A substantial improvement in both concept and execution over its predecessor, V/H/S/2 is one of horror’s best recent anthologies, even if its fealty to – or perhaps inability to avoid -- genre cliches undermines its overall impact. Creating a uniquely eclectic series of found-footage vignettes, its seven directors surpass the imagination and intensity of those in the original V/H/S, reiterating the format’s importance as both a showcase for interstitial creativity between feature-length projects and a testing ground for future ones.
I’m not sure if it’s in spite or because of his gifts as screenwriter of such distinctive projects as A Horrible Way To Die and the upcoming You’re Next that he was assigned the responsibility of creating both films’ wraparound stories, but Simon Barrett takes one for the team as not just the writer this time, but the director as well of the piece that “explains” why someone would watch this collection of messed-up stories. “Tape 49” follows a private investigator and his girlfriend who sneak into an abandoned house for clues to where they might find their client’s missing son. While I’m unsure how anyone could inject this set-up with more imagination, there’s little here to pay attention to -- including the mysterious figure who appears occasionally in the shadows while they’re watching the tapes. That said, “Tape 49” does establish the precedent that in V/H/S/2, “found” footage can also mean “invented,” such as when camera angles suddenly and impossibly change to show the P.I. use a crowbar to open a jammed window.
Adam Wingard’s “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” the first of the short films, zig-zags between great ideas and questionable execution, promising setups and lackluster payoffs. It follows a young man (also Wingard) who gets a video camera implanted in his eye socket after an accident, only to discover that his new prosthetic enables him to see creepy-looking people he knows are not there. While its basic idea is interesting, the impulse to provide an explanation for why and how he’s seeing these people only introduces more questions, which a mysterious female companion answers with simplistic exposition before taking off her clothes for an all-but-completely-pointless roll in the hay. But while the aggressive escalation of his visions over a period of just a day or two hints at a suitably epic payoff, the actual climax is hurried and confusing, neither feeling like a natural extension of what came before nor clarifying precisely what it is that these spirits want, or want to do with him.
As producer and director, respectively, of The Blair Witch Project, the found footage technique’s great-grandaddy, Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez seem imminently capable of handling a hand-crafted short. Thankfully, they do a great job with “A Ride In The Park,” which cleverly turns point-of-view horror on its ear when a cyclist gets turned into a zombie, but his helmet-cam keeps on filming. Better yet is the choice to film during the day – a welcome rarity – but the inexorability of a growing zombie horde makes for both great gore and terrific humor, especially after the cyclist chews up a few hikers and the three of them descend on a child’s birthday party. Its only misstep is admittedly a nitpicky one – when a car being bombarded by zombies won’t start – but otherwise, Hale and Sanchez create an effectively propulsive tale that’s representative of both how fun and how emotionally involving short-film narratives can be.
Although Hale and Sanchez’ film is a standout, Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” is by far the best of the bunch, and it evidences the The Raid filmmaker’s enormous potential – no longer just as a purveyor of action, but as a truly gifted storyteller. The film follows a documentary crew that manages to convince a mysterious and reclusive cult leader to tell his story to the world, from within the walls of his fortress-like compound. Outfitted with an armada of different recording devices, the team sets up shop and begins to chronicle the insular community. After finding themselves slowly divided as they explore different corners of the compound, they discover that its leader, “Father,” has a terrifying, apocalyptic plan, in which they are unwittingly going to play an important part.
What’s most interesting about “Safe Haven” is that it pairs basic human drama with larger than life situations, and then exercises each impact upon the other. The compound feels instantly creepy – a sensation that is bolstered by a horror audience’s natural skepticism – but Evans and Tjahjanto methodically build suspense through Father’s imperious seductiveness and his disciples’ zombie-like placidity, building to a finale that feels genuinely epic. Truly disturbing and yet endlessly fascinating, “Safe Haven” offers the equivalent of V/H/S’ Radio Silence segment “10/31/98” – a short which succeeds on its own, inverts expectations even in an context of constant upheaval and misdirection, and announces the arrival of an enormous and shockingly versatile new talent.
After the sweep and success of Evans and Tjahjanto’s film, just about anything would feel underwhelming, which is why Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” probably feels slighter than it might have were it positioned before “Safe Haven.” But like Wingard’s film, Eisener’s contribution offers a strong set-up that doesn’t fully pay off: a group of mischievous kids square off against one of their older siblings, only to reluctantly team up after falling victim to what appears to be an alien invasion. Eisener’s setup is flawless, hinting at the possibility of aliens before they finally descend upon the family home, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to wrap things up. Instead, he turns the second half of the film into a sort of repetitive chase which doesn’t seem to reach a proper climax, or say anything more than “creatures that chase you are scary.”
While “Safe Haven” and to a slightly lesser extent “A Ride In The Park” maximizes the potential of the short-film format, the former especially still feels like more of an outlier than a suitable standard to which all of the different filmmakers’ stories are (or can be) held. The remainder of the folks writing these scenarios and shepherding them to the screen are all gifted, unique filmmakers, but their work here lacks the cohesion, and the punch, of their feature films. Whether that’s because of the comparison-shopping potential of the anthology format, or merely the challenge of condensing that creativity into a shorter time frame, their comparative lack of success here serves as the opposite of a backhanded compliment – rather, criticisms that indicate they need and deserve more, not less time to tell their stories. But ultimately, even when it falls short, V/H/S/2 not only shows improvement from the first installment, but it seems to edge closer to the ultimate goals of these anthologies – namely, to showcase some cool, still-forming ideas, introduce the next generation of great voices within the genre, and then show audiences just enough of both that they demand more.