SXSW Film Fest, Day 7: "Short Term 12" & " V/H/S/2"

V/H/S/2

Directors: Simon Barrett, Adam Wingard, Eduardo Sanchez, Gregg Hale, Timo Tjahjanto, Gareth Huw Evans, Jason Eisener
Stars: Adam Wingard, Lawrence Levine, L. C. Holt, Kelsy Abbott, Hannah Hughes
Running time: 95 minutes
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Score: 7/10

By the end of V/H/S/2, the quickly made sequel to last year's indie horror sensation V/H/S, it's clear that the producers—namely, returning filmmakers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett—are trying to build a mythology and, through that, establish a franchise. Like its predecessor, V/H/S/2 is an anthology of shorts strung together by a wraparound story and all shot in the found-footage style; unlike V/H/S, however, this second go-round, executed with a larger scope, is much leaner: The 95-minute duration includes four segments, as opposed to the five that clocked in at just a shade under two hours). Which, once again, leaves the framing tale little room to develop.

Give Barrett (who wrote and directed the connective "Tape 49") credit, though: As this film's pair of private investigators search a creepy, empty house for a missing college student, they come across, for the acknowledgement of V/H/S fans, several visual references to the first film while watching the random video tapes stacked in one of the rooms. Even though it's just as anti-climactic as the V/H/S wraparound, "Tape 49" at least feels like it has a purpose, whereas last year's "Tape 56" had the air of a tacked-on, underwhelming throwaway.

The fact that the V/H/S/2 team pads the four segments with a purposeful thread lends the film an urgency and direction that V/H/S lacked—in that regard, it's superior. Yet the issue of unevenness persists. Two of the film's efforts—"Safe Haven," co-directed by Gareth Huw Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Indonesian provocateur Timo Tjahjanto, and Hobo With a Shotgun helmer Jason Eisener's "Slumber Party Alien Abduction"—are ferocious knockouts. The other two—Wingard's "Phase 1 Clinical Trials" and "A Ride in the Park," from collaborators Eduardo Sanchez (co-director of The Blair Witch Project) and Gregg Hale—are reasonably enjoyable trifles.

Saving the best for last, V/H/S/2 begins with "Phase 1 Clinical Trials," about a guy who undergoes surgery and becomes a test subject of sorts for a new robotic eyeball. It's too bad for him, though, that said eyeball gives him the ability to see ghosts. Wingard relies heavily upon the old turn-around-and-see-something-freaky jump scare tactic, surrounding a few effective jolts with a growing lack of surprise and an abrupt conclusion. "A Ride in the Park," meanwhile, operates on a clever idea that, it's hard to believe, hasn't been done before: A biker riding with a helmet-cam gets attacked by a zombie, turns into a flesh-eater, and starts devouring everyone in his path. Sanchez and Hale's living dead romp charges up once a band of ghouls disrupt a little girl's birthday party, but, like "Clinical Trials," its resolution is unsatisfying.

Especially when compared to the epic "Safe Haven," an ambitious, expanded, and masterfully made death-blow that sets the new precedent for which any future V/H/S segments—or any horror shorts, for that matter—must strive. Four young documentarians gain access into an Indonesian commune known as Paradise Gates, the home of a cult leader and his flock of subservient men, women, and children. What starts off as a moody investigation piece gradually explodes into a crescendo of absolute mayhem, complete with disemboweled bodies, suicide, demonic possession, and a doomsday finale that's incredibly batshit. Evans and Tjhajanto are clearly working with more creative firepower than their peers—everything about "Safe Haven" feels of a higher caliber, almost as if it's from a different movie altogether.

"Slumber Party Alien Abduction," the film's final segment, has more in common with the original V/H/S film's last portion, the frantic haunted house piece "10/31/98." As seen in Hobo With a Shotgun and his The ABCs of Death contribution, "Y is for Youngbuck," the Canadian-born Eisener doesn't go for subtlety or slow burns. He's a wild child, and "Alien Invasion Slumber Party" is every bit as unruly and exciting as Hobo With a Shotgun lovers would expect.

At first, it's The Goonies meets Jackass, with a group of rambunctious teenagers pranking one's older sister while the parents are away—the funniest bit involves water pistols filled with urine. Right before the sister and her boyfriend are about to revel in their successful payback, malevolent extra-terrestrials (nicely obscured and made all the more unnerving by Eisener's lighting and framing techniques) turn the sleepover into an extended outdoor chase sequence with multiple payoffs. Eisener deserves bonus points for finding a unique way to shoot POV cinema: The alien scenes are all captured by a camera that's strapped to the kids' little dog.

The energy and sheer ballsiness that ignite in "Safe Haven" and bleed into "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" show how dynamic these V/H/S movies can be if the filmmakers go for broke. Had "Clinical Trials" and "A Ride in the Park" been given similar aspirations, V/H/S/2 could've been astounding. As it stands, the omnibus follow-up is an admirable, marked improvement that benefits from containing two of the best horror films, short or feature-length, to come around in years.

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