Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Josh Forbes
Writer: Craig Walendziak
Producer: Raphael Margules, J.D. Lifshitz
Stars: Matt Mercer, Marianna Palka, Morgan Peter Brown, Anna Lore, Laurel Vail, Peter Cilella, Najarra Townsend, Richard Riehle, Suzanna Voss, John Ennis
Having been infected by Samantha, Riley races to find the mysterious man responsible for the necrotic contagion spreading across Los Angeles.
Remember how Michael Myers was not yet Michael Myers in the first “Halloween?” Even John Carpenter is on record confirming that everyone’s favorite Shatner-masked murderer was not initially conceived of as a full-fledged character. He was purposefully created to be a faceless force of evil, hence his end credit identification as simply, “The Shape.”
With movies being a for profit business however, and with horror fans magnetized more to antagonist icons than to protagonist victims, follow-up films took a once straightforward story through an inevitable avalanche of expansion on a made-up mythology that never existed in the first place. By the time continuity was retconned then rebooted eight movies later, the backstory behind a simple slasher had snowballed into a complicated convolution involving improbable family ties, Pagan holidays, conspiratorial cults, and tattooed druids.
With original “Contracted” writer/director Eric England out of direct involvement in the second installment, “Contracted: Phase 2” screenwriter Craig Walendziak and creatively contributing producers find themselves in a similar position of needing to keep a race running after the finish tape snapped. So “Phase II” follows the franchise path “Halloween” took as it goes down a road where a formerly uncomplicated premise points in a different direction, with an eye towards increasing mainstream commercial appeal as a more present objective.
Taking its first sequel cue from “Halloween II,” “Contracted: Phase II” opens right when the previous movie ends. Samantha sees a fast resolution to her doomed devolution and the plot picks up with her male friend Riley carrying the contagion with an equally befuddling disregard for commonwealth concerns and personal wellbeing.
A complaint with Samantha’s behavior in “Contracted” carries over into “Phase II” in that despite cataract-clouded eyes and barfing black blood, Riley is in bizarre denial over his obviously ongoing mutation. Riley actually sits in a doctor’s office with a pus-laden fingernail embedded in a gaping back wound and he reasons that the smartest thing to do in such a situation is to definitely not tell the medical professional standing directly in front of him. That is to say nothing of his conscious complicity in subsequently exposing his grandmother, sister, brother-in-law, love interest, clients, co-workers, and everyone else he comes into contact with, even after confirming he has contracted a necrotic virus that killed four people. When you’re using a box cutter to remove maggots under your skin in a gas station bathroom, it’s time to stop being afraid of quarantine and speed to the nearest hospital.
Unlike Samantha’s earlier arc, “Phase II” is not focused on Riley coming to terms with his condition as an impetus for identity exploration. Deadly disease in this case is a reason for vigilante revenge, initiating a hunt for the madman responsible in a timebomb race against a ticking countdown.
While the virus was the villain in the first film, Morgan Peter Brown takes over from Simon Barrett’s blurry cameo to turn the “Contracted” catalyst into a “Phase II” character. Like “Halloween” did as its series rolled onward, “Phase II” puts a face to the fable by taking previously anonymous patient zero “BJ” and fashioning him into “Brent Jaffe,” the kind of film fiction serial killer the FBI would need Hannibal Lecter’s help to capture if this were a Thomas Harris novel.
More often seen in mild-mannered roles, Morgan Peter Brown’s familiarity as an onscreen Everyman works to great advantage in creating a creepy sociopath, even though characterization veers into muah-ha-ha territory when BJ records apocalyptic soliloquies in his secret lair or initiates protracted standoffs inviting the hero to arrive for nick-of-time fisticuffs. By its conclusion, BJ’s story introduces unexplained finger tattoos, cryptic code words, and a mystery conspirator nursing the ailing antagonist, as if someone behind the scenes spent too much time looking to “Halloween 6” as a sequel template.
Questionable script elements aside, newcomer Josh Forbes’ direction is quite good. Notwithstanding a Scottish accent making Marianna Palka’s LAPD detective sound passionless and out of place, acting is excellent.
A fun family tree of independent horror extends branches every which way in the cast, too. “Resolution” costar Peter Cilella features as Riley’s doctor/brother-in-law while “Resolution” (review here) and “Spring” directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead cameo respectively as a “handsome” police officer and his “less handsome” partner. “Final Destination” scribe Jeffrey Reddick and “The Taking of Deborah Logan” (review here) co-executive producer Adam Robitel also pop up in bits parts. And Laurel Vail of “Delivery: The Beast Within” (review here) adds to her streak of horrible onscreen pregnancies capable of giving Rosemary nightmares.
“Contracted: Phase II” has a terrific look. Not enough can be said about Mayera Abeita’s fantastic makeup FX, without which “Phase II” would have a tough time pulling off its heavier emphasis on physical over psychological horror. Abeita’s gruesome open sores are guaranteed squirm-inducers with characters afforded ample opportunity to push, pull, poke, rip, and gouge at horribly infected abscesses and canyon-deep scars.
The bottom line verdict is that even with retention in crew keeping the film feeling visually like a continuation of “Contracted,” “Phase II” chooses a divisive direction that fans of the first might not expect. The outbreak origin “Contracted” deemed noncritical to its thematic intent is central to the switch “Phase II” makes in shedding artsy introspection for a reshaped core of straightforward suspense and visceral thrills. While “Contracted” wanted quieter body horror chills, “Contracted: Phase II” takes on a tone of being an R-rated horror show episode of “Criminal Minds.”
It’s only for better or for worse depending on personal preference for the shift in cinematic style, but it is an alteration to how the film plays nonetheless. “Phase II” is on par with its predecessor on a production quality level, though with little to add contextually to what the first film had to say, the action-oriented approach leaves a question of how essential of a horror movie “Contracted: Phase II” ultimately is.
NOTE: There is a mid-credits scene.
Review Score: 60