The V/H/S franchise is a revival of the old portmanteau horror format combined it with the current vogue for found footage films. The first film though was a severely flawed piece of work. While the idea was sound, and it’s a great way of providing a showcase for directing talent, the execution left a lot to be desired. Most of the stories had pretty unlikeable characters, a few segments weren’t satisfactory as complete stories and it had a creepy vein of misogyny running through much of it. V/H/S had its moments, like the intense final short 10/31/98 but overall it was kind of a mess. Thankfully many of these complaints seem to have been taken on board, as its follow up V/H/S/2 is that rarest of things; a sequel that improves upon the original in every important respect.
It’s not necessary to see V/H/S before this, as besides the broad concept and minor references in the linking story, there’s nothing to connect the two story wise. The linking story is Tape 49 directed by Simon Barrett who worked on the original. It follows a pair of private investigators looking for a missing college student. In his apartment, which is apparently abandoned, they find only TVs, a laptop, and a collection of VHS tapes containing the stories. It’s nothing that special, but it’s well done, has a neat twist, sets the mood and gets the job done of setting up the shorts.
The first proper short is Phase I Clinical Trials, directed by Adam Wingard (You’re Next). Herman, following an eye injury, has an experimental bionic replacement fitted. But having this adjustment to his senses means that he now can see beings he couldn’t before, and they see him. It’s an old concept, similar to fare like The Eye, but the first person perspective does set it apart, and the scares are genuinely effective. Plus it does have good touches like hinting at, though not outright saying, that there’s a particular reason these spirits are focusing on him. Simple but chilling ideas, a good place to start.
Next is A Ride in the Park, co-directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project). A cyclist is having a morning ride with a Go-Pro attached to his helmet, but runs right into a zombie outbreak. He’s bitten, dies and rises… and that camera is still recording all the way through. It’s kind of remarkable that no-one’s done something like this before, a zombie movie done first person from a zombie’s POV (there was Colin, but that wasn’t first person). There’s a lot of grim comedy in this one and it’s one of the gorier segments to the film, especially the zombie’s first meal. It’s a good thing this is done as a short, as it means it’s all wrapped up well and done long before the central gag has a chance to wear thin. This segment’s a lot of fun, with some neat touches of humanity. It’s also a novelty, the idea of the minds behind Blair Witch doing something this outright gruesome!
Segment three is easily the best of the whole film; Safe Haven co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre) and Gareth Huw Evans (The Raid). A documentary crew in Indonesia is given access to film in the compound of a strange cult-like sect. But they chose a very bad day to do this; while there a bell starts to toll telling the followers that it’s time for their final ritual to begin. What follows… the phrase “all Hell breaks loose” is somewhat overused, but it pretty appropriate here. This section goes into some utterly insane areas, starting off slow and steady with a good sense of anticipation and then builds to an utterly nightmarish climax. There are visuals in here that are sure to go down in horror film history as all time favourites, and it works in terms of tension, excitement and stomach churning imagery. Honestly, the whole film is worth having and seeing for this one alone; it potentially could have been a feature film, but what we get works (it’s notably the longest segment of the film too).
The final story is Slumber Party Alien Abduction by Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun). The title sums things up pretty well; a bunch of rowdy kids are having a wild weekend while the parents are out but the fun is cut short when they get the worst party crashers ever, the Greys. This section, after some early bawdy humour establishing the kids’ characters, goes straight for an adrenalin rush of one long chase. It’s a bit of a rushed, confused piece as when things get intense it’s very easy to completely lose track of which character is where and what exactly is happening. It’s still gripping though, with the aliens being a really intimidating threat, and the fact it’s happening to kids raising the stakes somewhat. It’s probably the weakest segment, and coming right after Safe Haven doesn’t help, but it’s still a decent ending. Bonus points for most of the action being filmed by doggie cam.
This is a massive leap forward from the predecessor. The least of the segments here are at least on par with the best of the first, the linking story is far better, and it fits together as a whole, even with the weaker sections. The stories all mostly avoid some of the bigger sins of found footage movies, like having a “why are they still filming this?” moment (although the last one does too much shakey-cam). If there’s a V/H/S/3, let’s hope it draws in filmmakers with the same level of enthusiasm and imagination as those who contributed here. It doesn’t matter if you liked, disliked, saw, didn’t see or didn’t even hear of the first film, this is a must see for horror fans, if only for Safe Haven alone.