturbing descent into a hellish underbelly of back-channel tape traders and snuff enthusiasts.
Admittedly, the sequel loses some of the nightmare logic of the original since it’s more tightly wound, but its wraparound segment is no less vague and leaves viewers with that same confounding inexplicability. Some cryptic dialogue hints at a method behind the franchise’s madness; if there’s any connective tissue between the two films at all, it could be in their respective frame stories, both of which are key in establishing the films’ hallucinatory tones. There’s a notion that these in-story video tapes are meant to hold some sort of transgressive sway over its viewers, and it’d seem laughable and maybe even a little pretentious if they didn’t live up to the billing. My only major complaint here is that they didn’t keep the superior working title, S-VHS. Buy it!
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