Tuesday, October 15, 2013

V/H/S 2

V/H/S 2 (2013)
Dir. Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, Garth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale
Written by: Simon Barrett, Jamie Nash, John Davies, Garth Evans & Timo Tjahjanto
Starring a bunch of blurry fuckers

Back when I reviewed the original V/H/S, I had quite a bit of hope that despite it’s inherent ugliness and horrible track record of sucking, the “found footage” gimmick could, in the hands of someone with a little imagination, be an effective tool for a different kind of horror film. I was hoping someone in that anthology would prove me right by doing something really daring and unusual with the format, you know, really innovate, show me something that wouldn’t be possible with conventional filmmaking.

Well, nobody really did that too much, there’s a few good uses of the format here and there (notably, both David Buckner and “Radio Silence” create long, immersive takes which last for basically the entire length of their shorts) but overall what you get are just the same old horror stories but a little more awkward and ugly and, in a few cases, less imaginative than you’d be able to get away with sans found footage gimmick. But, I still had fun with it; the anthology format prevents anything from overstaying its welcome too egregiously, so there’s just time to set things up, introduce one gimmick and cut to the climax before moving on. OK, so no one revolutionized horror cinema, no harm, no foul, at least there was a vampire and stuff.

Obviously, then, I came to V/H/S 2 (rushed into production in late 2012 and ready for release a few months later) with the same hope to have my mind blown, but a lower expectation that it would happen. And the sequel doesn’t disappoint, it’s pretty much the exact same shit although arguably with even lazier uses of the found footage concept, and one fucking awesome segment which we’ll get to in a minute. I’d argue that with one exception these five segments are of slightly lower quality on average than the first V/H/S, but then again there’s nothing as depressingly awful as that “Tuesday the 17” segment either. They range from watchable to excellent, so that’s gotta be worth something. Let’s break it down:

If I had this many TVs, I'd probably watch even more movies than I already do. No wonder this ended badly.

First, we got our framing story from Simon Barrett, who co-wrote and appeared in the extremely awful framing story of the original V/H/S (remember his beloved hooligan character “Steve”? Sure ya do!). He does a little better with the setup here, giving us a couple of private investigators looking into a missing college student, who, whaddayaknow, has a shitload of VHS tapes for them to watch. Although I miss the old dead guy from the first one, this couple is slightly less annoying than the punks from V/H/S 1, and it makes slightly more sense for them to watch the tapes. The setup is the least important story, of course, and if they go on to V/H/S 3 they ought to just cut it out altogether, or at least drop the found footage gimmick, because finding more reasons for two people to sit in a creepy house watching old tapes is gonna get awkward real fast.

So, after the tedious setup, we move on to the goods. The first real segment is from Adam Wingard (inconsistent director of the excretable POP SKULL, and the highly enjoyable YOU’RE NEXT). Wingard made one of the funnier, more likeable segments of ABC’s OF DEATH (Q is for Quack), and one of the worst segments of the original VHS (the framing story) so even though his story about a guy being haunted after having an experimental new eyeball installed (stolen wholesale from THE EYE) doesn’t exactly swing for the fences it’s an enjoyable trifle. The haunting stuff is pretty rote, but the short is enjoyable for Wingard’s goofy sense of humor which ensures some chuckles while still maintaining a respectable ghostly tone (you gotta at least chuckle at his blatant shoehorning of a sex scene into a movie where he’s the star). I get the feeling that Wingard isn’t exactly a deep thinker, but he does seem to be finding his voice somewhere between dark comedy and gimmicky splatterporn, and this segment pleasingly, if not especially memorably, highlights this fact.

The next logical place to take this concept, putting branding and twitter feed in-frame.

Next we have a couple old hands at found-footage clusterfuckery, Eduardo Sanchez  and Gregg Hale of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT fame (co-director and producer, respectively) returning to the fount by offering a tedious walk through the Maryland woods. This zombie-cam concept isn’t completely without it’s fleeting charms, but unfortunately the handful of funny gimmicks are few and far between, and most of the rest is just a lurching bore. Shot on a bright, sunny day in a lovely forest, this one suffers more than the other segments for being completely without an atmosphere of menace (especially since the zombie-cam approach doesn’t allow us to get a look at the actual item of interest, the zombie) or, you know, any atmosphere whatsoever. It also disappointingly chickens out of trying a real-time single-perspective approach, throwing in a few unlikely other cameras to dull the already negligible impact of the central gimmick. Too bad, because recently Sanchez has been making more imaginative and enjoyable (though still kind of ugly) stuff like SEVENTH MOON and LOVELY MOLLY. I guess it just goes to show that his best accomplishment with BLAIR WITCH wasn’t the format, but rather the film’s genuinely creepy ideas. This short needed a little more of the latter and less of the former.

It's like we're actually there!

But then, holy shit, we get Garth Evans (THE RAID: REDEMPTION) and Timo Tjahjanto (ABC’s OF DEATH’s most disturbing segment, L is for Libido) bringing us far and away the best segment of the entire series so far. It concerns a documentary crew who arrive at the headquarters of a creepy cult to look for evidence of wrongdoing, and find out a lot more than they bargained for.

This segment is unique for several reasons. First, even though it utilizes the found footage conceit all the way through, it looks pretty. The cameras are nicer, they’re not supposed to be imitating ugly VHS video noise and Evans/Tjahjanto subtly, but carefully, place them so that the image is aesthetically nice. What a good idea, I don’t know why no one thought of this before. Seems like most directors have the idea that intrinsic to the found footage concept is an ugly, chaotic aesthetic. That might be true if you’re really trying to imitate real hand-held amateur footage, but how often is that really necessary or helpful? Mostly, I think they’re just giving up a major tool for creating mood while not creating anything remotely convincing anyway, so why bother? If you’re going to make us acutely aware of the concept the whole time, it damn well better be worth the trade-off. These two directors seem to get that, and so they use the found footage not so much as a gimmick for the horror as a method of telling this particular story.

And since you brought it up, on the subject of storytelling, the other difference here is that this segment is much more a complete narrative story than any other segment in the series. That sounds odd, but it’s true; every single other segment in this entire series (with the possible exception of Ti West’s short from part 1) depicts an incident, a particular event in the lives of the people holding the camera. But the characters themselves are mostly unimportant; they’re usually drunken assholes or undefined Everymans (very few women), and their job is to experience the events the segment is depicting. Evans/Tjahjanto, though, take time to introduce the characters and set up their conflicts, then let the narrative do what stories are supposed to do: change the characters based on the place they begin (not so fast, Sanchez, changing them from alive to dead doesn’t count). This means that the fate of our documentary crew works as an interesting incident to experience, just like the other segments do, but also works on another level of telling a satisfying story. As such, it feels much more complete and satisfying than anything here, even building to a hilarious and horrifying ironic ending in the tradition of the best short fiction.

Spot the southpaw.

That brings us to the thorny issue here: this is obviously the best segment, but the things that make it good are things which we would simply expect of a classically shot and written film. The found footage angle is incorporated in extremely clever and unobtrusive ways to tell the story essentially the same way it would be told without the gimmick. What’s the advantage of using it, then? THE RAID is ten times as immediate and intense as any of these found footage shorts, and it uses conventional film techniques. Would it really be more involving and convincing if it were all shot using security footage and helmet cams? There are a few awesome first-person POV shots in this segment (which by the way is titled Safe Haven) which work splendidly to evoke an immersive nightmare, but why not just incorporate them into a normal narrative? Why bother with laboriously explaining why all the cameras are there? To their credit, Evans/Tjahjanto create an immensely confident little story which never feels awkward for having the found footage angle, but to do that they have to get enormously creative about where all the cameras are and subtly incorporate that information into the story so that you understand without being drawn out of the actual drama. That they do an amazing job at this task is commendable; that it was worth the effort is debatable.

Boy, this new Half Life game is pretty dark.

The last segment doesn’t really help settle matters. I was looking forward to this segment, since director Jason Eisener did one of my favorite films two years ago (HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) and proved that his success was not just a random fluke with his gloriously depraved segment of ABCS OF DEATH (entitled Young Buck. Think long and hard about whether you want to google that.) But using the found-footage angle for the first time proves a mixed bag for him. He offers the story of a bunch of kids under siege from alien assholes intent on abduction/probing/interbreeding, but despite achieving some admittedly hair-raising images, he feels kind of constrained by the format, particularly coming right after the masterful work by Evans/Tjahjanto. If HOBO and YOUNG BUCK are any indication, Eisener’s strongest talents lie with his ability to grotesquely exaggerate the world, burying layers of depravity in thick swaths of primary color and outrageous slapstick. Trying to recreate that as convincing amateur footage holds him back. There’s quite a bit of stylization here, but it sits uneasily with the rest of the footage and can’t quite strike the aggressive tone of his other, better work. And unlike in Safe Haven, Eisener’s good instincts for camera placement quickly seem to run afoul of his need to incorporate the camera with his characters. There’s a lot of exposition which goes into “how the camera got here” which counterintuitively brings you out of the story and makes you focus on the storytelling, instead. That’s always gonna be death for a horror film. Fortunately, the segment’s genuinely scary moments are enough to keep you paying attention. I just wish he’d tried those same sequences in a format which played to his strengths a little more.

Makes you wonder why they didn't think to shoot SIGNS like this. Was there no budget for a doggy-cam? 

All things considered, V/H/S 2 (originally titled S-VHS, by the way) is a watchable enough anthology with a few worthwhile moments in every segment and then one which is pretty fantastic. But as a case for the found footage gimmick, I don’t know that it really holds water. While there are a few moments here where the concept works nicely, they seem to be outweighed by the many times when the format seems to hold directors back from doing their best work, or worse, simply gives them licence to deliver lazy premises which rely way too heavily on the novelty of the found footage angle. Funny thing is, I think the format really has potential, it’s just that this same potential has always been there, long before “found footage” was it’s own genre. Plenty of old movies show us security footage, or hand-held images, or other POV media sources as part of their plot, they just didn’t try to film the whole thing that way. They used it for the part of the movie where it made sense, and then used more standard techniques to tell the rest of the story so they wouldn’t have to bother to find excuses as to why the protagonists were always pointing cameras at each other when discussing important plot points. Heck, even something more modern like DISTRICT 9 successfully utilizes a partially found-footage approach, giving us POV stuff when it’s gonna be cool and then abandoning it when it wouldn’t make sense anymore. Or last year’s SINISTER, which has found footage super-8 film as an important plot point, but otherwise tells its story more conventionally. Or even THE RING, which would make a good wraparound story for another VHS movie considering it’s focus on menacing audiovisual recordings. What do these successful movies have in common? They do what the majority of V/H/S shorts do: use found footage to depict a specific experience in a unique and particularly involving way. But then they put that event into a story, which is told using a different set of tools that work better for this purpose.

I’ll probably watch V/H/S-3 (V/H/SES? V/H/S 3: BETAMAX?*) when it inevitably comes for me. Both of these have been entertaining enough little vessels for a fun horror idea or two, and as an admitted sucker for horror anthologies I’m more likely to be forgiving than most would be. But really, these two films have done more to demonstrate how limiting the format is than they have made a case for it’s benefits. Even masterfully done (as in Safe Haven), it seems like the best thing the format can do is successfully mimic the natural narrative and aesthetic virtues of traditional cinematic storytelling. If this trend of found footage horror is going to continue, they’re gonna have to try a little harder to convince me this was a worthwhile artistic direction to explore. Fortunately, they’re gonna get at least one more chance this Chainsawnukah season, because when Renny Harlin makes a horror movie, you go see that horror movie. Next up: THE DEVIL’S PASS.



  • SEQUEL: Yes, to the original VHS
  • REMAKE: No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Not even close
  • BOOBIES: Yep. Thanks, Adam Wingard.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: A eyeball lost, and a guy blows up. Not sure that counts.
  • ENTRAILS? Definitely.
  • CULTISTS: Oh hell yeah.
  • ZOMBIES: Yep.
  • VAMPIRES: Not this time.
  • CURSES: Nah.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low, in theaters last year
Overall a little anemic to demand that you rush out and see, but Safe Haven by itself is a five-hook effort.

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