Creating a fresh way to present zombies is an impressive feat in itself, but doing that alongside other shorts that tweak similarly well-trodden tropes helps make V/H/S/2 a far superior film to its predecessor. By entrusting a group of varied and talented directors to turn in innovative found footage short films, the producers have managed to create a movie that acts as an unofficial survey of the latest popular trends in the horror genre.
V/H/S/2 is an anthology film centered around “real” tapes found in another creepy and deserted house (spoiler alert: the creepy dark house is never deserted, guys). The framing device finds two detectives watching each tape as they try to figure out what happened to the former occupant. While the central conceit is carried over from the first film, few other elements remain. Jettisoned is all of the “bro” talk and casual misogyny prevalent in the original V/H/S. Gone, too, are a lot of the shaky camera work and awkward justifications for filming that ran rampant in the first installment. There are still a few aspects of technical confoundery — a person puts on headphones to hear a conversation and then suddenly we can hear it too — and there remain some moments where the hand-(or dog-)held cameras begin to induce motion sickness, but thankfully these scenes are only few in number.
Simon Barrett’s framing film kicks things off, instilling dread with subtle flashes of mysterious others lurking in shadows, creating a mounting sense of doom recalling similar work in recent horror hits like The Strangers, Sinister, and Insidious — albeit to far less frightening ends. It’s serviceable but not memorable.
That same foreboding permeates the first tape “watched,” a take on the jump-scare ghost stories of the Paranormal Activity ilk. Adam Wingard’s segment, concerning a haunted man, uses unsettling imagery alongside the requisite BOO! moments. While a lot of elements of the story aren’t explicitly stated and therefore scarier, this segment is the weakest, as little characterization goes into the protagonist. Instead of being an everyman, he becomes a cipher with whose torments we can’t truly empathize.
In contrast, Gregg Hale & Eduardo Sánchez found an ingenious way to humanize their undead protagonist: bringing viewers into the zombie experience firsthand using a helmet cam atop his rotting noggin. This small change proves to be surprisingly effective, and the directors wisely end their short before the novelty wears off, preventing it from joining the bland ranks of the countless other zombie movies, TV shows, books, games, and everything else the genre has recently infected.
That upswing continues with the most original and entertaining segment, Evans & Tjahjanto’s gonzo piece that tells an apocalyptic tale of a mysterious cult. Extreme gorefests from foreign lands (Inside, 3 Extremes, Dead Snow) inform a short that begins slightly off-kilter before careening into full on WTF territory. The insanity and imagery quickly escalates, creating a batshit atmosphere of unpredictability that easily surmounts a few less successful flourishes. It is as original and as dangerous as those films mentioned above, leaving viewers in complete disbelief.
The next short is much more subdued, but it delivers its own brand of crazy as Jason Eisener essentially makes Amblin’s version of Fire in the Sky. A sleepover imperiled by relentless visitors (that’s not a spoiler — the segment is literally called “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”) represents the nostalgic throwback trend in horror (The Sleeper, Platinum Dunes’ entire output). Eisener imbues his frenetic short with some powerful scares and strong performances by young actors. While this segment has the shakiest of the cams and the flimsiest excuse for filming, it remains a lean and thrilling entry that would be a sleepless-night hit at any slumber party.
As far as a franchise goes, V/H/S is a clever concept with great potential for future installments. V/H/S/2 is the product of handing the reins to filmmakers who dared to outdo what came before. As technology progresses to include even more variations on how found footage is “captured” and as a wider net of filmmakers are brought in, this could be that ultimate rarity: an entertaining horror franchise that improves with each installment.