Sunday, September 8, 2013

V/H/S/2: 2 Clever By 1/2

Although normally I'm firmly in the "sequels are a bad idea" camp, I'm more than happy to make an exception for anthologies, where you don't have to worry about reducing subsequent iterations to tangled continuity and whatever gimmick someone decided was the reason people liked the first one in the first place. Plus, short films - when they're good - are especially effective in horror, because they don't overstay their welcome. Something scary happens, and then it's over before it can be over-explained. It retains its punch. The scariest horror fiction I've ever read has, with a few exceptions, been short stories and novellas. So giving a bunch of different directors an opportunity to do their particular thing in a lean, efficient fashion appeals to me tremendously.

The first V/H/S was pretty good - five short films shot using the found-footage conceit, and mostly being pretty good despite the danger of that particular approach being run into the ground. It was at its best when it fully embraced the found-footage aesthetic, and at its weakest when it called attention to the conceit by deviating from it. When found-footage films are at their best, it's because there's a rawness and an immediacy to the footage that makes it easier to believe that you aren't just watching a movie - that this actually happened, and you're witness to some awful document.

This makes it all the more puzzling as to why V/H/S/2 wastes so much of its energy and potential on an examination of the conceit for its own sake, at the expense of actually telling scary stories.

The framing story - titled Tape 49 - is, maybe tellingly, more self-aware than the framing narrative was in the first film. A pair of private investigators are hired by a woman to track down her son when he sort of drops out of sight. The two of them break into his house, and find not a whole lot of anything except piles of videotapes, TVs, notebooks, and his laptop, which has some sort of video diary on it. One of them starts poking around the house trying to look for him, the other starts looking at the diary and the tapes.

 It's paced better than the framing narrative was in the first film and is much more coherent, so it ends up being much creepier and an actual addition to the story. However, part of it also involves the missing son essentially explaining where the tapes come from to a certain extent and hinting at a network of collectors. This smells like the beginning of a mythology, and this is exactly the sort of shit that gets sequels into trouble. The point isn't where these tapes are coming from any more than the point of Hostel was to explain how the murder-holiday business was run. It's that they exist, and the protagonists are now caught up in it, and what happens now? To the extent that attention is being paid to the existence of the tapes, it takes away from our ability to accept their existence and immerse ourselves in the stories they tell.

Phase I Clinical Trials

The first entry is a tidy little ghost story about a man who volunteers to test out a new prosthetic eye, on the condition that the visual information the eye receives be recorded for the manufacturers to use as test data. As you might expect, this new eye is capable of seeing all sorts of stuff we shouldn't be able to see, and things get very weird, very fast. To the extent that it works, it's effectively scary- when the camera is your eye, you can't really look away and everything has to happen on-camera, and the ghosts don't need to do too much to elicit fright. A lot happens that isn't explained outright, and although not having a complete picture of what's going on is good (and thinking about it a little afterwards fits a lot of pieces into place, giving this one a little staying power), how it gets there feels so artificial and unnecessary at points that there could have been a better way to handle it. This is largely down to some very wooden acting and dialogue. This segment is one of the most naturalistic, and so the staginess of the characters is really disruptive to the feel it's trying to create. Also, in what's going to be an unfortunate theme throughout, it's a little too low-rent for its premise. The clinic where the prosthetic eye is implanted looks less like the sort of hospital you'd expect would be capable of implanting an artificial eye, and more like my vet's office. Again, it calls attention to itself and takes you, even for a second or two, out of the story.

A Ride In The Park

This is sort of the "funny one" of this entry, but it feels a little slight. A man is going out for a bike ride, and turns on the little GoPro video camera he has mounted on his helmet to record some footage of the ride. Why he's doing this isn't really clear, and the artificiality of the camera's conceit make it feel a little shoehorned in. His ride goes along nicely until he runs into some people who are sort of oddly shambling down the trail, almost as if…okay fine, they're zombies, and now he's stuck in the middle of an outbreak of the walking dead, caught live on helmet-cam. The segment has a good mixture of gore and slapstick moments, reminding me of some of the animated shorts shown at Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted festivals or the movie Braindead/Dead Alive, and although I'm pretty sick of zombie movies (especially jokey ones), a surprisingly touching ending redeems this one to a degree. On the other hand, it meanders a little, which although appropriate for a movie about the walking dead, feels like the conceit was supposed to carry it more than it actually did. And again, some of the dialogue was really, really shitty. Part of the strength of found-footage is verisimilitude, but if the actors can't pull it off, it comes off even more stagey and artificial than a conventional film approach.

Safe Haven

This segment is the most fully-realized, and probably the most horrifying, but is also the one that is least classically found-footage. The story of a film crew making a documentary about a controversial People's Temple-type cult, it features a mixture of cameras, both sourced on the protagonists (everything from conventional video cameras to button-sized spy cams) and from surveillance footage. Because there are so many points of view, it loses some of what makes found-footage movies most effective, because our point of view isn't limited or constrained - we have as much access to everything that's going on as we would in a conventionally shot film, and we lose some of the you-were-there feeling that you get when you only see what the one camera happens to see at a given moment. It becomes especially distracting when you realize the whole reason a particular camera is placed where it is (it doesn't really make much sense in the context of the film) is probably to capture specific scenes at the end, and it feels like a cheat, like the filmmakers were less concerned with making a found-footage film than making a scary film and finding a way to fit a found-footage aesthetic on top of it. 

It's too bad, because it's probably the closest to capturing the out-of-control, utterly-batshit terrifying-things-are-happening-and-holy-fuck-what-do-we-do-about-it feeling that marked the first V/H/S at its best. When the film crew realizes what the cult plans to do, it's too late, and it's oh so much worse than anyone could reasonably expect. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn't know when to stop, and in the final shot, a poorly-done effect undoes a lot of the goodwill engendered by the rest of the segment. 

Slumber Party Alien Abduction

This one struck me as ugly and sort of pointless. We open on a bunch of obnoxious suburban kids harassing each other, and it's the best, most naturalistic acting in the entire collection - this is exactly how annoying preteen kids act. Mom and Dad are going away for the weekend, and older siblings are doing the babysitting. Needless to say, these teenagers have their own fun in mind, and the preteen kids do their utmost to sabotage their older siblings at every turn. As promised in the title (which bugs me - it feels so lazy, like the filmmakers didn't care enough to keep anything a surprise), aliens show up, and everything goes nuts. Not in an especially interesting way - kids are being shitty, then there are aliens. There's also a disconnect between what we're seeing through our single-camera perspective and what the protagonists seem to see. From our perspective, there's all kinds of bizarre shit going on - bright lights and loud noises out of nowhere - but none of the protagonists seem to care. It feels like someone forgot to tell them they were supposed to be surprised by these things. 

When the shit hits the fan, the footage is almost too realistic - it's too fragmented to get a sense of space, direction, or sequence, just a lot of running and screaming with the camera pointed at absolutely nothing. It's disorienting and abrasive - lots of bright lights, bright colors, and oppressively loud noises on top of the shrieking of the protagonists, and in the utter absence of reference points, the audience is confused instead of scared because just trying to figure out what we're supposed to be watching is exhausting.  There are a lot of people to keep track of, and the point of view is hard to follow, and again, the most important effects don't work, which just makes the whole thing feel like some cheap, stupid home horror movie much like some of the kids are making at the beginning of the segment. If that had somehow played into the events, like this was some kind of joke that got out of control, it could have made for an effective subversion of the found-footage conceit, and could have built to some good tension. Instead, it feels like a deliberately shitty found-footage movie, like a perverse joke on the audience that ends on a gratuitously nasty note. The whole thing feels juvenile and sort of contemptuous of the audience, and it doesn't earn any of it.

In sum, V/H/S/2 is disappointing, and I think it's because it spends more time thinking about the conceit and trying to subvert it than actually doing something within its constraints. Most of the cameras are placed in implausible ways (a prosthetic eye, mounted to a bike helmet, strapped to a dog), and when they aren't, there are so many that it might as well be a conventionally shot movie. Very few of the segments really achieve a sustained sense of naturalism, and the one that does is almost willfully over-naturalistic to the point of incoherence. Instead of relying on realistic threats, most of the segments stretch for something supernatural and fail to convey it convincingly. In other words, these are found-footage movies that feel like they're trying to run away from being found-footage movies as fast as they can, and although that potentially makes for some really interesting critical readings, it doesn't make for good scary movies.

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