Thursday, February 06, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: V/H/S 2 (2013)

Back in 2012, I was one of the ardent -- and few -- admirers of the found-footage horror anthology V/H/S.

In part, I appreciated the film because each of its stories appeared to pay heed to or at least acknowledge the tantalizing idea that our modern technology -- iPhones and the like --  are not really connecting people at all, but simply making it easier for us to hurt and embarrass one another.  Today, pranks that in another age would have remained in the high school gym are instead posted on the Internet to multiply the victim’s humiliation tenfold.

Since V/H/S debuted, that self-same theme has played out in brilliant cinematic works of art such as Brian De Palma’s Passion (2013) and not-so brilliant efforts too, like Kimberly Peirce’s  woeful Carrie (2013) remake. It’s now officially part of the Zeitgeist, I’d suggest.

I’ll be re-posting my V/H/S review this afternoon for further clarification regarding this theme, but right now I want to focus on the film’s impressive sequel, which most critics seem to agree is superior to the 2012 film.

I don’t believe that I’d go that far in my praise for the sequel, if only because at this juncture viewers won’t be surprised by the very idea or structure of a found-footage anthology film.

Nonetheless, V/H/S 2 is still solid -- and occasionally masterful -- genre work.  In fact, one story in the mix -- the third, specifically -- is as wild and mad a nightmare vision as you can likely imagine.

In brief, V/H/S 2 consists of four found-footage stories, and the umbrella or wrap-around narrative which introduces them.

In this case, that umbrella narrative involves two private investigators in search of a college kid who has disappeared.  They track the missing boy down to a dark house, and inside it find piles of VHS tapes, and several television sets as well. 

On one of the tapes, the missing students warns that “watching” them could alter a percipient’s mind. Longtime horror aficionados will immediately be reminded of Videodrome (1983), here.

Even after such an ominous warning, however, the private investigators begin to review the tapes (starting with one marked “X”), and their eyes are opened to a whole new -- and horrifying -- world.

“Clinical Trials”

The first story in V/H/S 2 comes from talented You’re Next (2013) director Adam Wingard. “Clinical Trials” has been termed, by many critics, the least of the four stories in the film.  That may be an accurate assessment, but it’s a pretty scary entry nonetheless. 

In “Clinical Trials,” a young man, Herman (Wingard) receives an eye implant following a car accident.  This implant -- a camera, essentially --  records everything he sees, and sends that information back to the manufacturer.

In short order, Herman begins to see his house invaded by horrifying strangers. A visit from a deaf girl named Clarissa (Hannah Hughes) -- who has a cochlear implant -- helps to explain Herman’s unusual new vision.
Turns out he can now see dead people.  And the more he sees them, the less likely they are to leave him alone…

Although this story boasts some problems in terms of execution -- for instance it never visualizes Herman blinking or rubbing his eye (the camera) --  it nonetheless proves chilling, and leaves some matters (nicely) mysterious. 

For instance, Herman is not a particularly nice guy.  He’s a bit of a caustic bastard, in fact, and the film describes, only in brief, how he survived a car accident.  Two of the “ghosts” who later appear in his house, a father and daughter, are likely the victims of the same car accident…come back to haunt him for their murder. 

Although Hannah tells Herman that ghosts will only “haunt” you if you’ve done something bad to them, “Clinical Trials” doesn’t make a big deal out of clarification.  It lets you assemble the puzzle pieces in your mind, and I appreciate that sense of respect for the audience.

Instead, “Clinical Trials” merely hints at – literally -- an eye for an eye brand of cosmic justice, meted from beyond the grave.

In some ways, the eye camera featured in this tale also seems to double as a metaphor for the Internet or online life itself. 

Allow me to explain.  Before Herman fully gets acquainted with the implant, he seems to live a shallow but solitary existence in his expensive house.  Afterwards, however, he must confront angry strangers who force their way into his world and seem to want something from him.  He doesn’t want to see them, but they are ubiquitous.  So many of us (myself included…) live much of our waking lives online, and “Clinical Trials” seems to suggest, in some way, that once you see that “larger” world, you can’t un-see it.
The more you interact” with the ghosts, suggests Clarissa, “the more they can touch you.”  Again, this is a perfect metaphor for a life lived on Facebook, Twitter or other social networks.  The more you interact with others, the more you must interact, the more you must respond. Suddenly, you’re talking to strangers, and in a way, they are in your house, or at least your life.

I suspect that “Clinical Trials” is the most widely disliked story of V/H/S 2 in part because it features a lackluster (and wholly predictable…) ending, and in part because we have seen this kind of story many times before, in The Eye (2008), for example.

Still, I felt it was a good start to the film.

“A Ride in the Park”

V/H/S 2s second tale, “A Ride in the Park” from Eduardo Sanchez (The Blair Witch Project) and Gregg Hale is a very, very inventive switch on the popular zombie apocalypse genre picture.  For a lack of a better name, it might be called Bike Ride of the Living Dead.

The story begins with a young, athletic man riding his bike on  a mountain trail, talking to his girlfriend, Amy, on his iPhone.

The couple banters and communicates in loving fashion, and she chides him a little for his obsession with fitness and riding.  He continues to exercise, nonetheless, with a portable camera mounted to his helmet.

He begins his ride in peace, but soon comes across the wounded denizens of the park…who have apparently been bitten by zombies.  In short order, the rider -- the protagonist of the story -- is bitten himself, and becomes a zombie. 

The remainder of this story, then, is visualized from the zombie’s perspective, as he wanders the woods, attacks a child’s birthday party, and finally, must reckon with what he has become.

It has been said that there are no original stories, only original takes on old stories, and “A Ride in the Park” is a perfect example of that paradigm. In my opinion, it is absolutely brilliant to show us zombie attacks and zombie “life” from the monster’s perspective. It’s even kind of funny. Yet in the final analysis, “A Ride in the Park” works beautifully because of its denouement.  Specifically, the rider -- now a zombie -- gets a call on his iPhone from Amy, the love of his life. 

He hears her loving, concerned voice and remembers his humanity, and then finishes his existence as a zombie…with a shot gun.  When the rider blows his head off (camera still mounted to his helmet), we literally go rolling through the park grass along with his severed heat.

If the other tales in V/H/S and V/H/S 2 serve as indictments of the way we use technology to hurt each other or see things that perhaps we shouldn’t see, “A Ride in the Park” inverts and over-turns the whole premise. 

Here, at just the right moment, the phone connects the ravenous, apparently unthinking zombie to the relationship that made his life worth living.  In this case the old advertisement slogan “reach out and touch someone” is hauntingly and unexpectedly relevant to a zombie’s psyche.  In a wholly unexpected turn, “A Ride in the Park”  thus goes from being brilliantly funny and over-the-top to emotionally affecting in a profound way.

“Safe Haven”

The third story in V/H/S 2, from directors Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans, is the one that you’ll be thinking about and remembering (with a sense of fear and dread…) when the movie is finished, when you try to sleep at night. 

Horror fans know this feeling all-too-well, but I’ll describe it anyway.  There are certain movies in the genre that make you feel, even in the safety of a theater or your living room, endangered just by watching.  There’s an irrational reaction here, that just by the act of “seeing,” you’ve somehow invited the evil into your life, or at least into your head.

“Safe Haven” is one of those stories. 

It’s a nasty, brutal, sickening, graphically-violent story about a camera crew that visits a strange religious cult in the middle of nowhere.  The crew, which includes a pregnant woman, expects to get some footage for a hard-driving TV expose of the cult’s leader, named Father. 

What it gets, instead, is a close-up look at Doomsday.

“Safe Haven” is surreal, bloody, apocalyptic, and orchestrated to make you climb up out of your seat, if not your very skin. 

This segment embodies dream (or nightmare) logic to an extreme degree, and escalates into throat-tightening madness. 

I will readily confess that I don’t know for certain what “Safe Haven” really says in terms of the V/H/S franchise’s leitmotif about technology and its benefits/drawbacks, because I found myself so involved in the experience of watching it. 

All along, you wonder where it is heading, and how far it will go. 

Perhaps that last observation is the point.  We live in an age where technology can show us the most horrible and grotesque things, far beyond what we might want to see. And yet we are compelled, for some reason, not to turn away, to keep watching (just like those private eyes in the wraparound narration).

Apocalyptic in both human and inhuman dimension, “Safe Haven” is truly unforgettable, and the undisputed high point of V/H/S 2.

“Slumber Party Alien Abduction”

Jason Eisener directs the final segment in this found-footage sequel: “Slumber Party Alien Abduction.”  The story involves a group of young adolescents who take undue pleasure in pranking one kid’s sister, Jen, and recording her angry, embarrassed and exasperated responses for posterity. 

Then, one night, Jen attempts to get even, placing a camera on the family dog, Tank, so he can catch one of the boys in the act of masturbating.

In the midst of her practical joke, however, alien invaders suddenly arrive and lay siege to the house, and the teenagers.

Like “Safe Haven,” “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” is pretty terrifying.  Eisener deploys disruptive visuals and disturbing sounds to fracture moments of peace and (apparent) safety, and the leitmotif is once more, about technology.  It’s almost a Twilight Zone-type morality play, actually.  A group of kids punking their sister get the tables turned and are “punked” themselves by truly malevolent, truly diabolical entities. 

In particular, I appreciate how form mirrors content in this story.  The pranksters film several videos of the sister, Jen, in compromising positions, and the footage hops from one practical joke to the other.  It’s a catalog of them, actually.

But then, when the aliens arrive, reality itself seems to hop from one terror to another.  In a flash of light, the kids are suddenly in the water, away from the safety of the house, drowning.  After another flash of light, they’re in the woods, on the run.  In one moment, they see police cars coming, but then in another flash of light (another “cut,” as it were), the police seem gone from existence itself.

It is as though reality itself has pranked the slumber party kids.

Although I must confess that I still prefer V/H/S to its sequel by a nose, what V/H/S 2 lacks in originality it makes up for in cheekiness and downright audacity. 

This is a sequel that -- while it rehashes the structure and organizing principle of the franchise originator -- nonetheless goes for broke trying to scare the hell out of you. 

At this rate, I’m very much looking forward to V/H/S 3.


  1. There just isn't a way to explain how horrible this is. And by horrible I mean gory. There is literally blood and guts everywhere. Word to the directors, the shock value of shooting people in the head, digging an eye out of it's socket, pulling someone's intestines out, etc. loses it's impact after you done it fifty times.

    This anthology is not scary. The wraparound story and the first three stories are grotesque beyond words. If you think splattered brains, severed body parts and puking up blood make for a fright, this is for you.

    There's an abundance of shaky cam as would be expected when everything is captured first-person (or first-dog). This whole affair is like watching someone play "Call of Duty" or if you're older "Doom".

    About the stories, then. First off, forget the wraparound, it's indecipherable and lame. The first full tale is called "Phase 1" and it's about a guy who gets a bionic eye and starts seeing dead people. It's not too gory but it's loaded with jump scares which again are not scary. Overall, it's not awful but it's forgettable.

    Story number two is called "A Ride in the Park" and it features a camera mounted on a zombie. Zombies are boring. These zombies do the same thing as every other zombie does, they eat people. They do that here in typically gory fashion. And that's about it.

    "Safe Haven" seems to be the entry that many consider the high point of "V/H/S 2". It's about a cult that just happens to have their Jonestown moment as a documentary film crew is interviewing their leader. This one's not about showing you intestines and assorted innards, it's about gushing blood and splattered meat. Frightening, huh?

    Finally, a short called "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" plays out exactly like it's title suggests. This is the high point of the movie because it had a couple of subtle 'did-I-just-see-something' moments that the others did not. When the chaos happens, it's loud and frenzied but it's not a bloody mess. The shaky cam was kind of annoying because it couldn't offer a bigger picture of the otherworldly danger.

    If you are sensitive to gore, do not watch this movie. If you are okay with it, then "V/H/S 2" is a little better than the average 2013-era Horror flick.

  2. John interesting review of V/H/S/2. “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” sounds like a part of the Fourth Kind. Ever since the '70s UFOs and alien abduction stories have always been popular.