A quick fix for hardcore horror junkies, but not a sustained high
Despite initial reviews suggesting that V/H/S 2 had perfected the found-footage-anthology format pioneered by V/H/S, the sequel turns out to be mostly more of the same, offering only slight improvement over its predecessor, mostly in the form of a shorter running time, fewer episodes, and reduced sex-ploitation. Once again, expert craftsmanship and remarkable ingenuity yield abundant shocks and sustained, grim intensity – all the more impressive, given the limited resources. Along with the virtues, also come the flaws: the dedication to delivering relentlessly downbeat horror results in monotonous redundancy that prevents the individual episodes from adding up to a satisfying whole. The team of filmmakers behind V/H/S 2 are clearly talented, but judging from the evidence on screen, they expended most of their creativity not on crafting a variety of interlocking tales but on inventing novel justifications for the skaky-cam style of camerawork. A few moments of poignancy and levity – the latter bordering on camp – are welcome, but they are too brief and too far between to qualify as the badly needed variety. Hardcore horror junkies will get their fix, and then some; non-addicts will enjoy a hit or two but not get a sustained high.
TAPE 49 (Wraparound Beginning) – Written & directed by Simon Barrett
Perhaps a bit too predictably, the wraparound segment of V/H/S 2 begins with a sex scene surreptitiously videotaped – a rather unwanted call-back to a recurring motif in V/H/S. Fortunately, this turns out to be a bit of a false alarm: this time we are not seeing the world through the eyes of young punks out to sexually harass victims; we are following a private eye named Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine), who is gathering evidence against a philandering husband. Larry turns out to be not the most ethical man; he immediately calls the husband and offers to give him the tape if he can make a better offer. (Place your bets on whether Larry will live past the closing credits!)
Larry and his partner Ayesha (Kelsey Abbott) then go on their next job: A woman has asked him to find her son, who has gone missing. Breaking into the college student’s house, they find a row of television sets and a stack of videocassettes (including one that shows a clip of “Tape 56” from V/H/S). The tapes become the episodes that make up the body of the film.
Although not exactly engrossing, “Tape 46” is more intriguing than its counterpart in V/H/S, offering cryptic, conspiratorial hints about the collection of videotapes. We catch bits of dialogue from a recording made by a missing student, in which he suggests that the old analog recording medium has potential to affect the nervous system, but the tapes need to be watched in the right order to work. The implication is that the tapes have been deliberately created and collated to do harm, and the “victims” (the missing student and perhaps even the dead man in V/H/S) may have willingly exposed themselves to the contamination.
It’s a good set-up – more imaginative than any of the stories to follow. And of course, the reference to analog tape helps explain why we are dealing with VHS technology in this modern digital era. This concept also adds an eerie layer to the reason that Larry and Ayesha are recording everything they do inside the empty house: it’s part of the deal with their client. We in the audience are left to wonder: Have Larry and Ayesha been set up to create yet another “found footage” horror story?
PHASE I CLINICAL TRIALS – Written by Simon Barrett, directed by Adam Wingard
Herman (director Adam Wingard) gets a new experimental mechanical eye, which includes a datachip recording everything he sees (and hears as well – which is a bit of a stretch, since he doesn’t have an ear implant). Unfortunately, as in THE EYE (2002), the new orb opens Adam’s vision to visitors “From Beyond.” A young woman suffering a similar problem, due to a cochlear implant, shows up and tells him she can help him overcome this problem. Guess what? She can’t! The spectral shadows haunting Herman become more invasive, drowning the woman; in desperation, Herman abides by the Biblical injunction: “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.” Unfortunately, the effect on stopping the spooks is nil.
The first episode of V/H/S delivers the shudders with style, but there is little new here, beyond the novelty of the implanted eye. Clearly, screenwriter Barrett is working hard to answer the question on everyone’s mind during these “hand-held” movies: Why don’t the characters drop the camera and run? His answer is clever, but it raises new questions: How did the recording get off the data chip and onto a videotape? And, since we were told that the chip would record everything, who did the edited out the parts we don’t see?
A RIDE IN THE PARK – Written by Jamie Nash & Eduardo Sanchez, Directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez
A biker is recording his ride through the park on a Go-Pro camera mounted on his helmet. Stopping to help a woman bleeding from bite wounds, he sees some shuffling people we assume to be zombies, and he winds up bitten by the woman he tried to save. After collapsing unconscious, he resurrects – and begins searching for victims of his own.
That’s right: this episode offers Zombie-Vision – a you-are-there, point-of-view presentation of what it’s like to come back as the living dead. The over-the-top absurdity, coupled with the horror we are witnessing up close and personal, as if we ourselves were committing it, combine to make the stand-out episode of V/H/S 2.
Fortunately, the episode offers more than a clever gimmick; there is also an unexpected touch of pathos. After chewing his way through numerous victims, the bike rider hears his fiance speaking to him over his cell phone – apparently, he “pocket dialed” her while being shot and run over. The sound of her voice seems to bring back some whisper of humanity: the biker crawls to a gun dropped by one of his victims and turns it on himself; the blast knocks the camera loose, giving us a final glimpse of the biker’s blasted head.
SAFE HAVEN – Written by Timo Tjahjanto, Directed by Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Evans
A documentary crew gets permission to videotape within the compound of an Indonesian religious cult. Though initially reluctant, the cult leader seems eager for the opportunity to explain himself. The interview turns negative when the reporter raises questions of child sexual abuse, but the issue soon becomes moot. Apparently, the time of the interview just happens to coincide with the fulfillment of the cult’s achieving Paradise on Earth, which consists of three elements: mass suicide; resurrection as the living dead; the birth of some kind of demon from a human mother. All Hell literally breaks loose; the camera crew is caught in the cross fire – shot, stabbed, or beaten, except for the lone female member, who unwillingly becomes the vessel for the demonic birth. A surviving crew member – he just happens to be the one who got the lady reporter pregnant – flees in a truck but the demon catches up with him and the vehicle overturns. As the man laughs hysterically, snot running down his nose and into the camera lens, the demon leans over the truck, looks down upon him, and says, “Papa.”
With its chilling depiction of a suicide cult, “Safe Haven” recalls horrible real-life tragedies such as the Jones Town Massacre. The horror of being an outsider who has wandered into a lethal situation is ably captured, and viewers are likely to find themselves cringing at the sight of horrors which seem not too far removed from reality.
There are a couple of slip-ups, however. Despite a bevy of willing cult members, for some reason the lone outside woman becomes the unwilling mother of the demon. Is this why the cult leader changed his mind and allowed the crew to film in his compound, or was it just a happy coincidence that the apocalypse started during filming? During the choas, the cult leader is able to overpower and kill a much younger and healthier crew member. How? Just because the script tells him to.
Having gone to the trouble of establishing that the female reporter is wearing a camera lens disguised as a blouse button (again, explaining why the victims do not drop the camera), the episode shoots most of its footage from other cameras, including one that seems to be mounted on the dashboard for no particular reason. Again, we are given no clue who assembled and edited all this footage. (And when you think about it, once we are seeing scenes edited together from multiple cameras, haven’t we left the “found footage’ genre behind and moved into pseudo-documentary territory?)
The finale is worth a giggle, but one wonders why a demon so indifferent to the death of its mother would be interested in establishing a familial bond with its father.
SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION – Written John Davies & Jason Eisener, directed by Jason Eisener
While their parents are away for the evening, some friends goof around with a camera, attaching it to their dog and playing practical jokes, which include sneaking in on an elder sister while she is in bed with her boyfriend. During a brief moment underwater, a boy catches a glimpse of something vaguely alien-looking. Later that night, a full-blown alien abduction takes place. The kids run for cover but cannot escape as, one by one, they are mysteriously yanked skyward. The last ones to go are a boy and his dog, but the dog slips back to Earth, the camera on his back recording his lethal fall, until the impact knocks the device loose, giving us a glimpse of the dying canine’s final breath.
It says something about V/H/S 2, as a whole, that the single most heartfelt moment in it is the death of a dog: a poor pup swept up into a situation it could not possibly understand, his expiring gasp is painful to watch. Just about everything else in the movie is piled on for shock value rather than sympathy (except for the ending of “A Ride in the Park,” which is very similar , with the camera dislodging at the moment of death for a last look at the character whose point-of-view we have been seeing).
Even more than “Safe Haven,” “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” captures an overwhelming sense of being swept up by events outside of one’s control. The sheer hopelessness of the situation is overwhelming, but it’s not as if we care what happens to any of the humans, whose relationships are only vaguely established before the terror hits. (Are they siblings, friends? Who is playing a joke on whom, and why?) Thank god for the dog, or the episode would have been just empty spectacle.
TAPE 49 (Wraparound Ending)
After watching the final tape, Larry returns his attention to video diary of the missing student, who proclaims that (with his mother’s blessing) he is planning to make his own tape. The video shows the student blowing his face to pieces with a pistol; apparently dead, he nonetheless rises from his chair and moves off screen. Ayesha (who died somewhere in the middle of the movie) comes back to life and chases Larry into a closet, where he hides, not realizing that the dead student is in there with him. The student kills Larry, lifts the camera to show himself in close-up, and gives us a thumbs-up, indicating success.
Like “Safe Haven,” the conclusion portion of the “Tape 49” wraparound ends on a “joke.” It’s not exactly funny, nor is it in keeping with the overall tone of V/H/S 2, but it does provide the creepy suggestion that a new V/H/S tape has been successfully created – one that will go on to infect other victims, much like the tapes in RINGU (1998). The evil spreads, awaiting the next sequel.
(By the way, what’s up with the name of Larry’s assistant, “Ayesha”? Are we supposed to make some connection with the immortal queen in H. Rider Hagard’s novel She?)
THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSIONS
Like its predecessor, V/H/S 2 is a mixed bag – not so much because the episodes are variable in quality as because their redundancy of approach gradually dims their capacity to shock, undermining the film’s overall impact.
The effect is magnified if watch V/H/S and V/H/S 2 as a back-to-back double bill, revealing redundancy not only within the films but between the films. “Safe Haven” depicts another woman giving birth to a monster, as in V/H/S’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger,” whose aliens seem to have crept into the new film’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” which ends by repeating a visual gag from the previous film’s “Amateur Night” – sweeping a character into the sky and then dropping the camera back to Earth.
On the plus side, the overt sexism of the first V/H/S has been toned down – which is to say, the cameras are no longer in the hands of young male punks urging the girlfriends to flash their assets. The downside to this is that the thematic continuity of V/H/S has been lost as well – the sense of women in various guises turning the tables on vulgar men who just may deserve the horrifying retribution they receive.
Whatever its shortcomings, V/H/S 2 delivers on a visceral level, proving that there is continued life in the unholy hybrid of the found-footage style and the anthology format. Hopefully, the producers will continue with the franchise. After two or three more sequels, there should be enough great episodes to assemble a killer “Greatest Hits” compilation.
On the CFQ Review scale of zero to five stars, a moderate recommendation
Note: V/H/S 2 is currently available via Video on Demand; click here to watch the film. It opens in limited theatrical engagements on July 11.
V/H/S/ 2 (Magnet Releasing: VOD release on June 7, 2013; theatrical release on July 11). Not rated. 96 minutes. Writers: Simon Barrett, John Davies, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Jamie Nash, Eduardo Sanchez, Timo Tjahjanto. Directors: Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sanchez, Timo Tjahjanto, Adam Wingard. Cast: Kelsey Abbott, Fachry Albar, Oka Antara, Devon Brookshire, Samathan Gracie, L.C. Holt, Hannah Hughes, Kevin Hunt, John Karyus, Epy Kusnandar, Lawrence Michael Levine, Mindy Robinson, Jay Saunders, Jeremie Saunders, Andrew Suleiman, Adam Wingard, John T. Woods.