When the first V/H/S movie gatecrashed its way into the UK earlier this year it felt, for better or worse, like a shot in the arm for the horror genre. A nasty, scuzzy compendium of video nasties, it was a showcase for the rush of new talent bursting through. And whilst it didn’t all work all of the time, there was an overarching feeling that these filmmakers were trying to press horror into some new shapes. What was all the more remarkable was that they were doing so by stretching the possibilities of the most tired and lazily overused of gimmicks; the found footage film.
A sequel was inevitable – this is horror after all – but unlike so many other lumpen franchises, this one genuinely felt as though it had legs. V/H/S dared those that followed to run with the central conceit (a framing device offers up a set of videotaped horror stories, each crafted by a different creative team), openly challenging the next wave to trump what has gone before. I left the first film with a sense of optimism that one-upmanship would inspire greater things next time around. I’m glad to report I was right.
V/H/S 2 feels of a piece with the first film, whilst simultaneously improving upon and amending the original’s main drawbacks. For starters this film is far less punishing in its establishing framework. Where V/H/S tested its audience upfront with migraine inducing edits, harsh pans and a caustic barrage of interference, V/H/S 2 takes a comparatively softer approach. Which is not to say that this film as a whole is any less brutal – far from it – but it’s far easier to adjust yourself to this movie’s world than it was the last. It still feels suitably lo-fi and gnarly. Punky even. The first film’s illicit aura remains unbroken. If anything, this is enhanced by the commonalities and unity which V/H/S 2 has, intentionally or not.
Gone too is the unpleasantly pervasive obsession with misogyny and revenge that coated V/H/S like an oily epidermis. V/H/S 2 is overall far more ambitious, with three of its four stories feeling decidedly apocalyptic. The supernatural was everywhere in the first film, but where previously it took the form of intimate close encounters, here you get a larger sense of a world in turmoil as insurmountable forces threaten entire communities or cultures. The cassettes viewed here are like transmissions from the end of the world. A rougher, grittier version of the control room from The Cabin In The Woods.
So what have we got? The wrap-around framework (“Tape 49”, directed by Simon Barrett) sees two private detectives break into a house whilst looking for a missing student, where they find a similar set-up of TVs and VHS machines as we saw in film one. They’re a far more sympathetic duo than the insipid criminals from the last go around.
Ayesha (Kelsey Abbott) starts looking through the tapes. First up (and most in keeping with what we’ve seen previously) is “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” directed by Adam Wingard. The director takes the lead role in his story, which places the camera literally in the eye of the beholder as Wingard plays Herman, a car crash survivor with a replacement eye which allows him to see ghosts. Wonky but necessary exposition sets up this rather sci-fi conceit, and what plays out is a decent little chiller which effectively builds atmosphere whilst running through the usual haunted house tricks. Key to the effectiveness is the pronounced sound of Herman’s heartbeat throughout which sets a nerve-wrecking metronome to the scares ahead.
Contrasting nicely is the second film “A Ride In The Park” by Gregg Hale & Eduardo Sánchez. Clashing Wingard’s mumblecore opening salvo with this darkly comic and garishly coloured POV zombie flick happily broadens V/H/S 2‘s palette. This second story gleefully goes for the gross-out moments as often as it can, but it’s USP offers a refreshing take on an overcrowded genre and ends up being the most fun segment of the series so far.
Third is “Safe Haven” by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. The longest and most ambitious segment yet, this is really where V/H/S 2 demands to be considered a far superior film to its predecessor. Initially going for the slow burn with some Kill List-esque imagery of wicker talismans and some sinister occult behaviour, “Safe Haven” takes the time to amp up its premise of documentary filmmakers finding more than they bargained for, before splitting up its narrators and letting all hell break loose.
What it lacks in coherence it more than makes up for in striking imagery. Busting out of the confines that the previous filmmakers seemed to accept, “Safe Haven” comes across like a doomsday house of horrors, a labyrinthine epic mixing panic-stricken shaky cam with cruelly impartial CCTV. Even if it’s ultimate beastie gets a shade more screen time than necessary, you can’t fault the creators for throwing every trick in the book into their film. There’s more life in this one segment alone than in a dozen Hollywood horror flicks.
Finally, Jason Eisener of Hobo With A Shotgun fame rounds things off with extra-terrestrial chaos in “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” which starts out like a high-school Jackass spin-off before descending/ascending into an end of days chase sequence around the acres of a country home. Bright lights, billowing smoke and a cacophony of crashes and booms on the soundtrack see Eisener make much of little in this doggy-cam rampage, as the meanest versions of the grey aliens from The X-Files prove impossible to evade for the terrified youths. It’s a hyper concluding film which primes us for the jolting resolution to the framing piece “Tape 49”. Before you can catch a breath, it all cuts out. End credits.
Wisely leaner than the first film but just as mean, V/H/S 2 succeeds in taking the series to the next level and is presently hot favourite for horror film of the year. One wonders where the series can go from here. I for one hope for further installments. If the kinetic drive and creative carnage on display here can be not only maintained but improved upon then for the first time in a long while we may have a horror franchise worth killing for. Make no mistake, this is hard genre filmmaking for strong stomachs and blackened hearts. For those with the appetite for it, V/H/S 2 is this year’s juiciest rotten apple so far.