Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Cinema File #196: "V/H/S/2" Review

The original V/H/S, produced by a fleet of up and coming horror writers and directors working separately on a series of short films, is easily the best found footage horror movie of all time, which sounds more impressive than it is considering there are so few examples of the genre that even qualify as good. My enjoyment of the film owes much to the novelty of the anthology format, which serves to bypass the fatal flaw of found footage movies dating back to the Blair Witch Project, that they ultimately consist of large swaths of boring with just a few minutes of pay off at the end. Now we have the sequel, released almost a year to the day of the original in what perhaps promises to be a trend akin to the now annual Paranormal Activity movies, which in this case I welcome, because while it is not quite as good as the first one, V/H/S/2 is still very much in keeping with its predecessor and thoroughly entertaining.

The movie begins with its wrap around segment, which actually is much better than its equivalent in the previous film, at least in so far as it remembers to be a wrap around, and doesn't stop before the last segment. Though it isn't followed up on quite as much as I'd like, it seems to imply that the discovery of the old man's VHS cache last time has now morphed into an underground phenomenon apparently something like supernatural geo-cacheing, with college kids seeking out old tapes of weird crap under the belief that there is a pattern to them, only revealed when they are all watched in a certain order. Again, its not fleshed out really, but then we always have the next one for that, and at the very least it provides a more plausible reason why the people watching these tapes in the frame story keep doing so after seeing how disturbing the first one is.

The first tape is a standard ghost story called "Phase 1 Clinical Trials", and is probably the weakest segment of the film. The gimmick of why the camera is there, broadcasting from an experimental cybernetic eye, strains credulity right off the bat, and it only gets worse from there. After this we get a guy who with no prior explanation as to why attaches a camera to his bike helmet to record his morning ride, and the last segment is literally shot via a camera mounted to a dog. Even the one segment that relies on a more traditional camera set up uses a series of small chest mounted hidden ones, as if the producers decided to preemptively dismiss the question of why people don't just drop the camera by having no one ever actually carry one. On a visceral level, establishing the POV as more central to the characters works, but the logic bothered me as the film went on.

The second segment, "A Ride In The Park", is much better, representing the series' first foray into the zombie genre. I don't want to spoil exactly what the hook is, except to say that it is both (I think intentionally) funny as a concept, and so novel that I'm surprised no one has thought of it before, even though I didn't. Or maybe I have, but dismissed it as so silly it couldn't possibly work. Here, it does, and I know I'm sounding stupidly vague, but the surprise of what this segment eventually turns into is worth it. If I had one criticism I would say that it probably goes on a little too long, as once the general idea of what is happening becomes obvious, there's a lot of gratuitous gore that, while well done, could have been time spent exploring the premise a little further.

The third segment is probably the best one, most reminiscent of the non-stop insane carnage of the first film's final few minutes. Called "Safe Haven," it follows a documentary film crew attempting to interview a reclusive Indonesian cult leader from within his compound, unaware that the day they chose to film is of special significance for the group. The cult is a hodgepodge of real world references evoking Jim Jones, Heaven's Gate, The Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo, and I almost wanted it to be completely free of supernatural elements and just a creepy exploration of this deranged mindset. Unfortunately this is not the case, but even so, the result is the kind of over-the-top explosion of horror tropes that won't fail to disappoint any fan of the first movie, and with the POV element, the whole thing feels like the closest approximation of a modern day survival horror FPS, placing the viewer right in the thick of it all.

The last segment is called "Slumber Party Alien Abduction," and I'll leave it to you to guess what its all about. This is the aforementioned doggy cam one, and while it is better than that description suggests, it is only marginally more entertaining then the cybernetic eye opener (heh) due to its more intense pacing and the immediacy created by the protagonists being younger children in peril. As alien abductions go, this is probably the most intrusive and frankly rapey one I've ever seen, as the aliens seems to forget they can just beam people up to their ship until the last few minutes, and until then resort to good old fashioned breaking and entering. Still, watching this bit for all of maybe fifteen minutes, I couldn't get past the fact that it was far more fun and much scarier than the entirety of Dark Skies.

The jokey obviousness implied in the title "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" is actually illustrative of another, more structural problem I have with V/H/S/2 that even more so than the gimmicky camera thing keeps the film from surpassing the first one in my eyes. Technically, I'd say that most if not all of these segments are more well made than those in the original V/H/S, and better at doing what a horror movie is supposed to do, which is simply to be scary. And yet, aside from "A Ride In The Park" which is only unique in the context of zombie movies, none of these new installments really showcase the refreshing ingenuity of the previous ones. There is nothing like the mysterious girl in the hotel room, or the invisible killer who only appears in camera glitches. The alien segment is more tense and exciting here, but not nearly as clever or intellectually satisfying as the alien-centric short in the last one, and that's true for the film as a whole, which seems to sacrifice raw creativity for polish.

That being said, polish goes a long way to making V/H/S/2 incredibly watchable and a must see for any fan of the first movie, and really anyone who wants to see a good horror movie after so much recent crap (especially true if you've been burned by found footage in the past). We don't get anything as great as "Tuesday The 17th," but we also don't get anything as boring as "Second Honeymoon" either. Any one of these segments would play well on their own as a short film, which is probably the best praise I can give to a movie like this. Then again, I'm glad they're all together, and I can only hope this is the first of many sequels to a franchise that not only seems to be able to sustain the short turn around time of an annual schedule, but actually deserves to have one.

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