V/H/S 2 is not like most sequels. It’s a continuation of form, not of story, and your enjoyment of the form will roughly correlate with the enjoyment of the film. The form in question is found footage horror: like The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the camera is part of the action and the characters have a reason for filming what they do. Obviously, there is already a collection of short horror films, V/H/S, and they vary from clever to sleazy to downright boring. The best thing about V/H/S 2 is now there are five short films, not seven, so the filmmakers have more time to expand their worlds. They’re all creative and scary in a unique way, even if one short outshines all the others.
The set-up is similar to the prequel. Two private detectives break into a home, ostensibly to find a run-away, and they discover a creepy-ass room filled with tapes and old television sets. One of the detectives turns on several of the tapes, and the videos are the other four films (each time another film turns on, the house gets creepier, to the point where they’re stalked by a man who shot himself in the face). Rather than review V/H/S 2 as a whole, I’m going to focus on the four remaining shorts individually:
Phase I Clinical Trials. This is easily the weakest of the four, which is not to say it’s poorly-executed. After a car accident, a man gets outfitted with an electric eye, and it records everything he does (he complains that he can’t turn it off when he takes a shit). Strange things start to happen when he’s back at home: he cannot sleep because ghosts haunt him, and he has no idea when they’re going to appear. A woman appears at his door to offer her help – she sees ghosts, too – but her coping strategy isn’t exactly productive. Director Adam Wingard uses “gotcha” scares (e.g. a ghost appears suddenly) effectively, but the problem is his lack of ambition. The plot twist is boilerplate, and Wingard tries to make for it with a grotesque moment of self-mutilation. This kind of horror works in the moment, without much of a lasting impression.
A Ride in the Park. This one is the least scary, yet it’s also the most creative and a little poignant. Before a man goes on a long bike ride, his girlfriend calls him and begs him to come home (she wants a ride, too). The man mounts the camera to his bike helmet, so we follow as his ride goes horribly wrong. He sees a helpless woman, only to discover she’s becomes zombie. He gets bitten, and turns himself. This is the creative part: the camera is still running after the man is undead. Directors Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale show a new perspective of an old genre. It’s the perspective of a boring, dumb zombie as it wanders from one flesh pile to another. There is a first-person perspective of an innocent being eaten alive, and it’s horrifying. In their version of the classic genre, however, zombies maintain some degree of their humanity. The man’s camera feed cuts out in a jarring, abrupt way, and this is the only short in V/H/S 2 where the ending could be described as happy. Even that word might be too generous.
Safe Haven. Holy crap, this one is by far the best short from the two V/H/S films. It’s directed by Gareth Evans, who is best known for the taut action film The Raid: Redemption. By applying his no-nonsense sensibilities to horror, he creates a film that’s relentless and bat-shit insane. It starts off with a documentary film crew in a non-specific Asian country. They’re trying to get access to a cult leader and his compound, and creepy things start to happen once their interview with the leader goes bad. I don’t want to spoil exactly how weird things get on the compound, except to say that Evans veers from disquieting realism to implausible grotesqueries at the drop of a hat. His cameras are everywhere – the crew has their own, and the compound is brimming with surveillance cameras – and he uses the free space to delve into a truly sick brand of horror. Safe Haven ends with a moment of black humor, and it only exacerbates the terror that precedes it. Action is Evans’ wheelhouse, but his shift to horror is masterful.
Slumber Party Alien Abduction. That title just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Director Jason Eisener finds an interesting way to have the audience sympathize for the kids at the slumber party. At first, it’s a little annoying, but it sets up some unflinching brutality. For a significant chunk of the short, we watch as two groups of kids pull pranks on each other (they’re filming everything, of course). They’re playful, mostly, and Eisener constructs the scenes so that we recognize ourselves in them. Then the invasion happens, and it’s chaotic. The aliens are creepy, and their use of ear-splitting sound terrifies the kids. The oldest one is maybe sixteen, so when the body count rises, Eisener is pitiless in how the abduction plays out. For much of Slumber Party Alien Abduction, a camera is attached to the cute family dog. We hear its pants and whimpers of fear. It’s a shamelessly manipulative tactic, we all know that, but it works. As if to provide icing on this terror cake, the short ends on an image that’s so bleak and cruel that it’s almost funny.
As long as the producers can find creative filmmakers to hop on board, there is no reason the V/H/S films need to stop. The sequel is an improvement because they found some great directors, and with luck, the series will get enough notoriety so it’ll keep attracting big names. Or maybe the producers will let Gareth Evans make another one.