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V/H/S was an interesting experiment: gather up some of indie-horrors ‘biggest names’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and have them make a series of found-footage shorts. The final film was a surprisingly misogynistic, mostly mumblegore mixed bag that was more forgettable than memorable. Other independently-produced, but well-advertised horror anthologies, namely The Theatre Bizzare and The ABCs of Death, were similarly disappointing (though not bad) mélange, leading me to believe that perhaps the multi-director formula just wasn’t a reliable way to make consistently good movies and adjusted my expectations accordingly when V/H/S/2 (originally titled S/V/H/S) was released a year later.

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The framing device narrative, titled Tape 49, was written and directed by Simon Barrett, the series’ producer and writer of two of the first film’s episodes ( Tape 56 and The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger). V/H/S’s wraparound segment was more of an impressionistic piece, but, this time, there’s a more tangible storyline. Two young private investigators, Larry (Lawrence Michael Levine) and Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott), are sent to privately investigate the disappearance of a college student. At the boy’s home, they discover a pile of VHS tapes, which Ayesha watches while Larry investigates the rest of the house. Spoiler: it doesn’t end well for them.

On the first tape, Ayesha finds Phase 1 Clinical Trials, directed by Adam Wingard and written by Barrett. In this short, a man named Herman (Wingard) has his injured eye replaced with an experimental robotic one that records everything he sees for ‘research purposes.’ Soon after the implant, he begins to see malicious ghosts. There’s something to be said for starting an anthology with its weakest episode. Ideally, the quality and intensity should probably build as the compendium unfolds. Unfortunately, Phase 1 Clinical Trials isn’t just a traditionally ‘soft’ opening act – it’s also the only one of the shorts I didn’t like and an unfortunate return to the first film’s most pervasive problems. I suppose it is more creative and, technically speaking, more accomplished than most of V/H/S’s shorts, but it repeats the same lazy, arcless storytelling that made the original so weightless and forgettable. Wingard and Barrett cook up a cool concept and just sort of give up on it, seemingly assuming that if they throw enough discordant imagery and spooky sounds at the screen the audiences won’t notice. Some of the startle scares stick, but overall, Phase 1 Clinical Trials starts things off on a disappointing foot. Wingard is still a winner in my book, though, because his other 2013 release, You’re Next, was fantastic.

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Things pick up considerably with tape two, A Ride in the Park, directed by Blair Witch Project filmmakers Eduardo Sánchez & Gregg Hale, and co-written by Sánchez’ frequent collaborator, Jamie Nash. Here, a man (Jay Saunders) boards his bike for a little exercise, but his ride is cut short when he is attacked by zombies. Bitten, the man turns into a zombie himself and his helmet-mounted camera captures all the flesh-eating action. It seems fitting that the guys that reinvigorated the found-footage subgenre should finally invigorate the V/H/S series with a simple, straightforward, entirely mainstream-friendly episode. The Blair Witch Project name (along with everything Sánchez has made since 1999) might lead one to assume that A Ride in the Park would be a languid little journey, but this episode defies expectations with an unbroken burst of energy that ends on a startlingly somber and even touching final note. Sánchez & Nash’s concept isn’t exactly groundbreaking – we already have plenty of found-footage horror movies, thank you very much – but the execution is awesome without being show-offy. The helmet-camera-chaos is contained just enough to ensure the audience can discern the (extremely) gory details. A Ride in the Park is pretty funny, perfectly brief, and ends long before the concept has worn out its welcome.

With the possibilities for improvement established, we move on to tape three, Safe Haven, co-directed by The Raid’s Gareth Evans and co-directed/written by ABCs of Death writer/director Timo Tjahjanto ( L is for Libido). This tape features a news team (Hannah Al Rashid, Fachry Albar, Oka Antara, and Andrew Suleiman) infiltrating an Indonesian cult with hidden cameras. But, during their cover interview of the cult’s enigmatic leader (Epy Kusnandar), the plan starts to go awry. Safe Haven isn’t only the best and most ambitious of all the shorts throughout V/H/S and V/H/S/2 – it’s probably among the best found-footage horror films I’ve ever seen. At the same time, the comparison is sort of a false equivalency, because Evans & Tjahjanto don’t really follow the same ‘rules’ the other shorts do. Safe Haven is the longest episode in the series and the most complete from a storytelling standpoint. The audience isn’t dropped into a situation and forced to divine narrative meaning we’re given a specific batch of details that establish the danger and set the tension, then all hell breaks loose. Safe Haven cleverly modernizes/streamlines Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust formula and unleashes a genuinely terrifying series of events that capture a level of reality not seen in many other found-footage horror flicks. It turns into a veritable grab-bag of horror clichés, but they serve the purpose of Evans’ greater mosaic. Sometimes the swishing first-person camera and the catacombs-like setup of the cult’s homestead feel a little ‘video-gamey,’ but I’m not sure the comparison can be avoided for any action-based, largely POV-shot movie.

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The most curious thing about watching A Ride in the Park and Safe Haven right in a row is that one would assume that the directing teams were switched. You’d probably expect the guy behind The Raid to make something as vivacious and simplified as A Ride in the Park, just as you’d assume that the Blair Witch Project filmmakers would make their mark with a moodier take on ‘documentarians in the wrong place at the wrong time’ recipe they’d had so much success with. The only things that Safe Haven and A Ride in the Park really have in common with their makers’ more famous features are their general locations (Indonesia and the forest).  Even if V/H/S/2 hadn’t improved on its predecessor in overall quality, these kinds of unpredictable choices would at least make it more interesting.

Safe Haven is great, but such a self-contained episode is probably not the best place to end an anthology. We need a palate cleanser, which brings us to the final tape, Alien Abduction Slumber Party, co-written and directed by Hobo with a Shotgun and ABCs of Death ( Y is for Youngbuck) maker Jason Eisener and co-written by John Davies. The finale follows a group of kids and teens as they play cruel pranks on each other. Their fun is cut short when aliens invade. Alien Abduction Slumber Party is a good way to cap things off and is every bit as colourful and punchy as Eisener’s other movies, but it also takes a small step back into the story-lite, chaotic mash-ups of the first film. In Eisener’s defense, he’s following the ‘rules’ as he understood them and keeps it simple and anchored to the found-footage gimmick. It’s also very well put together in terms of supplying the audiences with exactly as much expositional information as they need to follow the otherwise disorganized images. The final effect isn’t exactly frightening, but certainly assaultive in the right way. Despite the dynamic sound design, this one may have worked better as a music video, like Y is for Youngbuck. I’d also like to note that there’s no overlap in camera rigging between the four parts of the anthology (not including the framing device) – Phase 1 Clinical Trials features an eyeball camera, A Ride in the Park features a helmet-mounted camera, Safe Haven features a traditional human-mounted camera and a tiny camera mounted inside a button hole, and Alien Abduction Slumber Party features a dog-mounted camera. It’s kind of neat, at least on a trivial level.

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Video


It’s petty and pedantic of me, but I am vaguely vexed when I realize that the V/H/S movies weren’t shot on VHS video. If I was reasonable, I’d realize that the effect would be ugly on the big screen, Blu-ray, and even DVD, but I’m not, so part of me hopes that V/H/S/3 is entirely made up of ‘80s period pieces that were shot and edited on video tape. Anyway, V/H/S/2 is presented in full 1080p, 1.78:1 video and is a generally sharper and more consistent movie than its predecessor, due in no small part to the fact that the filmmakers didn’t try to ‘dirty up’ their footage with artificial print damage. The shorts were all shot digitally, using a variety of digital formats (including Red Epic and the itty-bitty GoPro), all of which are technically 1080p capable.

Tape 49 is the most verite of the episodes. Its images are all quite noisy, fuzzy, and general artefact-filled. The colour and detail quality changes, depending on which of the various hand-held cameras are being used – one is a bit sharper, but has weak colours, another (clearly a Canon) has stronger colors but weaker refresh rates, etc. Phase 1 Clinical Trials is filmed with a top-of-the-line Red Epic standing in for the story’s fictional camera-eye. The image is crisp and natural without a lot of harsh contrast or vivid hues. There isn’t an excessive amount of noise, but there are some banding effects. A Ride in the Park was shot mostly with the helmet-mounted GoPro. It has a fish-eye effect and does that digital focus thing that makes the image appear to pulse. The colours are lush and the higher contrast leads to stronger white and black levels. Details are mostly sharp, but limited by the camera’s shallow focal length. Safe Haven is the most traditionally shot of the pieces, including footage from straight hand-held/shoulder-mounted cameras, a little spycam, and some grainy black and white security cam shots. The bulk of the footage is clean with even focus, consistent details, and minimal compression artefacts. Like Phase 1 Clinical Trials, the colours are mostly muted and natural. The spycams feature heavier contrast levels and more banding effects. Alien Abduction Slumber Party is the roughest looking of the major episodes. Eisener embraces the digital artefacts and limitations, including some edge enhancement and jaggie effects along the sharper edges. Like A Ride in the Park, this episode is a bit fish-eyed and features more vibrant colours.

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Audio


When they do make my hypothetical, period-set, all video-shot V/H/S sequel, it will feature the muddiest, most awkwardly separated analogue stereo track you’ve ever heard, but, until then, we’ll have to settle for V/H/S/2’s pristine DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Like the video, the audio design and sound qualities changes up from short to short. Tape 49 is a mostly centered affair and most of the basic audio was clearly recorded via the camera’s microphone. These are augmented with understated effects throughout the other channels. Phase 1 Clinical Trials takes place within the main character’s head, so the sound design is a bit more subjective. Directional effects are constantly employed to support the illusion. This includes more subtle nods, like objects falling in the other room, and lead into the more aggressive, electronic scare stings and ghostly moans. A Ride in the Park is another mostly centered mix, besides some music at the very beginning of the piece and a couple of stereo gags. Safe Haven is also mostly dialogue-heavy and centered, but steadily builds in aural intensity, eventually engaging the stereo and surround channels. First, the sounds of the cult leader’s broadcasts can be heard more distinctly in the stereo channels, then spooky abstractions and a disembodied voice lurch into the rear speakers and, eventually, directional effects come into play. Alien Abduction Slumber Party also begins in the center channel and is considerably more muted than the other shorts. The limitations are then contrasted with the overwhelming, five channel blare of the alien space sound (whatever it is) and an increase in directional momentum.

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Extras


The extras begin with a composite commentary track, culled from four different recording sessions. The first part features Barrett & Wingard discussing the wraparound and Phase 1 Clinical Trials, Sánchez & Hale discussing A Ride in the Park, Evans & Tjahjanto discussing Safe Haven, and Eisener, producer Rob Cotterill, & writer John Davies discussing Alien Abduction Slumber Party. The information is unraveled hard and fast with very little down time. Subject matter includes the convoluted connections between the wraparounds in both movies, story conceptualization, technical processes, deleted scenes, and, in the case of Alien Abduction Party, the autobiographical aspects of the short.

Up next are a series of brief behind-the-scenes featurettes – Tape 49 Rewind (1:40, HD) with Barrett & producer Chris Harding, Dissecting Phase 1 Clinical Trials (2:40, HD) with Wingard, Inside Safe Haven (3:30, HD) with Evans & Tjahjanto, Slumber Party Alien Abduction: Behind the Lights (6:00, HD) proof of concept/test reel, and A Ride in the Park: I Dare You (3:00, HD) – iPhone footage of the crew trying to knock down a tree. Things are wrapped up with an AXS TV EPK (3:00, HD), five behind-the-scenes photo galleries, trailers, and trailers for other Magnolia releases.

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Overall


V/H/S/2 is improves on its predecessor in almost every way imaginable. Even the weakest entry, Phase 1 Clinical Trials, is stronger than most of V/H/S’ shorts and the strongest entry, Safe Haven, might very well be my favourite found-footage horror film since the original [REC], despite only being (about) 30 minutes long. Magnolia’s Blu-ray features a strong and true-to-source transfer, a perfectly pitched DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a nice composite commentary, though the disc’s other extras are brief and quite fluffy.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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