Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Gareth Huw Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener
Writer: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, Gareth Huw Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener, John Davies
Producer: Gary Binkow, Brad Miska, Roxanne Benjamin
An investigation into a college student’s disappearance uncovers four “found footage” VHS tapes featuring an eye transplant, a zombie outbreak, a doomsday cult, and an alien abduction.
In the post-Amicus Productions age of contemporary horror film anthologies, “Creepshow” has stood for thirty plus years as an oft-referenced benchmark for the format when measuring critical and commercial success. As deservedly beloved as the film is, one potential drawback to its intentional design is that its five separate stories are voiced by the same writer and director. Of course, that writer is Stephen King and that director is George A. Romero, two of the greatest and most consistently reliable heavyweights that the genre has ever seen. But in the end, the final product still carries the same flavor throughout all 120 minutes of its runtime.
As fun as “Creepshow” is, anyone not in tune with the EC Comics style is going to be unlikely to enjoy “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” if “Father’s Day” already set the eyes rolling. The advantage that “V/H/S/2” has with the anthology format is in providing a different writing and directing team for each segment. As horror entertainment, the setup of “VHS2” gives it a divergent mix of genre voices, positioning the film for an even broader appeal. The “found footage” format may unify each segment thematically, but a wide range of horror aficionados stands a greater chance of finding at least one segment in the film that appeals to their particular tastes.
Not counting the framing sequence, the first segment is “Phase I Clinical Trials.” Following a disfiguring car accident, director and star Adam Wingard finds himself as the lucky recipient of an experimental cybernetic implant. It allows the scientist braniacs who created the device to watch Wingard’s daily life through the always on camera inside his bionic eye. As is already well known from films like “Body Parts” and “The Eye,” transplants in horror movies generally lead to bad things. Similar to “The Eye,” Wingard’s ocular implant gives him ghostly visions at every corner turn in his Hollywood home. Former deaf girl Clarissa has an implant that allows her to hear the ghosts that Wingard sees. They tackle the hauntings together, but things of course take a turn for the worse.
“Phase I” is a straightforward quick hit of horror from the shallow end of the story pool. Then again, it is only 17 minutes long, so there is not much room for layering depth to begin with. “Phase I” pops in a few fun jumps and jabs at levity that will elicit a smirk (“So you guys are gonna sit around and watch me take sh*ts?”). Although those smirks may turn into grimaces with underwhelming performances, which can likely be attributed to the players having to act against a camera lens as the other character.
Taking the thin premise and levity angles further is “A Ride in the Park,” a helmet cam excursion through a bike trail and public park at the onset of a zombie uprising. It is a played out idea and borders too much on camp with its comical grunts from the undead, but it is welcome to see the beginning moments of an outbreak and the ensuing public panic. The piece is pulled together with several decent gags involving a birthday party, a barbecue, and a car that runs over a reanimated corpse.
However, the first forty minutes of “VHS 2” are a prologue for the undisputed crown jewel, “Safe Haven.” This is the segment that will have people talking. It is also the bar that subsequent shorts in this ongoing anthology series will have to meet if they even hope to be as memorable. “Safe Haven” is the tale of the Paradise Gates cult. Their leader combines the mass suicide ideals of Jim Jones with the child bride mongering of Warren Jeffs and the messiah complexes of every other cult leader in history.
Already thematically dark with brainwashed children and apocalyptic messages, the segment bursts into a gory bath of vicious throat slashes, gunshots, and disturbing imagery. “Safe Haven” is an exponential escalation of one insane event after another. Just when you think it cannot possibly get any more bizarre, it does. Creative and demented, “Safe Haven” is not to be missed.
“Slumber Party Alien Abduction” is an odd choice to finish the film, and it has the thankless task of following the best piece of the movie. It can only be assumed that the producers wanted to ease the audience down from the third segment shock and wrap up the affair with something a touch milder. Which is not to say that “Alien Abduction” is lacking in the chills department.
While the segment is not played to be funny, its opening certainly is. A group of troublesome boys film themselves pulling pranks on a teenage sister as she looks for moments of intimacy with her boyfriend. I challenge you to not laugh out loud at the hilarious scene of coitus interruption when the boys don Santa hats and parade light-up jack-o-lanterns around her bedroom while blaring a ridiculous sounding song.
The arrival of the aliens brings some fearful moments, but more than the other segments, this one suffers from hard to see handheld camerawork during the intense action sequences. There is an artificial soundtrack that undermines the “authenticity” of the “found footage” too, and the alien suits look like wrinkled skintight long johns in some shots. This also has to be the sloppiest alien abduction of all time. Greys are usually reliable for being thieves in the night. But whatever interplanetary species these creatures belong to, they feel the need to announce their presence with a horn that could drown out an atom bomb explosion. Their aimless and fevered pawing at abduction targets gives Alpha Centaurians a bad name when it comes to staying in the shadows. Otherwise, “Alien Abduction” is still fun, even if it has the weakest concept of all the shorts.
The wraparound sequence is nothing to write home about. It eats up a good chunk of the runtime when it could have used a judicious round in the edit suite without losing any of its story or impact. Yet even with the frame being longer than needed, “V/H/S/2” is still a focused anthology, and plays as much tighter than its predecessor. The brisk pace further ensures that the film does not wear out its welcome.
Ocular implant, bike helmet cam, documentary subject, and slumber party hijinks make for good outs to explain the traditional “found footage” pitfall of why filming is constant. Although these are very contemporary tales using technology just as modern, which makes their presentation via VHS tapes questionably implausible.
At least two, and possibly three, of the four segments can be considered as more of an idea than a fully formed story. And without the consistency of the same production team heading each segment, it is only natural that the production quality and entertainment value ebbs and flows throughout. Yet it is this very variety of different writers and directors telling tales of aliens, cults, ghosts, and zombies that makes the anthology enjoyable to watch, even if the contents are light. “V/H/S/2” is a rare film in that the sum of its parts supersedes the average portions of the individual segments. As separate shorts, they might not be as successful, save “Safe Haven.” But the final verdict is that the total package provides 90 minutes of horror entertainment.
Review Score: 85