[31 May 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
For many horror fans, the found footage film was born, and quickly died, with the highly influential and often imitated Blair Witch Project. While those who followed failed to realize the real genius behind the Internet/indie smash (that is, that the actors had NO idea what was going on and were reacting, realistically, to the unusual circumstances they were thrown into), they did like the visual design of seeing everything through a first person, POV camera lens. As a result, dozens of determined filmmakers have used the style to skip such important motion picture particulars as character, narrative, or outright scares to put their version of the supernatural onscreen. Apparently, a narrowing field of vision and the possibility of something suddenly straying into your visual frame of reference is a viable substitute for suspense.
All of which makes the many delights of V/H/S/2 all the more meaningful. Yes, this is the second installment in a series which tries to meld old school technology with new school technique (more on this in a moment) and the first time around it was far more miss than hit. Still, with a sizable genre contingent desperate for something beyond the watered-down PG-13 piffle that passes for terror in the commercial movie market (as well as a couple of inspired segments), V/H/S earned a sizable cult following. If this follow-up is any indication of the quality we can expect from future installments, we can only hope the VCR-based anthology goes on indefinitely.
In the first film, a group of burglars stumble upon a creepy old house and a collection of TVs. Amongst the monitors and machines is a pile of video tapes. When watched, they reveal separate stories of mayhem and the macabre. In V/H/S/2, a pair of private detectives are sent to a missing college student’s home to find out what happened to him. They come across - you guessed it - another TV set up and a bunch of bootleg cassettes. Accessing his laptop, they learn that the boy has been seeking out these supposedly haunted videos, and that playing them in a particular order will lead to something horrifying. Naturally, while one of our PIs probes the place, the other starts randomly pawing through the collection…and pressing “play.”
The first story centers on a young man whose just had some experimental surgery. Apparently, he was in a car accident and lost the vision in one of his eyes. A new device - call it an optical camcorder implant - allows him to see again, but there is a catch. First, everything he views is recorded by the medical company for research purposes, and secondly, he starts seeing ghosts. First, there is a bloody body in his bed. Then a young girl seems to haunt his hallways. Then a angry man. Finally, a young woman shows up at his door and says she can explain what’s happening. Sadly, she may be too late.
The next tape finds a young man out on his mountain bike, ready to hit the trail before meeting up with his irritated gal pal. He runs into something he didn’t expect. Then, a camera crew travels to the site of an Indonesian cult to exam the controversial leader and the suggestions of sexual exploitation among the members. Suddenly, all Hell literally breaks loose. Finally, a group of teens are hanging out, dropping F-bombs, and videotaping various Jackass like pranks against each other. During a sleepover, a joke goes askew…and then a bright light appears in the sky, and some shadowy figures start surrounding the house.
To offer any more details would ruin V/H/S/2‘s many surprises. While a few of the segments become self explanatory very quickly (after all, we are dealing with four separate short films and some bookending material), a couple contain elements that needs to be experienced firsthand, less they lose their visceral impact. The middle two sequences are real corkers, ideas so obvious and yet so freshly configured that you can’t believe no one had thought of them before. The guys behind this entire fad gadget, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, use a Go-Pro level of interaction to watch a biker fall directly into a familiar genre outbreak. The results are resplendent, bloody and beautifully realized. Similarly, The Raid: Redemption‘s Gareth Huw Evans (along with help from Timo Tjahjanto) offers up a religious sect that becomes the playground for every demented Devil worshipping weirdness possible.
Even the final segment, which sees a bunch of irritating teens acting like morons before they confront a species who want nothing more to abduct and disappear has an amazing sense of atmosphere. The POV works really well - to a point. Unlike the recent big screen effort Chronicle, few of the filmmakers present find an inventive way of keeping the camera cranking. Sure, one imagines an ocular implant could survive the turmoil befalling its owner, even when ghosts are giving him grief, and the helmet mounted aspects of one man’s memorable bike ride make sense. But if you were in the middle of a group of men ready to commit suicide, guns cocked and aimed at their heads, would you remain ever vigilant behind the viewfinder? Or how about when unidentifiable humanoids come calling, grabbing every one of your friends and whisking them away to an uncertain end?
Luckily, because it’s so well planned out and paced, we don’t care about such concerns. Instead, V/H/S/2 does that rare thing among modern horror movies - it frightens. It terrorizes. It provides a nice level of gallows (or gory) humor and some amazingly iconic shivers. Few will forget the last act payoff of Sanchez and Hale’s piece, or the equally effective reveal when the cult is called up. Sure, the wrap around material feels overly familiar and poorly explained (the videos end up possessing people? Huh?) and some of the acting - especially among the teens in the final installment - borders on the bad. But when you consider that everyone from George Romero (Diary of the Dead) to Barry Levinson (The Bay) have tried to make the found footage format work for fear, the successes here far outweigh the weak. V/H/S/2 is a consistently terrific genre omnibus, and an excellent example of a goofy gimmick seemingly past its cinematic sell date.