Wednesday, October 30, 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013): The mixed bag of horror

V/H/S/2 (2013)
dir: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener

V/H/S, the lo-fi horror anthology film, spawned a sequel that is similar in nature, but sacrifices some of its style. V/H/S/2 was produced originally under the name S-V/H/S, a nod to the increase in budget, quality, and technology that defined the original film. Unfortunately, somebody with influence probably thought most people wouldn't get the S-VHS reference, as it was an obscure feature that never quite penetrated the market. Not that you need to know this for the movie (but it is semi-relevant to the intents of the movie), S-VHS was actually Super-VHS, which was a style of VHS tapes introduced in 1987 that doubled the resolution of traditional VHS tapes. As such, the quality was somewhat improved, almost to Laserdisc qualities, but not as much as the next step to DVD.

The title of S-V/H/S fits the changes that occurred from V/H/S to V/H/S/2, in that the resolution improved, the static edits were less 8mm style and more digital, and the whole production felt far less raw. To nitpick a little, the quality jump almost goes too far and starts looking noticeably modern, though without the polish of 35mm or RED digital cameras. Most of the shorts in V/H/S/2 look like they were filmed with modern-esque home video cameras instead of the old S-VHS home camcorders. But, again, I'm nitpicking.

V/H/S/2 uses a new, unrelated, wrap around story, directed by Simon Barrett.  A Cheaters-style male/female team gets caught up looking for a cheater in a haunted house, and winds up finding a setup of televisions, VCRs and a Macbook Pro.  The setup resembles the mountain of televisions the kids in the first V/H/S encountered.  With the setup, they find a bunch of "watch me" tapes, and a laptop video of the target saying "OMG, I WATCHED THESE AND YOU SHOULDN'T!!!" Naturally, they do.

The first story of V/H/S/2 was written by Simon Barrett, and directed by Adam Wingard, who is the sole returning director from V/H/S. Adam Wingard's segment of V/H/S was the wrap around segment, which featured the gang of hoodlums that went around assaulting women. It should be noted that he also WROTE that segment as well as directed. It should also be repeated that Wingard did not write this segment.

The first story, Phase 1 Clinical Trials, is an cinematic experiment with an man in an accident who has one of his eyes replaced with a bionic camera that also records everything he sees.  When he gets home, as one expects in a horror movie, he starts seeing things he shouldn't that come to haunt him. The story is the cross over of the bionic eye camera (notably used in 1980's Deathwatch) and the time-immortal supernatural-recording technology trope. And, it pays off in spades.  Being trapped by the first person eye-camera means we know we'll never get a break, unless...  The only problem with the short is you can't really think about it too much. You'll wonder why he doesn't listen to some of the sensible characters. Or, why the bathroom is a sanctuary and the bathroom door blocks things. Or, why he is so entranced by somebody he just met. Regardless of the logical silliness, the atmosphere and pacing of the short is stunning.

Next up is the underwhelming A Ride in the Park, from Blair Witch Project originators Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale. This is another innovation, as it is a zombie movie from the viewpoint of the zombie without the benefit of a metaphor (see Warm Bodies). As it is, it seems like it is only an extended sequence from what would be a larger movie. This seems like the clip from that movie to show that that larger movie is trying to explore the experience of losing your humanity and being filled with the mindless drive to eat and kill. The blessed part of this is that this experiment is worthwhile and is blessedly short, because there's nothing to this film otherwise. We go from trope to trope and instance to instance that we've all seen in every horror movie imaginable. I couldn't imagine a 90 minute movie of this tripe without something more in depth. As it is, it feels stretched out once you get the point. It's a bit overlong, but it has merit in the world of short-film experimentation.

The centerpiece of V/H/S/2 is Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans' Safe Haven. Gareth Evans had last been seen on the stunning all-action Indonesian film The Raid: Redemption, that was released earlier this year. Timo Tjahjanto had last been seen doing L is for Libido as part of The ABC's of Death, the segment which featured Indonesian guys being force stimulated in a climax competition, where the one who came last died. Safe Haven is more traditional in the found footage realm compared to the other three shorts in V/H/S/2. Safe Haven is the raw footage of an investigative team into an underground religious cult that purifies (kidnapped?) children through sex for some sort of end ritual. What the movie lacks in originality, it makes up for in style. Much like The Raid, Safe Haven starts with low-level intensity, and slowly amps things up to ludicrous level, and the payoff is a brilliant shot that is as awesome as it is hilarious.

Unfortunately, V/H/S/2 ends with a stinker. Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), directed a piece whose title gives away the whole plot of the segment.  The title could easily have been Super 8 Redux, about what Eisener thinks Super 8 should have been. It has the Spielbergian throwback fee-fees, the usual prolonged intro, and humor.  The story is about the non-central characters to the movie, as in the ones who do nothing to change the plot and are seen as random casualties in the course of the film. Which, really, have you ever stopped to wonder about the random people who die in these movies?  Unfortunately, the movie is just as interesting as one would expect. It ends up as fodder for the cutting room floor, or at least excised scenes from the first draft script. It's OK for a short, but after the intensity of Safe Haven, it is almost impossible for anything to follow.

V/H/S/2 seems to have suffered most from a terrible choice of order. At minimum, 3 and 4 should have been flipped, and I think that I would have order it 2, 1, 4, 3.

The notable thing about V/H/S/2 is that 3 of the four are experiments in genre. Where V/H/S was about creating stories that conformed well to the found footage genre, V/H/S/2 was more about a re-treatment of stories in ways we haven't really seen. The experimentation feels fresh, even if it isn't as tied together as V/H/S was in tonality and quality. And, even if the quality of the experiments end up with mixed results for entertainment, they all seemed far more worthy of a watch.  Highly recommended.

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