The original V/H/S was one of last year’s most demented surprises, a horror anthology that ran the monster gamut and came out with decent, if mixed, reviews from horror insiders everywhere. If the gore-soaked movies of the day are labeled torture porn, then V/H/S is found footage porn (ffporn, fforn?), with the implication being that it’s riding high on the successful resurgence of lo-fi, mainstream horror movies in recent years. With the V/H/S movies’ greatest strength being their greatest weakness, it’s only a matter of time before the hardcore fans start debating what side they’re leaning toward, and in the second installment the difficulties with the format are far more telling. For instance, and notwithstanding the argument that it’s all a bit silly that these videos have found their way onto tape in the first place, the use of non-diegetic sound in first segment “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” and the elaborate editing of centerpiece story “Safe Haven” just don’t make sense. One of the first V/H/S movie’s merits was the convincing real-time flow of events that made the tapes feel largely untampered with. These are supposed to be the snuffiest of snuff films, and it’s too distracting imagining ad/hoc teams of editors and sound engineers toiling in some basement studio only to release the results of their work on the deadest of all media formats for the sake of an underground circuit of morbid hipster-bearded degenerates. Okay, so V/H/S/2 does build on the idea that these tapes are watched The Ring-style for kicks, but isn’t that only an excuse for another unwary group of souls to get sucked into the movement? The framing story is nonsensical, forgettable, and bears no relationship to or common theme among the standalone videos. As much as I’d wish the thematically interrelated Trick ‘r Treat would become the new Creepshow, it seems that V/H/S is more conducive to sequel making, plumping as it does for low budget, high concept trash that makes great scare bait for the non-discerning audiences of the Paranormal Activity movies. It’s tough, however, trying to knock the creators’ ingenuity, or even at times their ambition; Gareth Evans’ and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” is begging for a feature length retelling, and it’s got to be difficult storyboarding the Alfonso Cuaron-like long takes that make up the majority of the best footage.
Things start off on the wrong foot with Adam Wingard’s “Phase 1 Clinical Trials.” It’s seen entirely through the eye implant of its post-auto accident protagonist, when he begins seeing and experiencing things that weren’t there before. At first it seems like a great concept, but afterward I felt like I’d been had. Every scare is a jump, aided by the cheating use of those edited-in crashes and bangs I mentioned, and it’s nearly impossible to keep your eyes onscreen when Wingard exploits the means of delivery for his story to throw things on screen whenever he needs a scare. He makes his protagonist an audience member in his own respect, and tapes his eyes open to force him to watch. It’s incredibly rushed, incredibly short, and once all is said and done, too cheap, too cynical, and too cobbled together to actually appreciate.
Eduardo Sanchez’s and Gregg Hale’s “A Ride in the Park” is a more curious affair, light on scares, yet interestingly enough finding a way to inject a little heartbreak into its conclusion. The use of a helmet mounted GoPro is rather ingenious in its simplicity and relatability, but then the directors also commit the first crime of over-editing by switching perspectives later when it’s arguably unnecessary, adding no extra dimension to the story. It also feels like it’s breaking a rule of the V/H/S universe by depicting something as epidemic as a zombie outbreak. The small scale of the rest of the V/H/S pantheon is violated with a scenario that would be world news, taking away the air of secrecy and mystery that makes each segment so terrifying. The smaller the focus, the more unnerving these videos become. If you agree about toning things down a bit, just wait for “Safe Haven.”
Either directors Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing with international inclusion “Safe Haven,” or they have every idea of what this movie needs. You couldn’t call “Safe Haven” batshit insane unless you clarified that the bat was a syphilitic serial killer who excreted the egg that was fertilized by a Peter Lorre-voiced tapeworm to grow into Charles Manson. Everything is thrown in. Everything. I’d like to think that a creative brief was delivered three hours too late, and that in an over-caffeinated frenzy wherein they had already shot half the film, thinking themselves the only participating crew, the directors decided to pretend they never received it in the first place. For those who know Evans’ more famous work, just imagine the gang in The Raid is a devil worshipping cult being interrupted on Walpurgis Night. Everything hints at the idea that this segment was trimmed down from a full screenplay, and it rightfully takes the spotlight in the lineup, being not only the best produced, but also the only picture that makes a sincere effort to build any tension or establish any characters. It still breaks all those rules I niggled about above and then some by adding in some atrocious CGI, but at least it does so with gusto. It makes me all the more excited for Evans’ Berandal and at least curious about Tjahjanto’s output. One can only imagine the consequences it will have on future V/H/S installments, should they ever come.
So how does the anthology follow up the intensity of “Safe Haven”? With Jason Eisener’s ham-fisted “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” which should tell you right off the bat that its just as subtle as his other garbage. Whether I mean that condescendingly or approvingly I don’t even know. Basically, the title happens. And the aliens in it are the dumbest aliens you have ever seen. They chase people on foot through the woods. They drop people once they catch them. They’re shown way too often. And God knows what interest they have in the human race when they’re targeting teens who don’t have the common sense not to masturbate when surrounded by friends in sleeping bags on the floor. If only their dialogue was written by Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, this might have been halfway entertaining.
In the end the primal appeal of V/H/S/2 is intact, desirable enough for gorehounds to seek out and Violent/Hyper/Short enough to appreciate with friends on Halloween. There’s plenty of depravity to go around, but in the end, unless you’re looking just for gore or a lame-brained excuse to procrastinate, there’s nothing quite memorable about it. Each segment can only stand on its own strength, and without the orchestration of mood or verisimilitude between them, they can be consumed just as heartily one at a time on Youtube (which is also the best way to find the good segments from The ABC’s of Death, which I turned off after six minutes of loathsome crap). Where I want something that gets under my skin and lingers in all my senses, this delivers the depth and longevity of an internet ‘screamer’ video. Yep, we’re in the internet age and found footage is all the rage, but nothing can replace the craftsmanship of a well-meaning auteur to scare your pants off. For this reason, V/H/S/3 better come hot on this movie’s heels, before the franchise becomes the Call Me Maybe to a James Wan franchise’s Gangnam Style.
Oh, I forgot to mention the framing story. A private eye breaks into a house with his girlfriend and she watches the tapes. Her nose bleeds, she passes out, something lurks in the dark. I don’t know where the heck the boyfriend disappears to when she’s watching the tapes. Then there’s zombies for the third, maybe fourth, time in the movie depending on your definition, which becomes wider every day. Happy Halloween!