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Dustin Putman

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V/H/S/2  (2013)
3 Stars
Directed by Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Huw Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Adam Wingard.
Cast: Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsey Abbott, Adam Wingard, Hannah Hughes, Jay Saunders, Dave Coyne, Wendy Donigian, Fachry Albar, Hannah Al-Rashid, Epy Kusnandar, Oka Antara, Andrew Lincoln Suleiman, Riley Eisener, Rylan Logan, Samantha Gracie, Cohen King Josh Ingraham, Jeremie Saunders.
2013 – 96 minutes
Not Rated (equivalent of NC-17 for pervasive graphic violence and gore).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, June 7, 2013.
When "V/H/S" was released in select theaters and on Video On Demand in September 2012, there was reason to celebrate: not only had a new independent horror franchise been born, but so had an all-but-forgotten genre staple: the anthology. A compilation of short films shot in POV style, each one by an up-and-coming filmmaker, the initial round of tales were tonally all over the place, but such diversity was part of the fun. Though some were better than others (my favorite: Ti West's unnerving, unforgettable slow-burn "Second Honeymoon"), all were solid, recalling a bit of the anything-goes thrill that viewers must have felt when 1982's anthological granddaddy "Creepshow" first came out. With a movie like "V/H/S" relying on a grab-bag mentality, it was, indeed, true that a series could easily be made from it. When it came to storylines, the sky was the limit. The only seeming rule: make it scary.

For "V/H/S/2," a fresh wave of directors get their shot at tweaking first-person narratives while taking ready and willing audiences on a tour of what's really, really scary. Though the wraparound segment, titled "Tape 49" and directed by Simon Barrett (co-writer of 2013's "The ABCs of Death"), is decidedly flimsy until the whopper of an ending, the meat of the film—the four central shorts—are altogether more inventive and less notably uneven that those in its predecessor. The initial premise of two private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsey Abbott) hired to get to the bottom of a young man's disappearance leads them to an eerily abandoned house filled with buzzing televisions and stacks of VHS tapes. As they put each tape in and watch it, they are drawn deeper into the mystery of what happened to the home's MIA resident. Until the payoff, these scenes are weak sauce and more than a little nonsensical—why would one of them call for help in an abandoned house?—but fortunately they don't last long. The rest of the shorts in between are of a very high order.

Kicking things off is "Phase I Clinical Trials," directed by Adam Wingard (2011's "A Horrible Way to Die"), wherein a single guy named Herman (Adam Wingard, doing double-duty on both sides of the camera) receives an artificial eye implant that also poses as a camera, recording his field of vision. All is well until he returns home and almost right away is terrorized by the dead people he sees lurking like specters around every corner. This short is positioned like a funhouse ride, an increasing sense of dread broken up by spooky things popping out. Conventional "boo!" moments in movies can grow old fast, but this one earns every startle and recoil—of which there are many.

The second story finds a way to reinvent the zombie subgenre just when it might be fair for a person to believe there were no unexplored avenues left to go down. "A Ride in the Park," from Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale (director and producer, respectively, of 1999's "The Blair Witch Project"), sees a bicycler's (Jay Saunders) would-be peaceful ride through a wooded park go downhill fast when he is attacked by an infectious outbreak of the undead. With a camera attached to his helmet, his transformation from man to zombie after getting bitten is both creepy and twistedly funny, leading to a cannibalistic appetite and the crashing of a little girl's birthday party. Directors Sánchez and Hale approach their POV style with real creativity and resourcefulness; is it any wonder they were responsible for the one that practically started it all, "The Blair Witch Project?"

If the aforementioned pair of shorts are scary but lighthearted, "Safe Haven," directed by Gareth Huw Evans (2012's "The Raid: Redemption") and Timo Tjahjanto (2013's "The ABCs of Death"), aims to downright disturb while traveling down an unremittingly bleak tunnel into hopelessness. When a group of documentary filmmakers (among them, Fachry Albar and Hannah Al-Rashid) are invited back to a religious cult leader's (Epy Kusnandar) Borneo compound for an exclusive interview, things take a turn for the worse when the followers go all Jonestown on them. Where things lead from there is best left to be discovered, but it's certainly an experience where no holds are barred and images of an unthinkably graphic, phantasmagoric nature ensure this won't be passing the MPAA's sights with an R rating.

The best is arguably saved for last. Helmed by Jason Eisener (2011's "Hobo with a Shotgun"), "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" mixes the seat-jumping frights of the former two shorts with the more harrowing tone of the latter as a group of kids left home alone by their parents are terrorized by an alien invasion. Shot mostly from the point-of-view of the family dog, decked out with a small cam attached to its head, this story never stops moving as it assuredly plants the viewer permanently on the edge of his or her seat. Dexterously menacing creature designs, impeccably innovative cinematography, and docu-real performances from a cast of natural young actors are all present and accounted for in this new festively breathless sci-fi/horror mini-classic.

If "V/H/S" got things off to a strong start, "V/H/S/2" steadies its footing while one-upping the original. The interlaced "Tape 49" leaves something to be desired, so thank goodness it takes up no more than about ten minutes of screentime interspersed in tinier chunks throughout. Where "V/H/S/2" works its grisly magic is where it truly counts, the quartet of micro-movies consistently surprising with stylistic ingenuity and storytelling elegance. Never afraid to journey into the blackest of hearts, the filmmakers involved in "V/H/S/2" have given the project their best shot, and it shows. The truth is out there, all right, and horror buffs officially have another good reason to stay at home, curled up in the dark in front of the television on a Friday night.
© 2013 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman