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Entries in V/H/S/2 [2013] (1)

Friday
Jun212013

V/H/S/2 (2013)

Dead to Tape

V/H/S/2 is a really good movie. It's just not a really good horror movie. That might be a problem for most fans of the original, who will no doubt come into this anthology looking for some decent scares. But from a purely technical standpoint, this is one of the most inventive, fun-to-watch oddities I've seen all year.

We begin with a familiar premise: Curious, unsuspecting jerks (in this case, a pair of low-rent private investigators played by Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abbott) stumble upon a collection of videocasettes inside a dark, empty house. They pop in the videos, one by one, and get sucked into watching several bizarre, supernatural short films. As the night wears one, each movie drives the viewers closer to madness, and hints at a wider, warped reality outside the one they knew before pressing "PLAY".

Like the first film, the quality of V/H/S2's chapters is a mixed bag. But what they lack in scares or originality, they make up for in visual invention. Writer/director Simon Barrett's Phase I Clinical Trials, for example, is about a guy who gets a cybernetic eye following a car accident. Because it's a horror movie, the fusion of technology and brain activity allows him to see dead people. This segment almost acts as a reaction to the main criticism of all found-footage movies: why do people keep recording terrible things instead of simply running away?

In this case, there are two answers. First, the camera is grafted into our protagonist. Second, our protagonist is an idiot. Even after a sultry stranger (who convinces him that the best way to shake off the ghosts is to have awesome sex) reveals that taking the implant out won't affect his ability to see these malevolent spirits--and vice versa--he cuts the device out of his face. Not the greatest idea, as you may have guessed. Barrett keeps us on his side by refusing to let us like his main character. There's some strong comedy in Clinical Trials, all of it at the expense of this snotty, stupid hipster.

Jason Eisener's Slumber Party Alien Abduction (which he co-wrote with John Davies) might best be described as "The Goonies meets Signs"--if The Goonies were all assholes and the Signs aliens weren't afraid of water. A group of smart-ass kids plays pranks on an older sister and her too-cool teenage friends--who turn the tables during a sleepover. Unfortunately, the titular slumber party takes place on the night of an alien invasion.

There's nothing scary or unique about the story, and no one will be quoting this thing in thirty years, but Alien Abduction contains some really cool visual and audio ideas--as well as an unexpectedly sad way of keeping us with the story. The aliens herald their arrival (from, I guess, an alternate dimension) with grand bursts of orange light and blaring, Rapture-esque horns. Half-way through the film, one of the teens mounts a video camera to the family dog, who then guides us through the nightmarish invasion. Mirroring a shot from the original V/H/S, the segment concludes with a dramatic drop from the sky--leading to a final shot that just plain hurts.

A Ride in the Park is mostly a gross-out showcase involving a bike-rider with a helmet-mounted camera whose trip through the woods lands him in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Co-directors Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez, and co-writer Jamie Nash bring some of that Blair Witch magic back to the screen with crazy shaky cam and semi-likable characters doing really dumb things. The conceit is that our first-person shooter "turns" early in the story, meaning we get an undead attack from the walker's point of view. Some of this is compelling--as when the newly zombified biker tries to eat his own arm--but mostly it's a frenetic, semi-comedic curiosity that plays more as a filmmaker's calling card than a proper anthology chapter.

V/H/S/2's strongest segment is the Borneo-set Jonestown homage, Safe Haven. Timo Tjahjanto's creepy faux documentary about young journalists working their way into a jungle cult is a multi-layered thriller that truly deserves to be its own feature-length movie. Epy Kusnandar plays Father, the small, charismatic, and really slimy leader of a pseudo-religious movement. He runs the titular compound as a combination elementary school and love nest, and has a nasty surprise for the nosy, young film crew who plan to ruin him.

Tjahjanto's script is a dense, multi-layered drama that becomes more horrific by the minute--and is an unsettling, world-ending experience long before Satan pops up. There's a nasty, slow-drip nihilism oozing out of the screen from minute to minute, as if the writer/director really wanted to capture the dementia and hopelessness of the end times. If all the dead kids, suicides, exploding bodies, and ravenous nightmare creatures don't have you running down the street, proclaiming a George Bailey-level appreciation for life after watching this, you might just be beyond saving.

V/H/S/2 might be 2013's ultimate genre meta-movie. For filmmakers (aspiring and otherwise, I suppose), there are some really techniques on display here all in service of visual storytelling and a commitment to the medium's texture. Though few of the segments have a legit "shot on videotape" feel, they do capture the degraded reality through which most of us have been wired to view the world. It used to be that tracking streaks, tiling, and warped sound were the mark of bad equipment and amateur production values; in the YouTube generation, they're as ubiquitous as film grain.

The best thing I can say about the film is that it plays like a movie I would have rented in junior high, during one of those long weekends with sleepovers every night and weird-movie marathons that became the stuff of pre-teen legend. Had V/H/S/2 been around in 1989, I'm sure my friends and I would have squirmed at the gore, marveled at the boobs, and imagined seeing lanky alien invaders prowling the perimeter of our darkened living rooms.