Anthology movies can be tricky to pull off properly; by their very nature they can be uneven in tone, the narrative constantly upended when we pull back to the framing story, the differing tones and pacing of the individual segments. When done well though, we get such classics as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, the chilling Ealing classic Dead of Night and George Romero’s lurid pulp-fest Creepshow.
While the emphasis of V/H/S was arguably on shocks of a sexualised nature, the sequel moves away from that and into some surprisingly original places. The relentlessly grim tone echoes the likes of Faces of Death in its depiction of bloody atrocities caught on film, while the modes of capturing the footage don’t feel as contrived as they often do in found-footage horror.
When two bungling private detectives break into the house of a missing student looking for clues to his whereabouts, they discover a horde of VHS cassettes filled with gruesome footage of weird events and encounters. Their prying around in the house and viewing of the tapes forms the framing narrative [Tape 49] which adds to a vague mythology established in the wraparound story of the first film, with the private investigators watching a video of the missing student discussing the dark power of the mysterious films he’s been collecting. So far, so Ringu. Each time we cut back to their investigation, their predicament becomes increasingly dire, eventually ending in bloodshed. This aspect of the film feels a little tired, though the fleshing out of the Ringu-like idea that watching these tapes can somehow be harmful, is an interesting one, and one that will no doubt be expanded upon in further instalments.
The first of the short films is also the weakest. “Phase I Clinical Trials” follows a man who, after having experimental surgery to repair a damaged eye, finds, to his horror of course, that he can see the dead. While this segment features the novel idea of presenting everything from the protagonist’s point of view (there’s a camera in his eye to help surgeons perfect their procedures), it doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before. While trying to make sense of his new ability, Herman (director Adam Wingard) befriends a strange girl who, thanks to a similar operation on her ear, can hear the dead, and is menaced in his plush home by bloodied spectres who wish him harm. A few jolts and one incredibly creepy shot revealing someone, or something, lying under a blanket on the bed, fail to inject much originality into this rather rudimentary tale of science-gone-wrong.
Given his penchant for lo-fi, suggestive chills, Eduardo (The Blair Witch Project, Lovely Molly) Sánchez’s entry, “A Ride in the Park”, is an unexpected departure for the director. Depicting a zombie apocalypse from the perspective of a cyclist in a sunny forest — everything captured by a camera on his helmet — this entry hits the ground running and perfectly balances humour, shock and pathos as he is attacked and transformed into a marauding, flesh-hungry ghoul who joins the ranks of similarly inclined cadavers stumbling through the woods. Large-scale slaughter ensues when they happen upon a birthday party, but this is quickly reined in when our hapless cyclist ‘pocket dials’ his girlfriend and seems to recall his prior life, ending “A Ride in the Park” on a strangely heartfelt note.
One of the stronger entries is the immensely unsettling “Safe Haven”, which charts the nightmarish demise of a documentary film crew as they are invited into the compound of a weird religious cult in Indonesia. Quickly establishing the precarious dynamics within the crew, directors Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto soon get down to the business of unsettling us by creating a queasy and cold atmosphere, and a story peppered with clues regarding the nihilistic denouement. The bleak sets, utter subservience of the cult members and the unwavering intensity of their leader all feed into the blunt brutality of “Safe Haven”, with its later uncompromising depictions of mass suicide and diabolical occurrences. Much like Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night of the Demon, “Safe Haven” is slightly hampered, but only just, with a full-on reveal of the demon at the climax. What it utters while gazing down upon the last survivor is quite unexpected, but this doesn’t undo the impact of this morbidly compelling and really quite upsetting segment.
The last and arguably best segment comes courtesy of Jason (Hobo with a Shotgun) Eisener. The title “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” tells you pretty much everything you need to know; this is a fun and cheeky entry, but when the titular aliens show up, Eisener and co. turn everything upside down and what we end up with is an intense and eventually harrowing tale. When their free-spirited parents leave them alone for the weekend, Gary invites a group of his adolescent chums over to hang out, while older sister Jen takes the opportunity to party with her pals and get down with her beau. The anarchic and juvenile pranks of the boys are captured on video camera — usually attached to the family dog, making for a brilliantly unusual vantage point — as they constantly disrupt the sister’s attempts to get intimate with her boyfriend. We get a hint of things to come when a strange creature is glimpsed on camera while the boys are diving into the lake by the house. The eventual utter panic is effectively conveyed — again all captured on a camera attached to the dog — as their rapidly dwindling numbers are pursued around the house and the surrounding woods. The breathless climax ends on a particularly sour note.
V/H/S/2 improves on the formula established by the original film; by slim-lining the segments, and by actually featuring fewer segments, the impact is undeniable. The various tones of the individual films complement each other and ensure there are several memorable moments throughout, while the framing narrative is bland enough so as not to tarnish the impact of each story.
V/H/S/2 screens today at 9.15 p.m.