by A.J. Hakari
2012’s V/H/S defined the term “missed opportunity.” What sold itself as an homage to those grungy, low-budget horror movies that lined countless shelves in the video store’s heyday turned out to be an obnoxious anthology flick. It was an annoyance with almost unwatchable shaky-cam photography, anticlimactic segments, and, worse yet, virtually no grasp on its own gimmick. The film’s failure cast a pall over future installments (which, considering how cheap that first one was to make, were all but guaranteed), but not only is V/H/S/2 a marked improvement, it is as such while experiencing many of the same ails. It’s still a far cry from the home run an idea like this deserves, but this second helping of found footage frights adapts to its faults and is even good when it tries to be.
Our framing story involves two investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abbott) hired to track down a college kid who’s gone missing. Their search leads them to a house that’s nearly empty, save for a pile of TV sets and a bunch of VHS cassettes containing the mini-movies comprising the proceeding omnibus. The first tape features its own director, Adam Wingard, as a man whose high-tech eye implant allows him to see a world of rather agitated ghosts. Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (the respective producer and co-director of The Blair Witch Project) helm the second story, which follows a cyclist who sets out to record his morning ride but ends up capturing his own descent into zombiehood. The third segment, from Timo Tjahjanto and The Raid‘s Gareth Evans, chronicles the horrors that await a television news crew when they decide to get the inside scoop on a cult. The last tale comes courtesy of Hobo with a Shotgun‘s Jason Eisener, who pits a bunch of kids left home alone against alien invaders.
What stuck in many viewers’ collective craw about V/H/S (mine included) was how little it had to do with the VHS format. The characters viewed the segments upon those classic bulky tapes, but the shorts themselves were filmed digitally, just Skype and spycam footage that somehow ended up on a cassette (the question of who would transfer it and why was the subject of more confusion/boiling rage). V/H/S/2 is in precisely the same boat, and with its first story recorded in the context of a cybernetic implant, you could say it moves even further away from the shot-on-video conceit. But either I had an idea of what to expect or these vignettes were just that much better, but I found myself not minding so much this time around. What’s certain is that V/H/S/2 exhibits more creativity than its predecessor, more often than not cleverly incorporating a first-person perspective into its segments in ways that expand upon their initial hooks. With the exception of one outright awful entry, none of the stories feel like one-trick ponies, each making the most of the short time it has to freak you out by its own means.
I already know I’m in the minority on this one, but the Hale/Sanchez segment stands head and shoulders above its brothers as my favorite of the V/H/S/2 line-up. We’ve seen movies from a zombie’s point of view before, but never quite this literally, or with the blend of horror, humor, and heartbreak with which its directors imbue it. All its little touches (like its newly-undead protagonist figuring out what is and isn’t edible) are really neat and round out what could’ve easily been a simplistic, gimmicky one-shot. Still, Evans and Tjahjanto deserve some sort of special commendation for turning out the most bugnuts crazy story of the lot. The atmosphere already thick with unease due to the cult’s conspicuously cheery demeanor, the plot’s ensuing curveballs lobbed our way only get nuttier, defying our expectations and dropping our jaws every step of the way. Wingard’s contribution is pretty basic in concept, but it never goes overboard with jump scares, always erring on the side of a cool little funhouse ride. Eisener’s story is the only one I disliked entirely, reminding me of everything that I hated about that first movie — queasy cinematography, a one-note premise, and loudmouthed characters I couldn’t wait to see dragged off to some unspeakable end. Also, the wraparound stuff with the investigators is a mixed bag, all vague and mysterious at first but finishing on a cliched note that doesn’t answer any of questions it posed to begin with.
I’d still like to see today’s heroes of horror filmmaking take a crack at a project that truly pays tribute to the medium that probably inspired most of them, but taken on its own terms, V/H/S/2 isn’t half bad. It’s obvious that the participants weren’t just banking on nostalgia for the golden age of videotapes to wrangle an audience, so if they had to follow in the first movie’s formatted footsteps, they might as well bring some really cool content to share. V/H/S/2 isn’t a total winner, but it gives one hope that a hypothetical third outing might not whiz any potential down its leg after all.