In my review of last year’s found-footage anthology, V/H/S, I claimed that the film benefited from being watched alone, in the middle of the night, in an empty apartment. I stand by that statement, but V/H/S/2, the film’s lighter, trimmer sequel is meant to be experienced with an audience.
I saw the film at its New England premiere as part of the Independent Film Festival of Boston and the audience was humming as the credits rolled. Eavesdropping on my way out of the theater, the phrase on everyone’s lips seemed to be: “SO much better than the first one!” and I have a feeling that that’s going to be the central idea of most reviews in the coming months, but it’s not one that I unreservedly agree with.
Well, maybe that’s not true. I do think I enjoyed V/H/S/2 much more than the first film, it’s a great anthology film, one of the best in recent memory (possibly even a contender for the “All-Time” label), but why it works so well is a more complicated answer than “it’s better than the first one.”
Although the structure and set-up are similar on paper, V/H/S/2 feels very different from its predecessor. Tonally, there’s a lot more humor in this film and that’s one of the main reasons this is more of a crowd-pleaser. Gone is the dour ambiguity of some of last year’s segments, replaced this time with wit and (in some of the most unlikely places) warmth. While V/H/S tried (and I would argue, succeeded) to unsettle with droning, languorously “experimental” wrap-around stories, V/H/S/2 provides us with a single wrap-around with a straight-forward plot with two characters on a clearly-defined mission (scripted and directed by Simon Barrett).
At nearly thirty minutes shorter, most of the last film’s “dead air” is gone. It was an aspect I criticized in the first one, but also a necessary component in establishing the creeping dread and “oh crap, this is really happening” feeling the found footage genre usually trades in. With the sequel, the shock quotient is similar despite its tighter runtime but the stories themselves now hew a little goofier.
Not only are the stories more cohesive (each has a beginning, middle and end and none of them feel like the setup for a one-off gag), but they also fit more neatly into specific sub-genres. There’s a ghost story (Adam Winegard’s “Clinical Trials”), an alien abduction story (Jason Eisner’s “Alien Abduction Slumber Party”) and even a zombie story (Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale’s “A Ride in the Park”), and all of them offer worthy twists on their formulas, some of the twists originating from framing them as found footage, some of them coming from the stories themselves.
Last September I talked about the “curse of the anthology”, the problem that there are always going to be stories that outshine others, but V/H/S/2 is the only anthology film I can think of that doesn’t suffer from this. Every time I try to pick a favorite or rank them, I remember a great moment from one of the other films and have to re-shuffle my list.
If I were forced to pick a favorite, I couldn’t but Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” and Eisener’s “Alien Abduction” would be in a dead heat. Evans directed The Raid: Redemption and “Haven” is a huge departure from the martial arts genre, but just as kinetic and thrilling.
The most complete of all the segments, “Safe Haven” is a strange religious cult yarn that is equal parts chilling and ludicrous, walking a tonal tightrope that had the audience screaming one moment and guffawing the next. It’s packed with evocative images and a great ending, so much so that it feels like “Safe Haven” could be expanded into a feature film without losing any of its impact. The audience would gladly spend an hour and a half in this bizarre world.
I believe “Alien Abduction Slumber Party” is Jason Eisener’s first film that doesn’t employ the faux-grindhouse aesthetic (he’s the man behind “Treevenge” and Hobo with a Shotgun) and it’s such a powerful, controlled film that it forced me to reconsider this director. The most literally-titled of the films, “Alien Abduction Slumber Party” is about a suburban slumber party crashed by an alien invasion.
In such a limited amount of time, Eisener establishes his teenage protagonists as they torment their older sister, swear like pint-sized sailors, and just generally act like the most believable young people to grace a horror movie in eons. The set-up is so funny and endearing that once the horror kicks in (and it does in a big way) you’re intensely rooting for these kids (and their cameraman/dog).
V/H/S/2 should be having a theatrical run sometime in the near future and I can’t recommend seeking it out enough. Get some friends together, have a low-key evening watching the first one before you head out to the theater, and allow the sequel to leave you on a laughing, squirming high-note.
My only criticism: S-VHS was a much better title, but I see why they changed it. Although the “Who’s Tracking You?” tagline is a pretty good consolation prize.