Sunday, March 10, 2013

V/H/S/2 (2013) movie review

V/H/S/2 (2013) (1st viewing) d. Barrett, Eisener, Evans, Tjahjanto, Sanchez, Hale, Wingard (USA)

In the ongoing anthology sweepstakes spawned by 2011’s The Theatre Bizarre, wherein skilled independent directors pool their talents by tying individually created short films together with a central conceit, last year’s V/H/S was certainly one of the more successful examples of the realized portmanteau. Assembling a dream team of Ti West, Adam Wingard, Joe Swanberg, Glenn McQuaid and film collective Radio Silence to each create a first person POV “found footage” piece, it served as both a commentary on the subgenre as well as an opportunity for filmmakers to unite their efforts toward a common artistic – and financially rewarding – goal. (Shorts generally don’t generate income for their creators. Here they do.)

The critical and commercial success of the venture is undoubtedly what led to this second installment, this time with offerings from Wingard, frequent collaborator Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), and the team-ups of Gareth Evans/Timo Tjahjanto and Eduardo Sanchez/Gregg Hale. Once again the found footage concept is introduced by having a professional independent dirtbag invade a private residence, only to find a bank of snowy television sets hooked up to VCRs with piles of videocassettes lying about. What to do, what to do? Let’s pop a few in and see what we see...

As before, it’s this wraparound (entitled “Tape 49”) that feels the weakest. It’s admittedly no less mannered than any of the ’70s Amicus efforts, but it still seems a bit of a stretch to buy into the notion of a person sitting there in a house – that they’ve broken into, no less – watching various short films for the better part of two hours. Wouldn’t they just, I don’t know, put the items in a bag and leave the premises? Or at least fast forward through them to get to the good parts? As a scribe, it’s Barrett who bears responsibility for both installments’ framing devices; there’s no denying that he is faced with a formidable challenge to justify the tales' unspooling, but both times have felt glossed over for convenience’s sake in order to get on with the show. Not to say there isn’t some interesting subject matter unveiled therein (more on this in a minute) – it’s just not a great bookend on a logistical level. However, the writer also takes the reins for this segment (Wingard directed the original wraparound for V/H/S) and manages to tease some genuine moments of dread and suspense at what might be lurking just out of frame.

The internal stories, numbering only four this time (perhaps due to complaints of the first go-round’s overstaying its welcome), are led by Wingard. His “Clinical Trials” is a fun little bit of tech horror, with a young man (played by the director himself) receiving a camera eye to offset his recent blindness. He’s warned that there may be a few “glitches”; no surprise, there are, in the form of seeing things that may or may not be there. The manifold jump scares, however, excessively padded by aural screeching, prove as annoying as discomfiting – not an entirely successful trade-off. Hannah Hughes co-stars and we thank her for her womanly contributions. Yes, we do.

Our first double trouble threat saddles up with Blair Witch Project cohorts Sanchez and Hale’s outing, “A Ride in the Park” where a wannabe extreme bicycle trail rider straps a camera on his helmet and wheels to capture the experience of his morning jaunt. Of course, when he encounters a zombie horde, things take an unexpected twist. There are several welcome moments of humor in this chapter, provided by Jamie Nash’s nimble script and the longtime team’s clever balance of horror and dark whimsy.

Evans and Tjahjanto then unveil the collection’s most unhinged installment, “Safe Haven.” A team of undercover investigators armed with spy cameras on their clothing and headgear attempt to infiltrate a cult leader’s compound, suspecting him of human trafficking and abuse of minors. The truth turns out to be much more bizarre and sinister. Evans, whose showstopping knack for thrills was well-evidenced by last year’s The Raid: Redemption, is matched by his counterpart’s sense for dark foreboding and claustrophobic mood. The result resembles the best Takashi Miike lark he never made.

Things wrap up with Jason Eisener’s “Alien Abduction Slumber Party,” which is exactly what it sounds like – wacky hijinks, water balloon fights, and adolescent practical jokes interrupted by a band of big-eyed spindly limbed interlopers. It’s an uneven segment, at times evocative and effective, but the dramatic tension slips away just as often as the victims do - the interstellar beasties constantly seem right atop our underage victims, only to turn around and have their quarry be free again. It’s a curious device that never really works; ditto Eisener’s first “person” POV vehicle (you’ll see what I mean). However, the spaceship’s unearthly ear-shattering foghorn bellow packs quite the wallop, especially with the cinema speakers cranked high.

Like its predecessor, V/H/S/2 is a fairly entertaining outing, one that shoulders the common complaints of any compendium: some segments are stronger than others and the wraparound is a little flimsy. With this recent spate of short film collectives showing some legs, perhaps more emphasis should be placed on these consistently problematic elements. After all, it’s nice that the short subject is finding its way into the mainstream once again, but this necessitates a little more quality control in presentation. The first installment was a grand casual experiment, with the second attempting to franchise an ostensible one-off. If a third chapter is under consideration, the gauntlet has been tossed for its makers to crystallize what it is and what they want it to be.

NOTE: It’s worth mentioning that during the Q&A session following Friday night’s SXSW screening, I brought up the concern that many online fans have voiced regarding the incongruity for much of this found footage content ending up on videocassette in the first place. Who records to VHS anymore? The answer, so ambiguous in the films themselves (almost sloppily and/or pretentiously so), is actually an intriguing one. As Barrett explained, by reducing the footage to an analog state, the chances of it being uploaded and distributed via the internet are greatly reduced. This makes the physical item, i.e. the videocassette itself, a more significant element; it becomes the only means by which the footage can be viewed. One must possess the tape in the first place in order to see it and then perhaps share it. (Shades of Ringu.) The notion of these “collectors” – whose mysterious booty we encounter in both films’ wraparounds – is truly captivating. But by the filmmakers painting it in such vague terms, the viewer is more likely to label this an improperly thought out plot device than evidence of a clever, mysterious and insidious internal society.

The second conceit that Barrett illuminated onstage was exploring the imagined effects of the magnetic tape used in the medium on the human body. Recall if you will that the 3/4” videotape is indeed magnetic and therefore could potentially exercise some power over our physical beings. Another clever notion, one explored in very cryptic terms for the finely tuned ear in this second installment, but again, you really have to be listening for it.

One wishes that both of these clear and specific plot points would have been highlighted (even a little) to clue us in that we were in thoughtful hands as opposed to slipshod ones. The fact that producer Brad Miska had originally conceived this concept as a television program absolutely lends itself better to the slow unraveling of the mystery of the videotapes. (Think X-Files and its ever-deepening mythology.) But within a feature film, one expects to be given salient information to draw conclusions – as Wingard himself put it, “You would have had to be psychic to pick up the clues from the first one.” For me, this violates the viewer/creator contract of Cinema 101, especially for a genre anthology. Apparently at one point, there was more exposition provided, but later excised for being too “talky and boring.” Unfortunately, by gaining themselves a few extra seconds, they’ve also given us the impression of arbitrary decision making as opposed to a genuinely intriguing, intelligently executed overarching narrative.

With this information gleaned from a happenstance Q&A session, I now like the film(s) much more. Had their creators not been there to personally account for it, or had I lacked the courage to ask such a brazen query, I would have liked it much less. This is your audience, gentlemen – a paying audience, at that. Your move.

--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine

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