Review: V/H/S/2 (U.K. DVD)

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The second portmanteau of PoV horror shorts, and the third notable such horror anthology in less than two years, V/H/S/2 comes to the U.K. bearing high expectations from its showing at Film4 Frightfest 2013. Welsh director Gareth Evans, who co-directed the best short here, and shot to fame the other year with The Raid, the fine follow-up to his cracking feature Merantau, was on hand to present it, and maintained a Frightfest tradition by bringing with him an exclusive clip from his next actioner, Berandal. Talk about playing to the home crowd!

Evans is not the only genre name on the roster this time. His co-director Timo Tjahjanto is one-half of The Mo Brothers, who directed Asian horror Macabre. Adam Wingard, who also made a big splash at this year’s Frightfest with You’re Next, directed the first short other than the wraparound; he also stars in it.  Eduardo Sanchez, co-director of the film that kick-started this current era of “found footage” horror films, The Blair Witch Project, helms the follow-up with his producer Gregg Hale.  Jason “Hobo with a Shotgun” Eisener shoots the final short, and writer/actor Simon Barrett steps up here to direct this installment’s wrap.

So with all that talent, what do you get for your money? A bionic take on the old “transplant causes patient to see dead people” tale from Wingard,  a zombie short from Sanchez & Hale that crams in as many of the subgenre’s cliches while filming it from a reasonably original viewpoint, an overamped version of an 80s Amblin aliens tale from Eisener, and an improved wraparound involving a couple of private detectives searching a house from Barrett.

However, it is Evans & Tjahjanto’s lengthier short that is worth the price of admission alone, the kind of film that would have featured in a Tartan Asia Extreme Three Extremes anthology if they were still around. An English-speaking Indonesian documentary crew go in to investigate a doomsday cult compound, and all hell quite literally breaks loose. This is the piece de resistance of the whole affair, going places the other film-makers simply don’t dare, making good use of its longer runtime, and generally avoiding the frat-boy leering that affects the other entries in both collections.

These last points highlight the biggest problems with not just these films, but with the subgenre and genre as a whole at this time. The first issue is technical, in that we have come a long way from the days of Blair Witch‘s reasonably convincing home video look, purporting to be the collection of footage found from the lost crew. Unlike the first collection, most of these films are far more “faux-documentary” then “found footage” as editing choices make clear; the sudden and immediate  involvement of other camera footage towards the end of Sanchez & Hale’s A Ride in the Park indicates someone has chosen to make those cuts in a way that presenting an uncut assembly of “found footage” would not require, at least in theory.

Also, technical innovation is seen as something more radical than it actually is; other reviewers have praised the use of the GoPro and the zombie PoV in the same short as new, different, even ground-breaking, or Eisener’s doggy-cam PoV for the second half of Slumber Party Alien Abduction (you can’t accuse of Eisener of not picking Ronseal titles for his films) as such, when these are none of those things. The real innovation lies in the dramatic choices made in the climax of A Ride in the Park, which some reviewers have actually decried as a negative, suggesting they prefer technology to humanity in their horror films.

Secondly, while over the years there have been credible genre entries from female writers and directors, none were called to the bar for either V/H/S film. Moreover, at least three of the women who feature in the films are there for male sexual reasons only, and the sheer gratuitousness of this here boggles the mind, done for purely mercenary reasons rather than creative ones. Other than the opening close up of actress Mandy Robinson’s breasts (not a speaking part), the obvious example is Wingard’s Phase I Clinical Trials, where he introduces a female character to be Miss Basil Exposition, but then has her topless, shagged and killed so quickly that, other than being a nod to antiquated horror tradition, it adds nothing whatsoever to the short. It does, in fact, take away from it. Was there really no other way he and writer Barrett could come up with to convey the necessary information? Adopting tradition over innovation suggests creative bankruptcy just where the imagination should flower.

Even Evans & Tjahjanto’s Safe Haven has a typically male concern at the heart of its dramatic arc, placing it in a similar vein to such films as David Lynch’s Eraserhead, although here ultimately it’s more of a punchline than the source of real horror.  In that sense it still indicates youthful masculinity at work, looking inwards instead of out.  While not as much to the detriment of this piece as Wingard & Barrett’s choice is, it does make one wonder what sort of film with the same thematic focus we would see from a female writer and/or director.

All in all, fans of V/H/S already know what they’re in for, and it is worth saying that in relation to the first, this sequel is leaner, meaner, and more consistent a viewing experience. If you are coming to this first time around, then all that you miss out on are a few nods to the first film in the opening segment of the wraparound story, so certainly there’s no need to have seen the original first. However, taken together, the two are pretty much state-of-the-art in terms of the “found footage” subgenre, and it is possible to argue that, in opposition to box-office figures (particularly in the U.S.), they chart the creative dead-end it finds itself in. The challenge is out to the producers; let V/H/S/3 highlight the distaff side of this genre we love, recruiting as many female writers, directors and actors as can be to put a fresh spin on the subgenre, before its only legacy is shaky-cam remakes of classic horror staples and spikes in Dramamine/Kwells sales (delete as applicable to where you reside….).