Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/07/13 13:34:02

"This one's worth not recording over."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2013 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON: To call last year's "V/H/S" uneven would be generous; while it managed "pretty good" in a couple of segments, it was awful in more. Still, the good thing about commercially successful anthology films is that sequels need not be encumbered by prior entries' failings, and "V/H/S/2" is a great example of this: The new segments feel tighter, more creative, and scarier than last time, with the new filmmakers inspired to top what came before and the returnees opting to step up their game.

The opening/wraparound story - "Tape 49" by Simon Barrett - is still kind of stupid; as the premise is apparently that these VHS tapes unleash monsters and/or make their viewers homicidal just by being VHS, and for all the format's shortcomings, I think you have to be a cinematographer to have that reaction. It's more fun than last time, though - the obnoxious bros from last time out have been replaced by a co-ed team of private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine & Kelsey Abbot), and their pulpy banter is a definite step up, with the whole deal of them recording themselves watching the tapes they find actually making a reasonable amount of sense.

The first one they watch, "Clinical Trials" by Adam Wingard, has a premise borrowed from movies such as The Eye by the Pang Brothers: Guy (Wingard) is outfitted with a prosthetic eye which records everything it sees as part of its engineers' QA process, only to discover that he's now seeing things that normal people can't. Simple premise, but fun - Hannah Hughes soon pops up as a hot, sarcastic mentor figure and Wingard works plenty of good jumps and a fairly impressive escalation into the short's runtime. My biggest complaint is that it feels less like a complete short film than half a feature, stopping rather than ending just when things are starting to get good - or, alternately, getting out before Wingard has to build a boring mythology and get predictable.

Next up is "A Ride in the Park" by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez; they, you may remember, helped launch the boom in first-person horror with a little thing called The Blair Witch Project. It's built on a pretty simple gimmick: A bicyclist who has a camera in his helmet - apparently that's a thing with cyclists - happens upon an injured woman, discovers she's a zombie (fast variety), and he never turns the camera off as things run their natural course. Not a lot of plot here, but it gives the audience the sort of first-person point of view (or would it technically be second-person?) during a zombie rampage that's a bunch of fun and would be tough to fit in a more conventional feature. It's video-gamey but owns it, and has the best moment to make the viewer go "oh, no" or "heh, go for it" depending on their temperament as they watch these movies.

It's got a fair amount of gore, but the segment that delivers the most blood and guts is "Safe Haven" by Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. It takes us to Indonesia where telejournalist Adam, his producer Lena, and their camera crew go to a cult compound to do an interview with the group's leader Malik, only to find all Hell quite literally breaking loose. Evans is best known for directing Indonesian action movies Merantau and The Raid, and this is definitely the action-horror entry, with lots of people/things to hack through for both sides. It's not just a brute-force gore attack, though, I repeat, there is plenty of that, Evans & Tjahjanto build a short that goes from tense to creepy to messy in a short time, including a plot twist or two, without ever seeming rushed. It's the best part of the movie and even for festival-goers, probably one of the best horror shorts we'll see all year.

So Jason Eisner's "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" can't help be a bit of a let-down, but the mess it winds up being is truly disappointing. It's got the most frustrating, shaky, hard-to-follow camerawork of any of the segments, and it certainly starts out as a throwback to the first V/H/S by mainly being populated by fairly obnoxious characters who, by and large, don't really use the extended getting-to-know-you time before the horror elements start in earnest to distinguish themselves. It's got a few good moments while the potential monsters outside the house are hidden, but once attacks start in earnest and the baddies are in plain sight, it's not meeting its potential.

Still, a single disappointment and a skeleton that is merely okay is a big upgrade over "V/H/S". "V/H/S/2" (originally called "S-VHS", although how you can resist calling the second film in this series "Beta" is something I can't figure) is an entertaining horror anthology even if you don't compare it to its predecessor, enough to make the possibility of a third entry surprisingly welcome.

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