In the years since The Blair Witch Project became a shocking box office sensation, the “found footage” horror film has become quite the popular format—albeit, with mixed results. For every Paranormal Activity, Troll Hunter or [REC], there lies a Diary of the Dead, The Devil Inside or Paranormal Activity 4 just ready to negate all the good will those films have earned.
Conceived and produced by Bloody Disgusting’s Brad Miska, 2012’s V/H/S sought to give a burgeoning group of indie filmmakers—ranging from established horror directors to pioneers of the “mumblecore” movement—the chance to try their hand at this subgenre. As expected, the resulting anthology film was uneven, to say the least. At its best, the film demonstrated how a creative filmmaker could embrace the limitations and come up with something both innovative and frightening; at its worse, it showed how easily the format could devolve into a cheap gimmick.
Fast-tracked into production, the makers of V/H/S/2 appear to have learned from the mistakes of their predecessor. Now with four stories instead of five, the film moves along at a tighter, more effective pace. Moreover, each filmmaker successfully brings their own distinctive visual mark to their respective segments, ensuring a minimal sense of repetition between the four stories.
V/H/S/2 commences with its wraparound story. A pair of private investigators infiltrates the abandoned house of a missing college student and finds stacks and stacks of VHS cassettes littering the living room floor. As one of them explores the house, the other begins watching the tapes. As with the first film, each new tape brings about a new horror tale. While this particular story stands as one of the film’s weaker portions, it marks a significant improvement from the first film’s frame narrative; for one, the audience is spared the obnoxious and misogynistic creeps who dominated the opening moments of V/H/S. Furthermore, unlike that film’s conclusion, director Simon Barrett endows this story’s finale with some serious bloody gusto.
Then, there’s the “VHS” segments themselves. “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” starts things off in earnest with a segment that takes the term “first-person perspective” to a new, quite literal level. Director Adam Wingard stars as a man who has recently been given a prosthetic eye to replace the one he lost in a freak car accident. Since the eye itself is still in the experimental phase, the only stipulation is that it also acts as a recorder, documenting everything he does. Perturbed by his newfound lack of privacy, the man nevertheless returns home to his shockingly spacious house and goes about his daily life. Then, when night comes, he begins seeing ghostly, otherworldly figures with his new eye. Out of all the newer segments, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” feels as though it shares the most DNA with the stories in the original V/H/S. It’s an serviceable tale—if somewhat underwhelming and predictable—that derives much of its horror from jump scares. But whereas the original film’s first segment (“Amateur Night”) set a standard that many of the subsequent stories failed to reach, this story instead lays a foundation for future stories to build upon.
Next up is “A Ride in the Park,” directed by Gregg Hale and none other than Eduardo Sánchez, the co-director of The Blair Witch Project and one of the godfathers of the found footage movement. As per the title, the segment—shot almost entirely on a GoPro camera mounted on a helmet—centers on a cyclist who decides to take an afternoon ride through the park. It’s not long before he runs into a young woman covered in blood who promptly attacks and bites him. He quickly loses consciousness and begins exhibiting the unmistakable signs of the walking dead. Perhaps the most humorous of the four stories, “A Ride in the Park” presents a clever tongue-in-cheek take on well-worn zombie lore while still managing to hit an emotional coda at its conclusion.
Directed by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, “Safe Haven” effectively takes the proceedings to a whole new level. The Wales-born Evans took the film world by storm last year with the stateside release of The Raid: Redemption, an Indonesian action film that totted the kind of high-octane, visceral martial arts duels that seem to have fallen by the wayside in an era of CGI and rapid editing. Here, despite the restrictive nature of the found footage format, Evans and co-director Tjahjanto turn in a genuine masterpiece of suspense, atmosphere and go-for-broke insanity. The story centers on a documentary crew who enter the titular safe haven of a mysterious Indonesian cult in order to interview its leader (called “Father”). As the team fumbles through the interview, a loud bell breaks the tranquil stillness, leading Father to announce the coming of some sort of apocalyptic rapture. What happens next is a perfectly orchestrated mix of Paul Greengrass docudrama and H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cosmic horror. Only after the segment’s jaw-dropping final stretch has concluded will certain audience members realize they haven’t taken a breath for at least the past five minutes. “Safe Haven” is, hands down, the best segment in the anthology and dynamite enough to justify the existence of this entire V/H/S series.
Given the unfortunate task of following “Safe Haven,” one would be hard pressed to consider director Jason Eisener’s “Alien Abduction Slumber Party” as being anything more than an anti-climatic come down. To Eisener’s credit, his fast-paced, chaotic approach to the material marks such a direct contrast to Evans and Tjahjanto ‘s slow burning tale that the comparisons become moot. The title itself is a fairly self-explanatory approximation of the plot. The story takes place mainly over a single night where a group of adolescents play mean-spirited tricks on one another only to find themselves being grabbed, one by one, by a gang of lanky aliens. With much of the action being filmed from a camera placed on the family dog’s head, those averse to the “shaky-cam” aesthetic may find themselves quickly tuning out, especially considering the final few minutes race by in a confusing blur. Still, Eisener’s talents as a filmmaker are unmistakable and the appearance of the aliens presents a genuine menace.
V/H/S/2 is by no means a perfect movie; unlike its first installment, however, its hits far outweigh its misses. Certainly, the brilliance of “Safe Haven” is worth the price of admission alone. And while it may not convert anyone predisposed to hate either the horror genre or the “found footage” trend, those with more open minds are likely to find something to love in these blood-soaked, low-budget tales. Perhaps more importantly, it ensures that a special segment of film audiences will be waiting with bated breath for the inevitable release of V/H/S 3.
Director: Simon Barrett; Adam Wingard; Eduardo Sánchez & Gregg Hale; Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto; Jason Eisener
Writer: Simon Barrett; Jamie Nash; Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto; John Davies & Jason Eisener
Starring: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott, L.C Holt, Adam Wingard, Hannah Hughes, Jay Saunders, Oka Antara, Epy Kusnandar, Samantha Gracie, Rylan Logan
Release Date: July 12, 2013 (Theatrical); Available on VOD