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The sequel last year's surprise hit horror anthology V/H/S learns a lot of the right lessons from its predecessor, but not all of them.
Facts of the Case
• "Tape 49"
• "Phase I Clinical Trials"
• "A Ride in the Park"
• "Safe Haven"
• "Slumber Party Alien Abduction"
When the indie-horror anthology V/H/S was released last year, audiences rightly met it with a confused shrug. There was a lot to be enthusiastic about—it presented segments from a collection of some talented new horror filmmakers, provided lots of creepy analog atmosphere and had a few terrific sequences (the best of which being David Bruckner's "Amateur Night"). But it was also way too long, had almost no quality control from segment to segment and presented a bleak worldview with a thick streak of misogyny that ran through almost every piece. Was the movie commenting on the traditional roles of women in horror, or merely being another offender? It's still unclear.
Yet it must have been a success, because less than one year later comes V/H/S/2. Boasting entries from a (mostly) new lineup of filmmakers, many steps are taken in the right direction towards fixing the mistakes of the original V/H/S. There are fewer segments, for one, meaning the movie runs only about 90 minutes (the first clocked in at two hours, which became quite a drag). Most of the overt misogyny has been taken out. The segments themselves are a lot more ambitious and energetic than in the first film. One segment in particular makes V/H/S/2 worth seeing by itself—it's arguably the best 30 minutes of non-stop horror in the last 10 years.
But for all the good found in V/H/S/2, the movie still has its problems. The segments, though generally stronger than in the first film, remain uneven. Plus, they're now so different from one another that the movie loses the thematic coherence of the original; whereas the segments in the first V/H/S all felt like they were of a piece, those in the sequel have basically nothing to do with one another. It makes the movie more satisfying in the moment, but it doesn't add up to much.
The wraparound segment, though less hateful this time around, is still problematic, consisting mostly of characters switching out videotapes. Where it improves is in its punchline, which offers a truly disturbing visual. The segments from Wingard and Sanchez/Hale are reasonably entertaining and fairly novel in their approach—both come up with clever justifications for the first-person camera conceit—but fairly shallow beyond their single ideas. Wingard's piece feels like it's leading up to a truly awful bit of violence, but chickens out before making the money shot count. The POV zombie segment has the advantage of being the first POV zombie movie I've ever seen, but not much more. Pop culture is so over saturated with zombie gore these days that even the first-person gimmick isn't enough to overcome the feeling of "been there, seen that eaten."
Then we get to Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven," which pulls out the stops in way few horror movies do—probably because it would be impossible to sustain this level of insanity and horror at feature length. It is relentless and it is brilliant, finding ways to continually top itself even when you think it has nowhere to go. It's so good, in fact, that whatever segment that came after it would be up against a nearly impossible challenge. Unfortunately, Jason Eisner's "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" is not up to that challenge. It tries to fake the energy of "Safe Haven" by having the camera shake endlessly, leaving most of what happens barely visible. I get what Eisner is going for—trying to create terror by obscuring what we can see and hear—but it only works occasionally. The backlit aliens and the very loud noises that accompany their appearances are effective, but the overall segment is too much of a jumbled mess.
Though shot to resemble the quality of found VHS footage, V/H/S/2 still manages to look very good on Blu-ray. The 1080p transfer looks exactly as it should; colors are mostly solid throughout, and precisely the amount of detail we are meant to see is visible. If there's an issue, it's not with the transfer but with the photography—nearly every segment uses shaky cam cinematography as a way of creating chaos and confusion (or as a way of avoiding showing a monster for too long). Jason Eisner's "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" is the guiltiest of this, rendering it nearly unwatchable at times. Those who suffer easily from motion sickness, be advised. The lossless DTS-HD audio track is very effective, to the point of betraying its VHS roots. Very few VHS tapes feature expertly mixed surround sound. Ultimately, though, who cares about the conceit—what matters is that the track enhances the experience and elevates the feeling of terror in its best moments. At this, it does an excellent job.
The major bonus feature included is a commentary track that includes contributions from each of the filmmakers responsible for their respective segments. Unlike the commentary track on the first V/H/S, which threw all the directors in the same room and let them take turns talking (and often comment on one another's pieces), the discussions over each segment were recorded separately. Each of the filmmakers has something interesting to say about how their segments were created and the obstacles of shooting this kind of first-person found footage piece; the best among them is the conversation between Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, mostly because they joke around a lot and are very amusing. Each segment also gets its own behind-the-scenes piece, though most are pretty short and don't go into any real detail as to how things were accomplished. A photo gallery and two trailers for the movie round out the supplements.
A super special edition of V/H/S/2 is also available, which includes a copy of the movie on VHS.
Like pretty much every other horror anthology every produced, V/H/S/2 is something of a mixed bag. Some lessons were learned from the first film, but some thematic cohesion has been sacrificed in the process. Still, the highs are high enough that horror fans should give it a look.
Worth seeing for "Safe Haven" alone.
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