The 2012 horror anthology film V/H/S had great potential. It could have been an homage to the early days of the videocassette, when many horror films which had received limited theatrical runs, often years before many eager viewers had been born, finally became widely available to be viewed at home. The Saturday night video party became a part of teenage life, new releases alongside rediscovered classics, laughter and screams mixing with pizza and popcorn. The film could also have been a showcase for the new voices of horror cinema in the same way the video boom had brought John Carpenter, George Romero, Dario Argento, Stuart Gordon, Wes Craven and so many others into people’s homes three decades earlier.
Unfortunately, upon release, the film reflected quite a different side of the home video market, with poor production values, minimal scripting, amateur acting, limited imagination and such a distasteful obsession with objectifying female nudity that it seemed to be an homage to the adult entertainment industry rather than entertainment for adults.
That all but one of the directors involved in the original project have been replaced for the sequel could be seen to be a step forward, yet less than a minute into V/H/S/2, thirty seconds of actual footage when studio logos are disregarded, the first pair of breasts is revealed, though in fairness, full frontal male nudity follows seconds later, though for mere frames rather than lingering.
Tape 49 is the frame into which the rest of the stories are fitted, as a pair of unethical private detectives discuss blackmailing the husband they are tailing while lying to their client in order to extract further funds, before moving onto another assignment. Breaking into a house they have been directed to, they find a bank of flickering television sets and the unmarked video cassettes which provide the majority of the film.
Written and directed by Simon Barrett, who also appears as the briefly naked unfaithful husband, the piece is broken into several pointless instalments before it reaches its conclusion along with the film, and save for the final shot before it dissolves to static being a subliminal image of another pair of breasts, is almost identical in structure to the fragments of Tape 56 which he wrote for the first film, and neither approaches the creativity or atmosphere of the feature film he penned, 2004’s period horror Dead Birds.
The director of Tape 56, Adam Wingard, is the sole returnee with Phase I Clinical Trials, also written by Barrett, Wingard himself starring as a test subject who has had a damaged eye replaced with a cybernetic implant. A cross between the 1980 film Death Watch and the more recent Hong Kong-Singaporean film The Eye (remade under the same name with American accents and fewer subtitles in 2008), the unfortunate patient soon finds he can see things which aren’t there, though one thing most definitely visible to him and entirely unnecessary to the plot are the breasts of the young woman who tells him that her cochlear implant allows her to hear ghosts.
Eduardo Sánchez co-directs A Ride in the Park with his long time associate Gregg Hale who produced his previous films The Blair Witch Project and Lovely Molly and the forthcoming Exists. Jamie Nash’s script is simple and direct and has a great sense of momentum lacking in the other pieces, as a cyclist with a head mounted camera finds himself beset by zombies.
Filmed in vivid colour, the green of the forest ferns contrasted with copious blood, the bright sunlight may not show the zombie makeup to the best advantage, but this nasty splash of body horror is enlivened by the choice to play much of it for ghastly laughs, the only segment of the film which does so, setting zombies loose in a children’s birthday party barbecue before skewering the cameraman through the eye with a cooking utensil which remains in shot for the rest of the piece.
No such wit is displayed in Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans’ Safe Haven, which at thirty minutes is by far the longest and most tedious piece, hogging a full third of the film yet offering little in return. Featuring a camera crew investigating an Indonesian school which may harbour a cult, each member of the team has a camera, allowing a more structured piece than the others by permitting multiple narratives then squandering that possibility on ludicrously contrived pronouncements of infidelity and unexpected pregnancy.
More ambitious than the other segments in terms of scope, there is no engagement with the characters and no structure to the story, the impression being that we are witnessing the final reel of a Asian B-movie as it descends into preposterous nonsense. The only blessing is that while the directors will slice women open, they refrain from showing breasts, though they do offer a corpse with surprisingly bendy legs.
The final tape is Jason Eisener’s Slumber Party Alien Abduction, which makes no effort to do anything other than fulfil the obligation of the title in the most linear and obvious manner possible; why waste time with matters such as story or character when teenage girls can run around and scream while clutching a shaky camera?
The disappointment of this piece is that in his feature Hobo With a Shotgun and the short Y is for Youngbuck in The ABCs of Death, Eisener proved that he is a subversive and innovative director, capable of making an effective piece in either long or short form with limited resources, but when the impression given here is that the director doesn’t care, there can be little surprise when the audience responds in kind.
While indisputably an improvement on the first V/H/S, the film is still unbalanced, with all nine of the credited writers and directors men, their objectification of women adding nothing to their work and ultimately leaving a distasteful impression on the viewer, but that matter aside, there is a deeper problem in all these creations. Unlike the videocassettes of the great horror films which these directors grew up watching, all these pieces are found footage, a genre which restricts narrative possibility and relies on a limited number of tropes repeated over and over, the antithesis of original filmmaking.
Great horror relies on atmosphere created through a variety of tools, carefully composed framing, the use of light and shadow, the ambiguity of threat, the enhancement of an evocative soundtrack, but the nature of found footage precludes the use of these, forcing these short films to stand strictly on their merits of their story and performance, and nothing on offer here can compete with a moderately skilled filmmaker who chooses to use his trade well rather than deliberately hampering his ability for the sake of jumping on a bandwagon whose wheels have already fallen off.