It’s funny how quickly the mind is willing to quit analyzing a movie when it’s actually scary. Last year, V/H/S, a film widely lauded as the game-changing horror anthology, milked the minutiae of the found-footage subgenre dryer than each bore-and-snore-inducing Paranormal Activity film combined. And, because it forced audiences to commit their attention to ineffectual non-events shot with insufferable faux-shaky cam, V/H/S’s general nastiness and casual misogyny seemed to take center stage; the film’s most problematic aspects seemed more interesting to discuss than its attempt to reinvent its tropes of choice. But here’s the thing about its sequel, V/H/S/2: it’s too creatively ambitious, too technically efficient, too funny, and yes, too scary, to give its shortcomings (still present here, but much less so) and its sexual politics (still faintly problematic) anything more than fleeting consideration. It’s a damn-near-great horror film.
V/H/S/2 takes place in the same universe as its predecessor – an abandoned, decrepit house in which a collection of VHS tapes are strewn across the floor in front of stacked television sets playing nothing but constant static. Here, private investigators Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsey Abbot) begin reviewing the footage of the tapes, while probing the house for clues about a young man who lives there and has recently gone missing. This chain of events, entitled “Tape 49” and directed by Simon Barrett, serves as fodder that wraps around the rest of V/H/S/2’s ensuing material, setting into motion four segments by Adam Wingard (You’re Next), Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) and Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, (The Raid: Redemption) and Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun). The eclecticism of this line-up gives V/H/S/2 free reign not only to deploy tonal shifts, but to riff on familiar conventions – the supernatural, zombiism, cults, and alien invasion – with an alternating sense of joy and relentlessness that V/H/S sorely missed.
PHASE I CLINICAL TRIALS
Adam Wingard’s segment stars Wingard himself as Herman, a young, single man nominated by a corporation to receive a robotic eyeball implant to replace his non-functioning biological eye. The catch: the eyeball has a built in camera, through which Herman has allowed the corporation to survey his activities and monitor the progress of his ocular health. Cleverly, this premise aligns spectators with the perspective of both Herman and an omniscient corporate entity, and naturally, the procedure does not go as swimmingly as one might like. Upon returning home from the surgery, Herman begins seeing bloodied corpses and other ghostly figures that begin to encroach on his personal space. And of course, good ol’ Dr. Fleischer (John T. Woods) insists that such sightings are simply the side effects of adjusting to his new vision.
The mysterious Clarissa (Hannah Hughes) soon shows up at Herman’s door, explaining that she and Herman have one thing in common: the operations they received from the same facility (hers an ear replacement for her deafness) puts them in touch, visually and aurally, with the spirits of the dead. The full-blown paranormal assault that Wingard’s set-up eventually allows to take place affords him the opportunity to dish out some welcome one-liners and reactionary humor to the creepiness that’s afoot before the segment spins into a frenzy of sexuality and brutality, capped off with one cringe-inducing climax.
A RIDE IN THE PARK
Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale give us V/H/S/2’s second chapter; unsurprisingly, the two minds behind The Blair Witch Project manage to conjure a sense of dread in the middle of the woods on a beautiful day to end all beautiful days. Shortly after beginning his daily ride, a biker (Jay Saunders) attempts to help a panicked woman on the side of a dirt trail, all the while filming the strange events unfolding before him with a GoPro “wearable camera” helmet. Unaware of the woman being undead until it’s much too late, the biker is bitten, in turn shifting the camera’s perspective from that of an adrenaline junkie to a flesh-munching zombie.
While at times frightening and even a touch poignant (we know the biker won’t be returning home to his sweet-sounding girlfriend on the other end of his phone), “A Ride in the Park” stands on its own two feet by improving upon the comedic value inherent in Wingard’s segment and running with it at full speed. In addition to reminding of Louisville guard Kevin Ware’s grisly March Madness basketball leg injury, Stuart Hirsch and Jason M. Koch’s grisly special effects lend a pitch-perfect counterbalance to the bizarre, borderline slapstick feel of this segment. Surely it contains one of the more memorable birthday party sequences cooked up since that of a Brazilian child’s in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs.
This third segment, directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, is something of a revelation – a master class in subgenre hybridity and the milking of perpetual tension and unease. Following a trio of documentarians as they profile the leader of an enigmatic Indonesian cult, “Safe Haven” initially appears to be a bleak look at the depravity of child abuse, but soon develops into something unfathomably more deranged. To spoil the details surrounding the three filmmakers’ personal relationships or the secrets behind the cult’s activities would be to detract from the impact Tjahjanto and Evans’s purposeful misdirection is bound to have on viewers.
The chain of events captured through the lens of the documentary crew’s spy-cams in this 20-minute mini-film unfolds with a natural deliberation, making its inevitable narrative nosedive all the more breathtaking when it kicks into high gear. In the best way possible, “Safe Haven” feels like that rare case in which the short form structure is more limiting than liberating. Its ideas, performances and deftly employed Grand Guignol aesthetic more than warrant a full-length feature not based on a book by Nicholas Sparks starring Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough.
SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION
As soon as a group of 13-year-old boys roll up on street bikes with lime-green helmets and candy-colored Super Soakers, it’s clear Jason Eisener has come to make his mark in this fourth and final segment. The Hobo With a Shotgun writer/director responsible for the self-explanatorily titled “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” gives us exactly what that title promises, aiming to deliver extra-terrestrial-related chills on a very base, if not effective level. While probably the most innocuous section, its infectious nostalgia heightens its simple proceedings by way of Eisener’s assuredness behind the camera, and his knack for capturing the obliviousness of adolescence.
For a while, with the exception of one standout shot of an indiscernible creature underwater, Eisener’s bit of V/H/S/2 plays out like a foul-mouthed ode to the youthful spirit of Spielberg and the hijinks of Jackass. Ever-present is Eisener’s displacement of personal elements to help guide “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”’s transition from goofiness to decidedly darker material; his own dog, this time, provides us with the eye-level perspective, through a camera strapped to his back that captures the titular abduction in real time. This one’s an enjoyable, if relatively benign entry in the anthology.
The issues that plagued V/H/S’s storytelling capabilities are not entirely resolved in V/H/S/2 – there are many instances in which women are needlessly leered at by the film’s multi-modal gazes, and the film’s wrap-around segment still plays out as rather incoherent – but what does it matter? I could pose the question as to how all the cataclysmic events recorded on each VHS tape in the house Larry and Ayesha break into could possibly be happening in the same universe, at the same time. Or ask what in the hell a troubled teenager holed up in his room contemplating suicide has anything to do with any of what takes place in the segments I’ve described.
But really, rigid insistence on logic, here, is futile.
We horror fans know what we like. We like medical experiments gone awry. We like subversive twists on the somewhat-dying zombie mythos. We like crazy cults. We like slumber parties, and alien abductions. V/H/S/2’s makers give us that cake and dare us to eat it too, betting on the odds that we just might like it. Maybe even love it.
– By Max Weinstein