Directed by Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Edúardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener
Horror anthology films have been enjoying a resurgence in recent years, though much like the anthologies that were prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘80s the end results often wind up a mixed bag. Not every new film can be Trick ‘r Treat (2007). A recent spate of new films – Chillerama (2011), The ABCs of Death (2012), and V/H/S (2012) – managed to garner a lot of attention, but reviews on each were decidedly mixed. The most divisive of the lot was V/H/S, a film which I have yet to see thanks to continual cries of “Too much shaky cam!” and “That was the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen!” coming from people whose opinions I typically trust. Not that I let everyone dictate what I’m watching or anything. But I digress. When V/H/S/2 arrived on my doorstep, concern set in not because the first film was still a mystery to me, but because there was that inherent fear that it would be lumped in with some of the aforementioned titles as another exercise in horror friends making films that only seem to amuse their other horror friends. I’m sure Chillerama sounded like a great idea after Adam Green and Joe Lynch had one too many bong tokes. But as a film? Total mediocrity that felt more like a wasted opportunity than anything else. The ABCs of Death had 26 (!) segments, only the only one I’d even consider watching again focused on two Japanese schoolgirls who enjoy smelling farts. The first V/H/S received so much backlash, it was surprising they even made a sequel, let alone one that materialized in such little time. So, with a little trepidation I fired up the blu-ray player and went in with tempered expectations…
… which were totally exceeded. Man, this movie was a blast! Not entirely (more on that later), but as a whole this is certainly heads above any horror anthology put to celluloid (or digital, whatever) since 2007. Even the wraparound, despite making little sense, just worked. And if I were a betting man, I’d wager this was largely due to the fact that they attracted some more well-known talent to helm the segments this time around. The directors here aren’t a bunch of neophytes looking to cut their teeth (not that everyone was last time); these are names most genre fans will/should recognize, and might even excite them. Word on the street is that the creative team behind the first film actually listened to the feedback fans were providing for that film, and then applied what they had learned in order to make this sequel a worthy follow-up. This should occur more often.
The film’s wraparound segment (which is also intercut after each segment), Tape 49, was written & directed by Simon Barrett. A young private detective, Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine), and his private detective girlfriend, Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), are hired by a young man’s mother to locate her missing son. The duo stake out his house and break in, finding a room containing several old TVs stacked upon each other, many VCRs, and lots of VHS tapes. Ayesha decides to stick around and watch some of the footage while Larry goes to investigate the rest of the place… It can be easy for an anthology film’s wraparound segment to get a bit neglected because it’s hard to gain much impact when your piece is constantly being cut to make way for the “feature” segments. Tape 49 sets itself up with a simple premise, then pops back in from time to time to advance the tape playing but also to incrementally ratchet up the tension. I liked the revelation made once it finally was allowed to play un-interrupted, and even though the climax had me scratching my head at what exactly was going on, it didn’t matter because there were some solid practical effects on screen to distract me. This should occur more often.
The first “tape” up was Adam Wingard’s Phase I Clinical Trials, which is shot almost entirely from the POV of a man (Adam Wingard) who has just received a bionic eye, and his other natural eye isn’t working. Although he was warned of potential side effects, he probably didn’t think they could include seeing the bodies of dead people thanks to his newly-acquired ability to see in the electromagnetic spectrum. Several instances cause him to demand the company remove his eye (which they’re also monitoring), but before that happens a girl from the hospital, Clarissa (Hannah Hughes), stops by his house to tell him she knows what’s happening and she’s got a potential solution: sex. That only lasts so long, though, and soon after the visions he’s seeing begin to take on a power that becomes a real threat. I really like what Wingard did here. It’s an intriguing story that employs a cool hook (I know Eye Transplant Ghosts aren’t anything new, but a bionic eye? Haven’t seen that one.) with a POV shooting style that lends itself well to the material. If I had one complaint, it would be that there are too many jump-scare moments. A couple is understandable; a handful is just aggravating. The final moments get about as crazy as any Paranormal Activity film. And that’s not entirely a backhanded compliment! An entirely backhanded compliment would be saying his segment here was better than the overhyped You’re Next (2011).
Up next is A Ride in the Park, from two of the men behind The Blair Witch Project (1999) – Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez. The segment starts off with a biker (Jay Saunders) taking an EXTREME RIDE (there’s a lot of annoying dubstep playing) through the woods when he runs across a woman screaming that her husband was hurt before she starts spewing up blood. Our biker looks to the trees and sees a herd of zombies headed his way, but before he can do anything the woman reanimates and takes a chunk out of his neck. He kills her, and then runs off toward a path where he’s spotted by two other cyclists. As one tries to save him, the man dies… and promptly returns as a flesh-eating zombie, taking a bite out of the man’s face. Now, this is where things get novel – the guy has been wearing a GoPro camera the entire time, and now we get to watch a zombie hunt from the perfect POV. This segment had me nervous at the start because there is absolutely nothing new done for zombies here; it’s the same stuff you see all the time. Very typical stuff. It doesn’t start being unique until we get that zombie POV, at which point the film takes on a delirious life that is a little disturbing and a lot of fun. Zombies sure can take a lot of punishment; these dead are durable! Combine that with some mostly-impressive gore FX and suddenly watching yet another zombie film doesn’t seem so trite. And from two guys who effectively disappeared from the genre for almost a decade!
Every anthology has to have a bad segment, right? It seems inevitable unless you have some black magic on your side. Even Creepshow (1982), a movie that I love to death, has “They’re Creeping Up On You”. I don’t care what anyone says, that was a horrible segment to end the film. Anyway, V/H/S/2’s clunker comes from every geek’s new favorite director, Gareth Evans. You know, the guy who did The Raid (2011). A group of journalists enter an Indonesian cult’s compound looking for answers regarding some of their questionable rituals. What they find are brainwashed members who perform extreme acts to show their loyalty, including ritual suicide and Satanic worship. Lots of people die, and eventually it’s found that these guys actually were able to make a baby Satan, resulting in big baby Baphomet storming through the house looking for daddy. Evans was clearly trying to do something different here, so he can get some credit for that. The story itself just wasn’t very compelling, relying on too much talking and hinting instead of going for the jugular earlier. As a viewer, I felt disconnected from whatever world they were introducing. The mystery wasn’t unfolding in a way that had me leaning in, eager for more. And the climax and conclusion seemed almost hokey.
Good thing Jason Eisener was around to cap this thing off. Easily winning the best title of the bunch, Slumber Party Alien Abduction is a frenzied slice of hyper creepy nostalgia. The atmosphere has a ‘80s vibe to it, which I’m going to assume was intentional based on Eisener’s previous projects that reveled in retro glory. Here, a group of adolescents think they’re about to enjoy a night of no parental supervision and playful mischief until blaring noises and intense lights indicate they may not be alone. One of the boys goes out to investigate (always a great idea, right?) and is promptly attacked by a long-limbed alien that looks like something right out of a nightmare. From there, it’s a non-stop race to evade these interstellar creatures that are nipping at our groups heels every step of the way. Most of this segment is shown from the dog’s POV, as someone attaches a camera to it before the mayhem gets underway. Eisener doesn’t allow the tension to dissipate here once the chase ensues; maintaining a frenetic pace that will leave viewers feeling exhausted once the segment comes to a close. And the design of those aliens is really disturbing.
And there you have it. Three solid shorts and one that is maybe half good, with a wraparound that feels organic to the material both in presentation and execution. Is V/H/S/3 a foregone conclusion thanks to the warmer reception this entry has enjoyed? Probably. And that’s hopefully going to be a good thing, because if this entry is a marked improvement over the previous one, then I can only hope a third installment will maintain the quality shown here and then some. Anthology films can be a blast when they’re done properly. Even with a minor misfire, V/H/S/2 has great replay value thanks to some brief, intense segments that rely on genuine scares and (mostly) practical effects.
The only consistency you’re going to get in the video department is that the film is framed at 1.78:1, but outside of that we’re dealing with myriad video sources here. The wraparound looks the roughest of them all, vacillating between degraded digital shots and some that look like they were pulled off a VHS tape (how fitting). The rest of the segments are shot using high-quality cameras (the Red Epic is used on Wingard’s segment) or quality consumer models, like the ever-popular GoPro, which makes an appearance in just about every segment seen here. Quality is strong across the board for the most part, with solid color reproduction and a decent, if unspectacular, level of depth to the image. Images and background elements are sharp and detailed unless the filmmakers have chosen to intentionally obfuscate them to maintain a certain aesthetic. Any aberrations within the digital image are just as intentional, but they resist the urge to degrade it so much that it seems implausible. After all, digital may glitch a bit but it hardly ever gets as bad as some found footage films demonstrate.
Try as they might to age some of the video, one thing that feels very modern is the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track. It’s a beast. The soundtrack delivers an absorbing atmosphere that provides an immersive experience for listeners. Bass levels in particular are brutally deep, producing a shockwave of sound that had my couch rumbling. The fidelity is excellent across the board, with a broad range that allows more numerous sound effects to all be heard without becoming lost in the mix. Rear speakers are used frequently, mainly to elevate the soundfield without coming on too strong – they imperceptibly heighten tension by carrying ambient cues and disturbing sounds across all corners of the room. This is a very proficient track that, quite honestly, amazed me with its power and subtlety.
When you’ve got a lot of directors making a lot of short films, you’re bound to end up with a lot of bonus features. Magnet didn’t skimp on the good stuff here, as each segment gets represented in the supplemental department. Leading things off is an audio commentary track that features each segment’s writer/director duo once their respective entry comes up. Wingard and Barrett get the most time simply because they had the most footage in the film (having done both Tape 49 and Phase I Clinical Trials). Their track is fun and informative, getting into some technical details of note while also discussing things like how Adam’s apartment was used as the model for the guy in Phase I but if he’d also suddenly become rich. The rest of the track is a good listen, mainly because none of the participants has any time to dawdle over trivial things. There’s a finite amount of time for everyone to speak so they really make the most of it.
Several featurettes make up the bulk of the bonus material. “Tape 49 Rewind” is a very brief look at the making of the wraparound. “Dissecting Phase I Clinical Trials” is another extremely short look behind the scenes of shooting Wingard’s entry, including how he was reluctant to act in it but figured no one else could get the angles he knew he wanted. “Inside Safe Haven” is a sit down interview with director Gareth Evans and writer Timo Tjahjanto, both talking about how they came up with the idea for their segment. “Slumber Party Alien Abduction: Behind the Lights” focuses mainly on showing us behind the scenes footage of shooting the POV scenes, most of which come from a dog’s vantage point. “A Ride in the Park: I Dare You” is guys doing guy things, which in this case is pushing over a dead tree in the middle of the woods. “AXS TV: A Look at V/H/S/2” is a typical EPK that quickly summarizes the film.
The disc also includes several behind-the-scenes photo galleries featuring shots for all of the segments. Finally, the package is rounded out by a pair of theatrical trailers for the film’s release.
V/H/S/2 is the rare sequel that builds upon the success of the first film, while also elevating the material and not requiring that one has seen the prior film before watching this entry. The concept is easy to follow (which, according to the credits, we can thank Brad Miska for!), and each segment is distinct from the others, allowing horror fans to sample a little from a few different subgenres. Found footage movies have taken a real hit from fans over the last few years, mainly because they’re so cheap to produce that it quickly turned into a crap factory for low-budget hopefuls. When they’re bad, they’re intolerable. When they’re good, you don’t care about things like how implausible it is for someone to actually obtain all of this footage, let alone edit it into something cohesive and entertaining.
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5