Last year, the horror community found itself quite taken by a ramshackle little anthology of found-footage creep-outs, V/H/S; an exciting, high-concept parade of ghastliness, the gleefully nasty little collection found up-and-coming genre directors like Ti West, Adam Wingard, and Radio Silence helming a series of POV horror shorts tied together by a framing story about — I dunno, some douches finding some old VHS tapes or something. Either way, it was a good thing for horror fans, a delicious melange of all flavors and varieties. Haunted houses, deconstructed slashers, and monster yarns comfortably occupied the same space, offering something for all. Less than a year later, V/H/S 2 is upon us; horror fans already recognize the series as the new franchise to watch, although V/H/S 2 offers considerably fewer charms than its scary predecessor.

It’s not as though it’s ever boring, though. Simon Barrett’s framing segment, “Tape 49” offers better acting and a little more clarity than that of V/H/S‘s wraparound installment, “Tape 56”; paring the narrative down to two private investigators breaking into a desolate suburban home makes the setting more eerie, less chaotic, more purposeful. (The inevitable payoff is fun, too, although there’s precious little connective tissue describing how one event leads to the next.) Adam Wingard (of the forthcoming home-invasion shocker Who’s Next) directs and stars in the film’s first proper installment, “Phase I Clinical Trials”; Wingard, whose low-budget sense of purpose and ability to slowly mount dread served him well in his impressively bleak indie-horror breakthrough A Horrible Way to Die, shoots from the point of view of a newly-installed experimental eye implant. It, naturally, starts seeing dead people; “Clinical Trials” offers precious little beyond jump scares and general mayhem, sadly, and largely falls flat.

Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez — of The Blair Witch Project, which is a fun little tip of the hat to the genesis of the modern found-footage movement — helm “A Ride in the Park”, the anthology’s most limp segment. Shooting from the helmet-cam of an eager biker who gets attacked by zombies, “Ride” contributes yet another zombie yarn to an oversaturated market without providing much in the way of actual innovation. A zombie tale from the monster’s point of view was the hook of 2007’s delightful Aaah!! Zombies!, and the self-aware flourish at the end seems a cheap stab at wringing Twilight/Warm Bodies sentimentality from the gruesome form. The short doesn’t skimp on blood and guts; that’s about all it has to offer, and it’s the weakest link in V/H/S 2‘s already-rusty chain.

Which brings us to “Safe Haven”, the source of much of V/H/S 2‘s advance buzz; it’s been dubbed the best standalone installment of either collection, and that’s not necessarily off-base, although for my money the first film’s “10/31/98” is its equal in chills and mayhem. The product of a documentary crew investigating an Indonesian cult leader, “Safe Haven” isn’t about the particulars; unanswered questions abound throughout, and the complicated interpersonal relationships of the doc crew are trying to keep track of. Still, the remarkably unsettling climax is something of a master course in horror imagery; wielding mass suicide, demon birth, spontaneous combustion, and good old-fashioned knife violence like a machete, the virtuosic sequence lobs scare after unyielding scare at the audience. It’s not cheap, either; cobbling together a cabal of scary images is relative child’s play, but “Safe Haven” hits a nerve of primal, searing terror. It’s the only A-game short on hand in V/H/S 2, but it single-handedly makes the film worth the price of admission.

The final short, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction”, offers a nice respite after the hellish intensity of “Safe Haven”; helmed by Hobo With A Shotgun director Jason Eisener, it’s a tale of adolescent hijinks and one-upsmanship a la “Project X” until extraterrestrial visitors abruptly come into play. It’s not a particularly scary excursion to take, but it’s reasonably tense, and often funny; little details like a split-second shot of an underwater alien add to the atmosphere.

Taken as a whole, V/H/S 2 has a lot to live up to; with the exception of “Safe Haven”, a hellacious, nightmarish piece of work, the shorts largely bank on jump scares and cheap effects. The film’s bargain-basement predecessor looks even cheaper, but is never hampered by unrealized ambition; rather, it’s edified by simple, effective, gut-level scares. It’s almost unanimously a letdown, but on the plus side, if future installments of this promising franchise can yield work as wonderful as “Safe Haven”, horror fans will have reason to return to these anthologies in droves.

Grade: C+

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