Dirs. Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto and Adam Wingard
Like a beautiful coincidence, I cover the original V/H/S (2012) months earlier, and like this sequel's release in Britain, you get V/H/S 2 the same year near Halloween. How many franchises get both the prequel and sequel debuting in the UK in the exact same year to each other? There is a slight caveat to the words "beautiful" though. The original V/H/S wasn't a good anthology film. Set around a mysterious series of VHS tapes found in a house, a Wunderkammer of death or an atrocity exhibition, the first film in hindsight was the creation of directors who clearly wanted to make dramas than horror shorts for the most part, and barring one legitimately good segment, none of them were good at the drama in their work either. They dangerously became films that symbolised some kind of elite club of white, middle class, male twenty something horror fans rather than horror shorts for everyone; if the grindhouse phenomenon has (thankfully) died on its backside, its unfortunately been surpassed by a vocabulary of mostly swearing, quasi-drama with no interest and power dimensions amongst peers that really didn't need to have been fed by accident with V/H/S 1. It was a nostalgia for a format (VHS) without considering the potential mysteries of the object in question, and with no real sense of atmosphere and tone, a bane on the genre's existence that has frankly sabotaged it for decades long before I was even born.
Harsh words, very harsh words, but while I have suddenly become enamoured with this new era of anthology films, at the moment like giving bloodied candy to a four year old, the first film was the one blot when its sequel and The ABCs of Death (2012), for their flaws, had been enjoyable in their fragments, and for both showing potential new talent and even bringing back interest in directors I was cold to. V/H/S 2 can still be criticised for many things, and is as much as an all men's club frankly, in an era where one would hope for more female horror directors to exist, but it's still a drastic improvement on the original. No longer, thankfully, preoccupied with evil women as the segments in the first did barring that one good one which skewered the notion. While still wadding in violence, some sex and general misanthropy, it's for more inventive and trying to do something generally interesting in all the key segments. And, aside from returning contributors Simon Wingard and Simon Barrett, you've got clear outsiders with different ideas now to bring to the table. A Canadian Jason Eisener, whose work with Hobo With A Shotgun (2011) and his short Youngbuck for The ABCs of Death is that of someone obsessed with visual style and bouncing off the walls in his anarchic tendencies. Eduardo Sánchez, co-directing with Gregg Hale in one of the two contributions done by a duo, one of the directors of The Blair Witch Project (1999), the beginning, legitimately, of the found footage subgenre that this anthology is part of, the drastic shift from that film to a decade or so later adding a potentially fascinating layer to Sánchez's contribution. And finally, expanding the film beyond North American soil, there is the pairing of Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto and British director Gareth Evans, the later significantly known for martial arts action cinema, not horror, and bringing a drastically different perspective to the material because of this.
Tape 49 (Dir. Simon Barrett) - V/H/S 2 needs some suspension of disbelief to make it work fully. This is not a criticism at all, as most films need one aspect, or a couple, that need to be accepted as they are. That's the nature of fiction, and of cinema. But it has to be bared in mind, all these occult and supernatural events put on videotapes, with some of the events composed of more than one camera, all existing in the same world as two private detectives search for a young man. They instead find an abandoned house full of these tapes and one of them watch them to figure out what's going on. It's fascinating to imaging whole worlds within one bigger one, subjectively questioned by the film without it realising it, all of which may have more disturbing effects on a viewer than showing mere gristly demises. As the wraparound story that bookmarks the four key segments, its vastly superior to the one in the first film because it actually makes sense. The first one was a clusterfunk of bad pacing and editing, while this actually has a pace. It's the weakest piece alongside Adam Wingard's, the directors alumni of the prequel pointedly, but it at least fits the improved quality of this sequel by being interesting to view. What brief titbits it has about the meaning of these tapes' existence is tantalising this time as well; I hope if V/H/S 3 ever happens it suddenly turns into Videodrome (1983) in the implications made here. Brian O'Blivion would be proud of the idea this nudges towards, but just needs the final push if another sequel is made.
Phase I Clinical Trials (Dir. Adam Wingard) - A man (the director himself) is given a robotic eye transplant, with recording equipment inside it for the creators to monitor its functions, only to find that he can see things with malevolent tendencies he didn't see before. The reason this is the weakest of the key segments is because its difficult to write a lot about it. It's a supernatural story reminiscent of The Eye (2002) but with a very short length, cutting it down to a basic structure, and a gimmick of being recorded from an eye in a quasi-Enter The Void (2009) first person. But it's still a higher quality work than almost all the shorts from the first film. It raises the interesting question of how someone got hold of the footage in the first place, an enticing what-if rather than a logical flaw. It's fascinating for a film in this anthology to be seen through a person's eye. It also starts the greatest virtue of V/H/S 2 - that it takes advantage of two key aspects of the found footage genre and uses both well. That they're filmed on various video recording devices, and that, when done properly, it's very kinetic and all about movement. None of the segments are mindless shaky camera, with even the chaotic moments where the image is incomprehensible being appropriate for the moment. It's far from perfect, and you will raise your eyebrows at the sex scene that suddenly happens, verging close to the same questionable, laddish mentality of the first V/H/S film your dread even if you would find it titillating in a perverse way, any potential eroticism undercut by the fact that, frankly, it's an excuse for nudity without just admitting its an erotic moment and objectifying the actress for no justifiable excuse in the context. But it's a good start to lead to better shorts, ending well in a panicked state, with an interesting idea, leading on to segments which are superior with running with these ideas that can top it easily.
A Ride In The Park (Dirs. Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale) - A male mountain biking aficionado straps a head-mounted camera on and goes to record a morning bike trek in the local woodland park. Unfortunately he rides into a zombie outbreak. What happens is a really clever take on such a tired subgenre, the zombie film, as he is bitten and becomes a member of the undead, shown through improv zombie-cam. It's great to see one of the founders of the found footage subgenre, and a producer of said original film, bringing something very interesting here in such a simple thought, one that someone would come up with while drinking one night and be amused by it. In fact it may actually be superior to the more acclaimed segment Safe Haven for the amount of emotions that the premise suddenly holds when its presented as well as it is here. How curiously charming it is to see the world from the shuffling dead, almost like flesh eating newborns who, in a nice touch, will chew on anything before they figure out what they're supposed to sustain themselves on. How a victim, as they're being eaten, will suddenly become undead and the attackers suddenly stop and welcome them in the horde, wandering off together. How hilarious the film gets in a sick way even when the zombies get to a birthday party, the use of various camera, while a leap in logic too, helping the film significantly in tension. And also how deeply sad by the climax the story becomes and how it plays out. All these emotions co-exist in the same minute within the film too, forcing you to feel them all together for maximum effect. It's short, its succinct, but brilliant for it.
Safe Haven (Dirs. Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans)- The biggie. The short everyone talks about in this anthology. The centrepiece in its longer length and bombast. Set in Indonesia, a group of filmmakers manage to get inside the home of a controversial cult to interview their leader, dubbed only as Father, and let him speak on his own terms about their beliefs without opposition. In the middle of the interview, a bell rings and Hell on Earth tales place. It's the most maniac, insane, and downright violent of all the segments, but it's also incredibly complicated in structure. It has numerous camera the footage is recorded from, all that needs to be co-ordinated so the viewer gets what it going on, and doesn't get to know everything at the same time, before and during the chaos; and for all the madness that takes place, it's also as much a story about the filmmakers too, while simplistic, where there's conflict and a strained relationship in their camp which turns the final act into more darker implications. I have seen only one film from each director who made this, and while I am very open to them now, those two works weren't good. Evans is famous for The Raid (2011), but for its visceral fight scenes and their craft, its completely bland in the ideas it actually has. Tjahjanto I know of only from his few minutes long contribution to The ABCs of Death, L Is For Libido, a potentially interesting piece, very well made, that becomes pointlessly shocking for the sake of shock value, almost becoming silly when it tries to cram as many taboos as it can into its short length. There is a possibility, on another viewing, that this ridiculousness was actually a really clever, unexpected moment of self consciousness from Tjahjanto as a horror director who realises the perversity of upping the disgusting sakes for viewers mentally masturbating over it, but it'll have to wait until rewatching that piece to see if I change my mind on it. As a duo thought, I want to wager they cancelled out the other's flaws. Evans pulling Tjahjanto back from pointless gruel, but Tjahjanto getting Evans to try to create something very interesting. It's been seen before in terms of the ideas of the short, and may be pointlessly twisted at times, but Safe Haven is a gem because it's clear in its goal, and baring some disappointingly obvious CGI, works. It could be off-putting in content or how it uses very well used clichés in horror cinema, but it never feels pointlessly sick or insipid, and ends on such a high note that, honestly, this should have been the final segment of the four that leads to the wraparound story's own conclusion. And while I am open to these directors now, I think the two should work together more, likely to boost Indonesian genre cinema up again as a pair combining styles.
Slumber Party Alien Abduction (Dir. Jason Eisener) - It's unfortunate that Eisener had to follow Safe Haven. His short - the name on the tin says it all, but with a large part of it recorded on a camera attached on a dog's back - should have been between the zombies and Indonesian cults. Its flawed, the second weakest of the key segments, but I admit I have hope for the director. As someone who likes putting works as one single, giant creation of its creator(s), I wish Eisener gets better and better. Hobo With A Shotgun has an ending the annoyingly peters out, but the energy of the first three quarters was so infectious and legitimately daring than tedious in tone like so many neo-grindhouse films. His segment for The ABCs of Death was structured like a politically incorrect music video, which he pulled off perfectly. If there's another flaw with V/H/S 2, all the segments are structured around chaos suddenly taking place. For the most part it failed, but at least the first film has a varied choice of plot structures. But this short's still fun. Still scary when it gets hectic, with strange aliens that clearly hung around a Edvard Munch painting or two, and the premise of making most of the film shot from a dog's perspective, aside from some hijinks early on from the young cast, again takes the kind of premise joked about in a night's trip to the pub but makes it interesting. From the "eyes" of a small dog, looking up at the world, or crawling in the undergrowth outside, you are truly lost in what is going on, which makes it very interesting as a concept short. The result is still impressive even if it's in the wrong place in ordering the segments together.
Altogether, there are flaws, but this still raising the bar higher than per usual horror films of now. With this and The ABCs of Death, as I've already stated, there is a potentially wonderful phenomenon approaching of genre anthologies like this becoming a subgenre of interest. I still have some reservations admittedly, when directors coasts, or that they spend their time making entries for these anthologies than actually making feature films. But in the subgenre's favour, you cannot rest back on the worst aspects of genre filmmaking - padded plots, workmanlike aesthetics, tired clichéd structures - in such a restricted short length and small budget unless you want to be the one the viewers dub the bad entry in said anthology. It can potentially cut the chaff from these directors so they can improve, and as this film and the upcoming ABCs of Death 2 show, the combination of so many unconventional choices of directors from various generations, nationalities, even not known for making horror films, could make for some interesting combinations. What needs to be done with the subgenre if they're now in vogue, funded by theatre chains, DVD labels, or in this case Bloody Disgusting, creating an interesting ouroboros in horror films and their audiences, is to prevent it from what unfortunately happened with the first V/H/S, a small club whose language is befitting a small clique that bars outsiders and the new perspectives from it. Here at least there were four different nationalities in the director chairs, and even the plot structures are similar, you have people of various areas, including one from outside of horror, nonetheless making a film with a very consistent tone. Leaner with less segments, clearer but replacing the vagueness with material that adds layers to the segments, and a kinetic grace to all the segments in using the cameras mixed with experimentation. It's a shame it has to replicate the obnoxious end credits style of the first film - abrasive music, and a barrage of sex and gore scenes more closer to a thirteen year old boy or two writing the project. The film that preceded it, while still schlocky, was far more interesting than this.