Tuesday, November 19, 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013)

Last year, V/H/S brought the anthology format to the found footage subgenre of horror films. Opinions on found footage films vary widely, with lots of people lambasting them for their cheap thrills and amateurish production values. Personally, I'm a fan of found footage. Whereas other genres might not benefit so much from the first person perspective - I can't imagine a drama, for example, being any more effective by viewing it from the point of view of one of its characters - it seems particularly suited to horror.

I'd long wondered at the fact that survival horror video games manage to scare more effectively than most traditional horror films, and the reason is because it puts you right in the middle of the action. Which is what the first person perspective does. It makes you feel more vulnerable, and more paranoid, too, about what could be lurking just outside the frames - whereas a director would be inclined to carefully place his monsters and script the action, there's an element of chaos in some random bloke capturing the nightmare he's stuck in the middle of, and that's unpredictable and exciting.

There are, of course, pitfalls to the found footage format, like the unfortunate prevalence of shaky camera work - I thank my lucky stars that watching such footage doesn't make me sick, because otherwise I'd be missing out on some great stuff. Also, as is frequently complained about, there are many times when a found footage film builds up atmosphere only to let down in its payoff. The Blair Witch Project was guilty of this, although I hesitate to criticize a film too much for it, because the "imagination is worse than reality" approach bears considerable weight (Paranormal Activity, for example, was mostly tease, yet it was by far one of the scariest horror movies I've seen since the day I decided to stop believing in the monsters that live under my bed).

The anthology format is itself marred by too frequently mediocre entries - as, after all, a motley collection of pieces will inevitably vary in quality, and so rarely yield consistent brilliance. On the other hand, if not taken so seriously, an anthology can be more fun than a feature piece, and the diversity of its offerings has the potential to appeal to a wider audience, as everyone will tend to gravitate toward the entries that best suit their tastes. The short story (or film) format also provides an opportunity to experiment with new and exciting themes and modes of storytelling, and to create narratives that come quickly to their point without being bogged down by unnecessary filler.

All of this is to say that you never know what you're going to get. And while V/H/S was an exciting and competent - if flawed - foray into the found footage anthology piece, its sequel manages to be even stronger, and even better than the first, while maintaining the same formula. The first V/H/S suffered from an overabundance of immature, misogynistic characters. That aspect is downplayed here, to better results, while not completely shying away from the topic of sex and nudity that, for many of us, adds that extra spice and flair to entertainment that is otherwise mostly violent in nature. But where V/H/S/2 really shines is in the strength of its pieces, which are both clever and exciting to a surprisingly above average degree. I want to talk about each of them briefly now, and I warn you that there will be spoilers from here on out. So if you haven't seen V/H/S/2 yet and plan to, you should go do that before you read the rest of this review.

Tape 49

The "wraparound" story takes pretty much the same basic form as the one in V/H/S, albeit with less annoying characters. As far as I know, there is no direct connection to the events in the first V/H/S (although it probably allows for its existence in the same narrative universe), and this is an independent case of somebody exploring an abandoned(?) house recently occupied by a fanatic collector of obscure and esoteric VHS tapes featuring some of the creepiest home videos you'll ever lay your hands on. This time around, it's a private investigator who specializes in blackmail, and apparently has a camera fetish, if the way he carries around multiple cameras to film everything he does is any indication.

It's a little ridiculous, and you kinda feel like it's all just a (somewhat unconvincing) ruse to deflect the viewer's typical criticism of "why is he filming this?", but as usual, I have a tendency to consider that sort of thing within the purview of my suspension of disbelief when I'm watching a found footage film. The point isn't so much how realistic the filming of the action is, it's how effective that filming is in putting me in the middle of the action and scaring my pants off (if I'm wearing any). Tape 49 may be the least compelling of the shorts in V/H/S/2 (it is the wraparound, after all), but it does its job well enough, and is probably slightly more coherent than the wraparound in the first V/H/S.

Phase I Clinical Trials

The first tape we're shown doesn't do a great job of quelling our concerns about realism, as it turns out to be the recording of a guy's cybernetic eye implant. I'm not kidding. You have to ask yourself, with that kind of state of the art technology, the recording had to be digital. So who actually took the time to dub it to a VHS tape, and why? I know, you could say the same thing about the webcam footage in The Sick Thing That Happened To Emily When She Was Younger from the first V/H/S (and that might not be the only one), but still.

I actually think the whole VHS approach works well, because it's like, they're harder to copy and share than digital videos, so there's more of an esoteric feeling about them, like they could have been hiding in a cardboard box in somebody's basement for years, and nobody knows about them, rather than them going viral on YouTube or something, totally evaporating the mystery. But in our technologically advanced age, the whole VHS thing is becoming more and more antiquated, and you have to wonder how all these originally-digital recordings are finding their way onto VHS tapes.

Anyway, like I said, I can file that in the back of my head and just focus on the story. And as ridiculous as the idea of a cybernetic eye implant is, it has the potential for some pretty creepy implications. When the doctor mentioned glitches, I thought maybe it would be another approach at the creepy fx in Tuesday the 17th from the first V/H/S, but - although I think that direction had a lot of potential - it instead chooses to go in the direction of a ghost story.

Now, the idea that a piece of advanced technology would let you see ghosts is a little wonky in my opinion - mixing science with superstition - but I guess if you think about it, if there really are ghosts, it's not completely insane to think that maybe the right kind of scientific advancement would let us see them. So I'll let it slide. It's a pretty scary thought anyway. I mean, imagine if you knew your own eyes were conspiring against you, and even if you convinced yourself that what you were seeing wasn't real (even worse if it is), just seeing it would be enough to unnerve you.

I actually found the ghosts themselves to be less than entirely effective when they actually showed up on screen (except the creepy uncle dude), but just the very setup of the story, with the ghosts and everything, probably scared me more than any of the other shorts in V/H/S/2. So that's saying something.

A Ride In The Park

This one starts out pretty gently. I was watching this guy get ready to go biking in the woods, thinking to myself, I have absolutely no idea which direction this story is going to go. There could be absolutely anything waiting for him in these woods. And, well, it turns out to be zombies. Which is always fun. The rest of the story is relatively conventional, except for one very important twist: we get to watch the majority of the zombie rampage (including a small horde ambushing a little girl's birthday party in a picnic pavilion), from the point of view of one of the zombies.

It sounds so simple, but I don't think I've ever seen that before. It's a brilliant idea! And man, when that zombie digs into the guy's torso, and starts chowing down on his viscera like it was a turkey dinner - it's not that I haven't seen that in a zombie film before (many times, actually), but the first person perspective gives it a whole new freshness, and for the first time made me sympathize with the zombie's hunger, and not simply recoiling in disgust at the thought of it. This was a story that had to be told, and I can't believe I'd never even thought of it. Bravo.

Safe Haven

Then we come to my favorite short in the whole movie. It starts with one of the better premises for a found footage movie I've come across - infiltrating a secretive religious cult under the guise of filming an unbiased documentary. This is one of those ideas so ripe for found footage that it makes you think, "ah, finally!" You're not sure, of course, exactly which direction the story will go. Will it be human atrocities, as cults in the real world are known to commit? It certainly touches that base. But in the end, it goes so much further, revealing the cult to actually be one of devil worshippers with supernatural powers of demon summoning and resurrection.

So often, and especially in the realm of found footage, I find myself thinking at the end of a movie, they didn't go far enough. There was a lot of tease, but not enough delivery. This is true for many themes, but as frequently for stories about Satanism as anything else. Safe Haven doesn't have that problem. It probes the depths, and comes out the other side dripping with blood. Too many times I've seen devil worshipping cults emasculate themselves with all-smoke-and-no-fire rituals that are no more impressive than your local pastor's latest sermon. But this cult leader, he must have done something right. I'd say that V/H/S/2 is worth watching for this segment alone, but it's not like the other segments aren't pretty good themselves.

Slumber Party Alien Abduction

I'll be honest, I was a little disappointed that this one turned out to be a boys' sleepover, and not a girls' slumber party like I was hoping. Interestingly, we find a more natural home for the immature pranking spirit of V/H/S's douchebags in the adolescent boys in this segment. But the concept behind this segment is so perfect (is this really the first time it's been done?), that it's hard not to like it.

Truthfully, there is little buildup, and it's largely one big thrill ride, but there's nothing wrong with that - it is quite thrilling. This alien abduction has more in common with Incident in Lake County than your typical riding-a-beam-of-light nighttime affair, with aggressive aliens that are effectively intimidating by being larger than usual (more man-sized), while still retaining the expected general features (lean body, large eyes), and utilizing bright lights and loud sounds to confuse their prey.

The one significant complaint I have is that, unlike Safe Haven, Slumber Party Alien Abduction didn't go far enough. There's a scene where a boy is being dragged off by an alien, and you know they're taking him to their spaceship, and I'm like, come on, come on, a little bit further - but they never get there. Maybe I'm too caught up on the idea of a found footage alien abduction film that actually goes aboard the spaceship. Oh well. Someday. It's a good segment, but it's such a good concept, that I feel it deserves a full feature treatment, and not just a short anthology segment. Any filmmakers listening?


  1. Interesting thoughts. I pretty much agree. If you like Safe Haven, Ti West (of House of the Devil and Inkeepers) recently made a similarly themed found footage film called The Sacrament. It's been doing the festivals but it has been picked up for US release so we should be able to see it eventually. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iP2rtrudKro

  2. I'll keep my eyes open for it.