Searching for a missing student, two private investigators break into his house and find collection of VHS tapes. Viewing the horrific contents of each cassette, they realize there may be dark motives behind the student’s disappearance.
Last year’s “V/H/S/” was a surprise hit and something of a critical darling as well and it’s success has inevitably led to “V/H/S/2” which doesn’t even think to try and mess with the original’s formula and gives us more of the same. And for the few of you who aren’t familiar with the original, the plot here is buttressed by a wrap around story featuring Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), a pair of private investigators who, while looking for a missing student, end up breaking into his home and finding a stack of televisions surrounded by a smattering of videotapes, a laptop computer and a V/H/S/ tape deck. While Larry begins to look around the home for clues as to the student’s whereabouts, Ayesha finds a webcam video of the student, Kyle (L.C. Holt) discussing a series of videos to a group of videotape collectors. She then begins to watch some of the assorted videotapes lying around the floor and each one of them features a bizarre story.
The first story is called “PHASE 1 CLINICAL TRIALS” and it tells the story of Herman Middleton (Director Adam Wingard), who has lost one of his eyes in an auto accident in which the other driver & his passenger both lost their lives. He becomes the recipient of an experimental retinal implant that gives him, for lack of a better word, a bionic eye that sends signals directly to the visual cortex of his brain. Unfortunately he begins seeing people in his home who just aren’t there, dead people. Another patient of the clinic that fitted him with his new eye, Clarissa (Hannah Hughes), arrives at his doorstep with an explanation as to why Herman is seeing all of these dead people and he realizes that they might not be just figments of his imagination…
The biggest problem with this segment is the utter “been there, done that” feel of it all. It’s certainly not a bad way to begin the film but it does nothing to create the sense of dread that the filmmakers wanted the film to kick off with. Director/Star Adam Wingard has a very cool demeanor that fades away whenever he’s scared or angry and his line readings reflect his emotions effectively. He hilariously scampers to his bathroom, mewling like a little girl whenever he’s confronted by one of his unwanted guests but is fairly arrogant & angry when he calls the clinic demanding that his new eye be repaired. There’s also a hilarious scene in which, after he has sex with Clarissa (there’s a reason they do this and it’s not affection), he goes to his bathroom mirror and addresses the clinicians warning them that they’re not to view what just transpired in his bedroom (Everything he sees is being recorded to a memory chip implanted in his eye). Hughes is especially appealing here but none of this is especially scary and you can figure out where it’s headed within the first five minutes. It feels like an episode of ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY with more grue spread around than anything else.
4 out of 10.
Story number two is called “A RIDE IN THE PARK” and it’s the story of Mike (Jay Saunders) who rather than hang at home with his girlfriend Amy (Devon Brookshire) goes out for an off road bike ride instead. He has a camera attached to his helmet so he’s videotaping his entire trek through the woods and he gets a call from Amy good naturedly bemoaning his love of his bicycle over her just before he goes off on his trip but they profess their love for each other and away he goes. Literally ten seconds into his ride he comes across a distressed woman covered in blood claiming to have been attacked by someone. As he tries to listen to her story he hears moans coming from just beyond his line of sight and he realizes that there’s a group of shambling people headed straight towards him! He grabs a stick and yells that the police are on their way when he’s suddenly attacked by the woman he stopped to help and she takes a bite out of him. He beats her to death with the stick he’s carrying and runs away but soon falls over and dies. his corpse is found a few minutes later by a pair of bikers and as they call the police he suddenly revives and takes a bite out of both of them. Yup, it’s another zombie story but this one is unique in that it’s told entirely through the “eyes” (The helmet cam he’s still wearing) of a zombie and that proves to be an interesting novelty…for about the first five minutes. But afterwards it just takes the viewer along as he makes funny sounds and stalks people to chow down on and spread the virus (It’s never disclosed exactly what started the outbreak). It all ends with Mike attacking a children’s birthday party and receiving a phone call from Amy (He still has his phone in his pocket) directly afterward. After he accidentally sees what he looks like in his reflection against a car window, he calls upon the shred of humanity he has left inside of him and decides it’s all too much for him to bear. Written by Jamie Nash and directed by Eduardo Sanchez & Gregg Hale this episode is more far more visceral than the one before it but it still feels like an episode of a TV series more than a theatrical short film, it would fit into HBO’s TALES FROM THE CRYPT with ease. And while that’s not a bad thing, I expected something more. In terms of violence it’s a lot more gruesome than the previous entry with guts and entrails all over the screen but thematically it left me feeling a little…hungry.
5 out of 10.
Story number three is entitled “SAFE HAVEN” and it’s by far the best episode of the film. It’s the story of a group of documentary filmmakers who end up trapped by their subject, a cult leader who is hell bent to usher in the messiah and plans to sacrifice all of them to do so. The four filmmakers have manages to finagle their way into the compound of “The Father” after meeting with him in a restaurant and listening to his doctrine and his plan for his “family”, the people of Paradise Gate. After some initial reluctance he decides that it might be a good idea for the filmmakers to record the daily goings on behind the walls of his compound but in actuality he has a completely different plan for the doomed documentarians. He plans to usher in the messiah and have them document the whole bloody ceremony as well as participate in it. Written and directed by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans (“THE RAID: REDEMPTION”), “Safe Haven” is the scariest segment of “V/H/S/2” not because something supernatural is going on (there is) but because it all feels so real. Calling the viewer to remember tragedies like Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre (1978), the Order of the Solar Temple suicides 1994-97) and the Heaven’s Gate mass suicides (1997) they manage to hit a nerve in all of us who witnessed these horrific events through the media as they happened. The novel use of using a team of documentary filmmakers is a sly and effective way of making “SAFE HAVEN” feel like an especially graphic episode of “60 MINUTES” only helps to remind us of those previously mentioned atrocities. Epy Kusnandar is brilliant as “Father”, the madman who’s orchestrating the bloodbath to follow. His eyes bulge out of his head so far that it felt like they were going to explode right out of their sockets at times yet he also has quiet moments during which he explains his philosophy and how it’s not a question of “if” the messiah is coming but “when”. It’s a supremely manic performance. This is also the most violent episode of the entire film with throats graphically slit open, mass shotgun blasts to the head, exploding people (!) and bloody scenes of childbirth. There’s also a scene in which children are given a drink (Just like Jonestown’s “Kool Aid”) in order to “Give their bodies to him”. These scenes (& others) really hit close to home and might be hard to watch for some of you. But it’s an exercise in blood soaked brilliance and although the eventual appearance of “The Messiah” might disappoint a few of you, it doesn’t make the build up to his arrival any less terrifying.
9 out of 10.
Story number four is called “SLUMBER PARTY ALIEN ABDUCTION”. Directed by Jason Eisener (“HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN”) and written by Eisener & John Davies it tells the story of Jennifer (Samantha Gracie) who’s just been left in charge of her two younger brothers Randy (Cohen King) and Gary (Rylan Logan) as their parents go on a weekend getaway. Her brothers invite a few friends over for the weekend to goof off while videotaping themselves playing pranks on each other. Getting tired of their antics, Jennifer & her boyfriend decide to do some videotaping of their own and attach a small camera onto the head of Tank, their dog. The rest of the episode is told from the dog’s perspective as the kids are attacked in the middle of the night by some marauding aliens who are their to abduct human subjects for experimentation. This episode feels more natural than all of the others and it’s extreme herky jerky camera style fits the way I’d think a film might look if a bunch of kids had the bright idea of attaching a mini cam onto their dog’s head. The interactions between the younger and older kids also feels very natural as well, nothing is forced here. For the first few minutes the kids are holding the camera themselves and these scenes help to give the audience an idea of how kids this age think, it’s all extremely appealing and might even make some of you feel a bit wistful for your younger days when life wasn’t as complicated as it is now. Early on, during a quick underwater shot, one of the kids gets a look at a humanoid figure that isn’t supposed to be there but another kid jumps in front of it and it’s instantly forgotten by all. Unfortunately that figure is an alien and he’s acting as a sort of advance scout for others to land and abduct the kids in order to subject them to god knows what. The aliens arrive later that evening and it’s bedlam from this point on as they methodically surprise, attack and abduct the kids one by one and it’s all being filmed by little Tank and the mini cam strapped to his body. The shaky cam style made popular by found footage films like “BLAIR WITCH PROJECT” and others is especially prevalent in this episode but it’s not distracting at all. As a matter of fact it helps to enhance the terror of it all and made me feel like I was one of the kids running for their lives. The aliens themselves look like the typical “Greys” that have become the accepted standard as far as aliens go save for a bit more ferociousness in their faces. There’s little to no bloodshed in this episode at all but the cacophony of noise, lights and sheer panic makes up for that. I especially loved the final shot of this one which has to be a homage to directors Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor’ “CRANK”(2006). It’s pitch perfect and I’ve espoused my theory of killing kids and dogs in a horror film in films before. Namely if/when that happens I know that the director isn’t afraid of a little controversy because directors seem to want to shy away from showing violence towards either kids or animals (Dogs especially). I love seeing the little bastards bite the big one though (On film anyway)!
8 out of 10.
The wrap around segment featuring the two private detectives, “TAPE 49” (Written/Directed by Simon Barrett) doesn’t really seem to have much of a point and is by far the weakest part of the film. It comes to a grisly end but I’ll be damned if I could figure out why. That being said it didn’t hurt the overall pace of the film since it’s presented in short 2-3 minute snippets.
3 out of 10.
“V/H/S/2” (I preferred the original title “S-V/H/S” a lot better) is a better film than it’s predecessor but not by much. It’s wraparound story and the two right after it didn’t do too much for me but the last two stories kicked all kinds of ass and it’s definitely worth the price of a rental for those two alone. That’s not to say that the first two stories were egregiously bad, each of them have their moments but the overall cable TV feel and overused plots stole some of their sunshine for me. The way each story integrates hand held photography was ingenious though and it never felt like a cheap gimmick in any of the segments. It’s a good film and it builds on the success of the original in a (Mostly) intelligent way. If a third one is being planned then I hope that the scripts have a bit more originality to go along with all of the bloodshed.
“V/H/S 2” – 3 out of 5 shrouds.
V/H/S/2 (2013) is now available on Bluray per Magnolia