Last year’s horror anthology V/H/S (our review from IFFBoston ’12) may only be half a good movie, but it wound up being an exciting experiment even though it didn’t live up to its full promise. Two hours of horror embodied in a succubus, a slasher, demonic possession, aliens, and killer lesbians sounds like a great concept for a midnight movie on paper, and it remains such even in practice; the problem with V/H/S was the utter lack of craft or thought put into several of its segments, which yielded an uneven movie that worked in fits and spurts but with no real consistency beyond how ugly the entire picture looked.
But films like V/H/S are easily sequelized, and found footage movies don”t take a lot of effort to cobble together, so it should be no surprise that this year, we have V/H/S/2 (or S-V/H/S, if you prefer). The good news, though, is that a three hundred and sixty five day period apparently gave all producers involved the insight necessary to erase all of the problems plaguing the first movie. Even before V/H/S/2‘s central conceit kicks in, the uptick in production quality is immediately noticeable if slight; when the wraparound device gets its characters to a VCR and has them start feeding it tapes, we see every single dollar that went into the film up there on the screen over an hour and a half of running time. It’s hard to believe that this is a blood relative to last year’s grainy, bloated omnibus.
Apart from increased aesthetics, that’s V/H/S/2‘s other major pro: it’s around a half hour shorter than the original, featuring one fewer segment in total. There’s less emphasis placed on the wraparound- in which two private investigators break into the home of a missing student and come across his collection of evil tapes- and, consequently, more focus is accorded to the actual meat of the film. In the opening bit, Clinical Trials (from Adam Wingard, the only veteran from the first film), a man receives a cybernetic eye that he soon discovers allows him to see ghosts; next, in A Ride in the Park (Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, two of the people behind the granddaddy of all found footage, The Blair Witch Project), a cyclist is attacked by zombies on his morning route; meanwhile, Safe Haven (Timo Tjahjanto of Macabre and Gareth Evans of The Raid: Redemption) follows a film crew through a mysterious religious cult’s base of operations before things get out of hand; and, finally, a sleepover is interrupted by the arrival of marauding aliens in the aptly titled Slumber Party Alien Abduction (Jason Eisener, of Hobo With a Shotgun fame).
Eisener’s contribution, visually chaotic and geographically unsound, represents the least of the quartet, but that still puts it head and shoulders above most of the entries in V/H/S. That’s right, even the “worst” of V/H/S/2 rivals nearly everything its predecessor has to offer; this is a sequel that operates on a totally different plane than its progenitor, and as weak as Eisener’s work feels next to his colleagues’, it’s still scary, effective, and thoroughly entertaining. Sanche and Hale seem like they’re having the most fun with their own clip, which captures the action mostly through a GoPro camera attached to the protagonist’s helmet, and Wingard should feel pretty triumphant in light of how much better Clinical Trials is compared to his efforts with the last movie’s wraparound device.
There’s a sense of humor, black though it may be, running through each of these that’s capstoned in the climax of the film’s connective tissue, supplied this time by Simon Barrett. The only area where that element is absent is Safe Haven, but that’s okay, because Safe Haven stands out as the single best segment of the entire film. If there were any questions as to Evans’ talents following The Raid, they should be handily answered in this twenty five minute clip, which reaches the utmost heights of terror and abandon after commencing with an eerie, effective slow burn. If there’s a single recommendation to be made for V/H/S/2, it’s Safe Haven, and to say anything more would be to risk hyping it up too much or giving too much away. Suffice to say that Safe Haven will leave you in a state of gibbering fear.
And taken in tandem with the rest of the shorts, V/H/S/2 will leave you wanting more. This is the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor across the board; unlike V/H/S, V/H/S/2 does cry out for a follow-up, combining the craft and style of gifted filmmakers with actual production values. There hasn’t been a scarier movie released in 2013 this far, and considering the gruesome, nerve-shaking impact of each story here, toppling V/H/S/2 off of that pedestal is going to be a bloody challenge.