October Nightmares #8: V/H/S/2 (2013)


In my review of The Borderlands, I made the impetuous move of condemning the found footage genre. I don't recall my exact wording, but I think it was something along the lines of "found footage can take a spin class on a bicycle made of disembodied dicks." After that review, it dawned on me that I only have a problem with the format when it aspires to add verisimilitude to the film. I can think of just two types of people who champion shaky cam and unfocused framing: indie horror movie directors, and creepy stalkers who record their victims from behind a bush. Emulating amateur footage can serve to enhance a story if used as more than an artistic choice. The cameras in The Borderlands, for example, were a means in which the director was able to demonstrate the corrupting influence of an unholy presence.

The V/H/S franchise is another instance of how using a different way of filming can impact a story. As a collection of anthology films, the series takes conventional horror tropes (zombified loved ones, conniving demons, etc.) and uses the unique perspective found footage offers to conjure up something unexpected. What elevates the series above the usual dross of its ilk, is that it manages to immerse without sacrificing a thing in the name of realism. I chose V/H/S/2 over the original because of the two it felt far more willing to push the concept as far as possible. "Don't you mean of the three films, Iron?" I imagine a naive reader crying; to which there can be only one response: "Get out, and to the sixth circle of Hell with thee."

V/H/S/2 is two things: a middle finger to grammar Nazis (seriously, learn the function of the forward slash), and genre fiction at its finest. At its core, V/H/S/2 is Tales from the Darkside and Creepshow updated for a modern audience. Each director (including The Blair Witch Project's Eduardo Sánchez) brings their indelible interpretation of what, for them, makes horror work. As is usually the case, V/H/S/2 is comprised of four short films connected by a loosely related wraparound narrative. I've found that anthology collections run the risk of being largely scattershot affairs - throwing everything together and seeing what works. Worse still are those which flimsily attempt to cling to a coherent and consistent arc. Fortunately, V/H/S/2's lingering threads are connected throughout by a Cronenbergian mistrust of technology; how it can be used to propagate evil, or push us further into the vast unknown.

The wraparound begins with two private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine and Kelsy Abbott) working on a missing person's case. Upon breaking into the subject's dorm, they discover a strange configuration of TVs and stacks of videotapes, as well as a laptop continually set to record. The more astute among you will have already figured that the videotapes are plot devices; serving in the same way as the comic from Creepshow, or the flesh of Simon McNeal in Clive Barker's Books of Blood. And how convenient of the dark forces to always ensure there's enough evidence of their shenanigans for at least ten movies. I quite liked the set-up, despite being functionally identical to the previous film's framing narrative. V/H/S/2 introduces its technology in a way that feels strange and hostile, evoking comparisons to Videodrome and even The Ring. The callbacks to the wraparound, interspersed throughout, build on the oppressive tone in subtle, discomforting ways - Ayesha's increasing vacuity, the noses bleeds, and creeping shapes and shadows. It's obvious that we're building up to a macabre climax, but this is a rare example of the establishing narrative in an anthology film being genuinely gripping. 

As for the segments themselves, well...it's just like the produce of a joint butcher/pet store business, an upsetting but easily digestible mix-bag. The first one, 'Phase I Clinical Trials', is The Eye as written by E. M. Forster. Directed by series veteran Adam Wingard, Phase I sees a man receive an ocular implant to repair his damaged eye but which causes him to witness strange glitches and eventually the spirits of the dead. As set-up goes I quite liked it, the eye cam made for an interesting perspective, even if the sequence didn't really take advantage of it. I appreciate this is a short film but the build up from him receiving the eye to the arrival of the ghosts was minimal, so it missed a lot of chances for psychological ambiguity and opportunities to comment on the failings of technology. With the focus on eye-gore, I would have made the sequence about a killer contact lens. 'A Ride in the Park' is the next vignette, telling the story of a cyclist who is bitten by a zombie and then becomes one himself. From a premise as simple as sticking a go-pro camera on a zombie, the directors draw a lot of mileage from uncomfortably up-close and personal animalistic violence. I wasn't surprised to see Sánchez worked on this one: he's a master of working on things that shuffle along at a painfully slow pace and disintegrate at the end.

The final two shorts are by far the best. 'Safe Haven' sees a film crew infiltrate an Indonesian cult with the intentions of recording their activities for a documentary. At first it seems as though this is your everyday run-of-the-mill cult, you know like Scientology, but as Safe Haven progresses it becomes clear this is definitely not the case. This cult doesn't possess anything nearly as dangerous as Tom Cruise. Of all five segments, this is easily the most nuanced; creating an unsettling atmosphere of abuse and repression coupled with disturbing imagery. When the film finally does delve into full blown horror territory, we are already invested enough that it actually frightens instead of washing over us as is the case with the others. And boy does it really get going; the climax practically oozed Lucio Fulci's The Beyond. Interestingly The Raid director Gareth Evans worked on this, something that becomes apparent when observing the fluid ferocity of the violence.

Rounding out V/H/S/2 is 'Slumber Party Alien Abduction' a short that taps into the innocence of childhood adventure seen in the likes of Stand by Me and The Goonies, and combines it with Friday the 13th and Close Encounters of a Third Kind. The sparse plot depicts an alien race attacking and abducting a group of adolescents at a slumber party. Well, I hope the probing was as concise the title. But what makes the sequence appealing is how plot and special effects come together in an attempt to repeatedly misdirect the viewer. Visually Slumber Party is the most appealing short of the bunch, which is like saying of all the despotic rulers Pol Pot was the most humanitarian; but here Jason Eisener employs colourful and creative techniques in a bid to shock the characters and audience alike, and provide a notion of the foreign. The POV character here is, bemusingly, a camera-wearing dog that throws our outlook and sense of scale off balance. Forcing us to process the event how a lesser being might process it. And that, officer, is why I was pissing up a tree.