Released: 12 July 2013
Directors: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans, and Jason Eisener
Stars: Lawrence Michael Levine, L.C. Holt, Adam Wingard, Hannah Hughes, Jay Saunders, Oka Antara, Fachri Albar, Hannah Al Rashid, Rylan Logan, and Samantha Gracie
Two private investigators are hired to look into the disappearance of a boy and find his home deserted except for a stack of VHS tapes, each of which contain a gruesome horror story in the form of found footage depicting a man recieving an ocular implant that allows him to see ghosts, a keen biker who is turned into a flesh-hungry zombie, a film crew investigating a bizarre cult, and a violent alien abduction.
In 2012, Bloody Disgusting founder and film producer Brad Miska reached out to the directors and creative minds he had met through his website to create V/H/S (Wingard, et al, 2012), a horror anthology that was positively received at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, received mixed reviews upon release, and managed to gross $1.9 million. A sequel (originally titled S-VHS) was rushed into production in 2012 and featured an abundance of new directors and creators joining a handful of returnees from the first film. Like its predecessor, V/H/S/2 first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival before being widely released on video-on-demand and at a limited number of cinemas. The film’s $805,574 gross meant it made significantly less than the first film but, in comparison, reviews were far more positive and a poorly-received third entry followed in 2014.
As with the first film, because V/H/S/2 is an anthology film made up of a framing narrative and several short horror stories, I’m changing up my usual review format to talk about each segment individually before sharing my thoughts on the overall film.
As in the first film, V/H/S/2 features a framing narrative that allows for the film’s short stories to be told; “Tape 49” (Barrett) follows Larry (Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), two unscrupulous private investigators who are hired by a concerned mother to check on her son, Kyle (Holt), who has been missing for a few days. When they arrive at the college kid’s house, they find it to be deserted; stacks of VHS tapes are piled up everywhere and Kyle’s laptop has been left recording a video. Kyle’s video log shows him discussing his obsession with the tapes and, while Larry searches the rest of the house, Ayesha checks out some of the tapes. After each short, the film cuts back to Ayesha, who comes to be physically affected by what she has watched (which, according to Kyle, must be viewed in a certain order to have the greatest effect) and is unaware that she is being stalked. Eventually, Larry comes in the room to find Ayesha has killed herself with a bullet to the head but she returns to attack him as a zombie after he watches the final film. Though he’s able to fight her off, Larry ends up being strangled to death by Kyle, who attempted to kill himself on camera to make his own tape and ended up blowing his entire lower jaw off in the process! Regardless, he delivers a thumbs up, indicating that he succeeded in his goal.
The first short story is “Phase I Clinical Trials” (Wingard), which puts a unique spin on the first-person, found footage concept by telling its story through an ocular implant inserted into Herman’s (ibid) head to replace his eye. Though disturbed to find that his every moment will be recorded throughout the trial period, Herman has little choice but to accept the restrictions that come from the implant, which Doctor Fleischer (John T. Woods) explains may also be accompanied by some “glitches”. After arriving home, Herman is spooked to find his game controller moved while he goes to make some tea, the kettle knocked from the stove when he leaves the kitchen, an invisible figure laying in his bed, and a bloodied phantom (Brian Udovich) who gives him a fright. The bloody man is joined by an unsettling child (Corrie Lynn Fitzpatrick) and the two terrify Herman, banging on his bathroom door and forcing him to sleep in the bathtub out of fear. The next day, he finds his house has been ransacked by the ghouls and is visited by Clarissa (Hughes), who received a similar implant to restore her hearing and, like Herman, has been tormented by ghosts ever since. Clarissa believes that removing the implants would simply take away their ability to perceive them and that the spirits grow stronger the more they are interacted with. Although she tries to use sex to take his attention away from the disturbing spirit of her uncle (John Karyus), who it’s implied assaulted her in the past, she’s dragged into his pool and, despite his best efforts to save her, is drowned by a particularly malevolent, invisible entity. Desperate to make the ghosts go away, Herman uses a razor to slice out his implant, however this only leaves him blind to their presence and allows them to easily overwhelm him and choke him to death with the same device.
“A Ride in the Park” (Sánchez and Hale) follows keen cyclist Mike Sullivan (Saunders), who affixes a camera to his helmet and his handlebars before going for a morning cycle through the woods. Almost immediately, however, he runs across a hysterical girl (Bette Cassatt) who begs him to help her boyfriend; seeing that the poor bloke has been set upon by shambling, flesh-hungry zombies, Mike tries to escape with the girl but she pounces on him and tears a chunk out of his neck. Bleeding profusely, Mike staggers through the woods and begins vomiting the same black blood as the girl before collapsing and choking to death. When another couple of cyclists come across him, Mike reanimates and attacks the man (Dave Coyne), ripping open his cheek and then taking a bite out of his female companion (Wendy Donigian), who also becomes a zombie and joins Mike in devouring her former lover. When the male cyclist also reanimates, the three stumble through the woods and attack a child’s birthday party, biting many of the terrified guests and creating more zombies in the process. In a tragic and horrifying twist, Mike is momentarily subdued when he catches sight of his reflection and regains some small semblance of his humanity when he accidentally pocket dials his girlfriend, Amy (Devon Brookshire). Distraught at the monster he has become, Mike uses the last of his senses to shoot himself in the head with a discarded shotgun.
Easily my favourite of the film’s stories is “Safe Haven” (Tjahjanto and Evans), which depicts a film crew – comprised of interviewer Malik (Antara), his fiancée and producer Lena (Rashid), his best friend Adam (Albar), and cameraman Joni (Andrew Suleiman), all of whom are wired with hidden cameras and microphones – investigating a mysterious cult known as Paradise Gates, who are very secretive and mistrustful of outsiders. Lena is able to convince the cult’s leader, known only as “Father” (Epy Kusnandar), to permit them entrance to his compound so that they can produce a fair and accurate report that challenges the slander and rumours surrounding the cult. Once inside, they find bizarre symbols and effigies adorning the walls and that the cult worships Father and his teachings of immortality and providence; several children are present on the grounds, all of whom are heavily indoctrinated in Father’s teachings, and it’s heavily implied that the girls have been subjected to their leader’s sexual appetites. While Malik interviews Father, who vehemently defends his religion and his actions while condemning wider society for their ignorance, Lena reveals to Adam that he’s the father of her unborn child right before Father issues a command over the intercom that incites widespread suicides throughout the compound. In the chaos, Adam discovers a woman in the compound’s basement who has been strapped to an operating table and had her womb carved out, Father cuts Joni’s throat with a Stanley Knife for interrupting him, and Malik is executed on Father’s followers. Lena finds herself abducted by woman in surgical attire and, when Adam goes to rescue her, he’s rocked by an explosion, is disturbed to see a man crawling across the ceiling, and watches as the bloodstained Father explodes in a shower of gore. As demonic chanting and an air raid siren fill the air, Adam finds Lena being restrained by wailing, possessed nurses but can only watch as a grotesque horned demon not unlike Baphomet forces its way from her stomach! Fleeing in terror, Adam fights his way past the reanimated cultists and races away in his car; however, the demon pursues him and forces him off the road, spilling him out of the vehicle and driving him to maniacal insanity as it utters a single, gruesome word: “Papa”.
The film ends with another strong tale, “Slumber Part Alien Abduction” (Eisener), in which brothers Gary (Logan) and Randy (Cohen King) attach a miniature camera to their Yorkshire Terrier, Tank (Riley Eisener), to film their fun and games at their lakeside house. The boys delight in tormenting their older sister, Jen (Gracie), and her friends while their parents are away and are so caught up in their adolescent antics that they fail to notice a grey alien lurking beneath the lake and an ominous, deafening noise when they play a prank on Jen and her boyfriend, Zack (Jeremie Saunders), as they’re trying to have sex. Similarly, they also fail to pay much attention to a mysterious light show out over the lake but their tomfoolery is soon violently interrupted by the blaring noise, the power cutting out, and the presence of disturbing grey aliens outside their house. The monstrous beings grab the group, seal them in their sleeping bags, and try to drown them in the lake, with only Gary, Randy, Jen, and Tank surviving. Fleeing towards the strobing red and blue lights, they realise all too late that they’re running towards a trap rather than police assistance and both Jen and Randy are violently taken when Tank inadvertently attracts the aliens. Although Gary tries to flee with Tank up a ladder in the barn, they are ensnared by the aliens’ tractor beam and, in a distressing finale, Tank plummets to the ground and lies whimpering and dying as his family are abducted into the unknown.
The first thing you’ll notice about V/H/S/2 is the upgrade in camera quality; while there is still an abundance of nausea-inducing shaky cam, the quality of the picture and sound is much improved over the original. Next, there is a far more unique use of the camera perspective compared to the first film, which only really did something different with one of its stories; the ocular implant (which continues to show us the disturbing imagery even after Larry’s removed it), Mike’s helmet camera, using a film crew, and placing a small camera on a dog all allow for far more natural shots as I find the biggest issue with found footage films to be the believability that someone would hang onto a video camera during moments of chaos. The shorts also seem a bit longer this time and far more visceral and terrifying, and it’s pretty clear there the budget was slightly higher than in the last film (even if I wasn’t able to find out what the film’s budget actually was).
As much as I enjoyed the original film, I found that I was more engaged and unsettled by each short story on offer in V/H/S/2. Additionally, the film brings a few unique ideas to tried-and-tested clichés through its found footage presentation; I’ve never seen a zombie film framed from the infected’s perspective quite like this, for example, and it’s deeply disturbing to see Mike succumb to his bite and return to unlife, feasting on the flesh of the living, and witness first-hand the degradation of his humanity into ravenous hunger and the tragic spark of his personality that drives him to end his monstrous existence. Even shorts that present recurring ideas in horror and science-fiction are given an unnerving slant thanks to the direction and presentation of the stories; “Phase I Clinical Trials” isn’t the first time the “haunted implant” story has been told but the presentation of the spirits as vengeful, malevolent phantoms really adds an extra punch to the story and we’ve all seen alien abduction films before but rarely are grey aliens depicted so monstrously. Roaring, clutching, and clawing at their prey, and constantly accompanied by blinding lights and ear-splitting sounds, the greys are at their most horrific and seeing them mercilessly abduct the children and cause the painful and heart-wrenching death of their dog is particularly unnerving.
As I mentioned, though, my favourite piece of the film is “Safe Haven”. This one may put off many viewers since not only is much of it told through the use of subtitles but it touches upon uncomfortable themes of suicide, maniacal cults, and Satanic imagery. Still, the short is easily the most bloody and visceral of V/H/S/2 and its predecessor; while the goat-headed, winged demon is easily the short’s most impressive and ambitious effect, “Safe Haven” also includes zombies, heads and faces being blown off, a man being blown to pieces, and women being torn apart from the inside out. For fans of blood and gore, “Safe Haven” is a definite standout but, for me, it’s the unsettling imagery of the demon itself and the implications of the story that cause this piece to have the most impact. “Phase I Clinical Trials” and “Slumber Part Alien Abduction” are equally impactful but in different ways; making copious use of jump scares, loud noises, and lingering shots of disturbing monstrosities, these two definitely make an impression, meaning that “Tape 49” and “A Ride in the Park” are left as the film’s weakest entries (and even those are bolstered by a unique camera perspective and visceral gore).
Although I feel like I prefer V/H/S/2 overall compared to its predecessor, it’s difficult for me to favour one over the other as there are short stories in the first film that I enjoy quite a lot. Generally, I prefer to watch the two as a double feature, thereby experiencing the best that each has to offer, but it’s hard to deny that the presentation and visuals are much more appealing and improved in this sequel. Everything feels much more focused and less rough around the edges, with some interesting, fun, and unique takes on the massively overdone found footage genre. Not only that, but each of the stories on offer are genuinely disturbing; even those that draw from tried and tested horror clichés are given a distinctive slant to deliver an unsettling and memorable anthology experience. Honestly, V/H/S/2 is worth it for “Safe Haven” alone but there’s plenty for horror fans of all kinds to enjoy on offer here. Again, it’s not really a film focused on characters and is more geared towards unnerving audiences, and the abundance of gore, terrifying ghouls, monstrous aliens, and ravenous zombies definitely succeeds in that regard in my opinion. I’ve heard negative things about the subsequent films in the series but I have a real soft spot for these first two, especially the second film, and I definitely recommend them to fans of independent, gory, disturbing horror films who are looking for something both a little familiar and a little different.
Are you a fan of V/H/S/2? What did you think of it, especially compared to the original, and which of the short stories was your favourite? What did you think to the way the short stories put a unique slant on familiar themes? What did you think to the ways the film made use of their found footage genre and the obvious increase in budget? Would you like to see more anthology films and which anthology show is your favourite? What horror films are you watching this month in preparation for Halloween? Whatever you think about V/H/S/2, feel free to leave a comment below or on my social media and pop back next Monday for one last anthology film before Halloween!