V/H/S/2 begins with a scene of a seedy private eye (Lawrence Michael Levine) recording two people about to have sex in a hotel room. This event does not inform anything in the rest of the movie; it doesn't even introduce us to the character of the P.I., who'll be more formally set-up in the very next scene. But it does permit us to have a shot of tits being fondled within the first 30 seconds of the movie, and anyone who cherished the first V/H/S can tell you, tawdry high-school jock levels of respect for women are the beating heart of this horror omnibus series.
Or not, actually. The overwhelming theme of the first movie - all women are castrating she-demons - puts in not the whisper of an appearance in this sequel, and besides that first shot in the framing narrative, there's only one other snippet of (hugely gratuitous and objectifying) nudity in any of the four short films making up this anthology picture. Which is already enough to put V/H/S/2 at least half a step up from its forebear, an impression cemented when the third segment proves to be of such astronomically higher quality than anything else in either of the film that it manages completely by itself to hoist the movie over the line separating "probably nobody needs to ever see this" from "horror fans should probably see this, but maybe not anybody else". At this rate, I expect V/H/S/3 to nail the elusive "if you can't come up with any better way to spend your time, it's okay" threshold, and then we'll have ourselves a movie.
Anyway, the film takes the general form of its predecessor, a mysterious old building with a staticky TV surrounded by many VHS tapes. Or perhaps we should call them V/H/S tapes, a subtly different format for which it makes sense that visibly modern digital footage should have ended up on clunky slabs of black plastic. P.I. Larry and his assistant-girlfriend Ayesha (Kelsy Abbott) have been hired to find a missing college student, and have gone to his last place of residence to find him. Nobody seems to be there - emphasis on seems, as the human figure appearing and disappearing in the background of shots makes clear - and as Larry snoops around looking for clews, Ayesha starts digging through the tapes to find out if they contain any information. Thus does she find footage of their missing student (L.C. Holt), prattling on about the order that the tapes must be watched in, and how it does something to your head. Intrigued, Ayesha starts to watch the tapes, all of which contain documents of unexplained phenomena out in the world.
There's no real consistent quality to the four segments - five, if we count that wrap-around "Tape 49" (which theoretically means that this film takes place earlier than the last; the frame narrative there was "Tape 56"), written and directed by series mastermind Simon Barrett, one of the leading lights in modern indie horror (he also wrote the, in my opinion, wretchedly overrated You're Next). This is to be expected of anthologies, of course. The aggregate quality is still higher than V/H/S, though the gap between high and low is wider. The first segment, at any rate, is promising-ish: "Phase I Clinical Trials", written by Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard (of... You're Next), starring Wingard as a man with a terrible eye injury that makes him the perfect candidate for a new artificial eye. Which oh-so-conveniently has a recording chip in it. Anyone who's seen the Hong Kong horror film The Eye, its dreadful American remake, or just about anything, really, can see where this is headed: our hero can now sometimes see ghosts, and they are not at all friendly. Eventually, he crosses paths with a woman with artificial hearing (Hannah Hughes), who knows quite a lot more than he does, including the fact that you can make the ghosts scatter by having sex in front of them, an excuse for a boob shot so hilariously contrived that I'm actually willing to concede it might be satire.
The longer it gets, and the more it tries to explain shit, the more that "Phase I Clinical Trials" starts to get weird instead of scary, but in the early going, it's actually pretty decent, creepy mixed with jump scares in a way that actually kind of works. No such muted praise applies to "A Ride in the Park", written by Jamie Nash, directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sánchez (the latter of whom got this whole game started when he co-directed the grandpappy of all "lost camcorder footage" horror pictures, The Blair Witch Project), which is an absolute dog of a short. In the woods, a cyclist (Jay Saunders) stops to help a bleeding, screaming woman (Bette Cassatt), who turns out to be a zombie. So he becomes a zombie. And so do the people who try to help him. There is nothing in this sequence that even threatens to be interesting; the brief flickers that indicate this is meant to be a comedy can be used only to justify how deeply unfrightening it is. The whole thing is filmed from a camera atop the cyclist's helmet, which gives it a feeble "YOU are the zombie!" kick, but that dies off by the first time that nothing happens for thirty seconds of static "verisimilitude". If there's any merit, it's that from a technical point of view, it's impressive how the filmmakers use sleight of hand to get their gore effects over in apparently uncut takes, but this one starts boring and gets worse, until its random birthday party massacre climax.
Things skyrocket with "Safe Haven", an Indonesian effort contributed by writer-directors Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans, the latter responsible for the brilliant The Raid: Redemption. It's the most pacy and plotty of the segments: a news crew manages to snag an interview with the secretive "Father" (Epy Kusnandar) of a millenarian cult. To their dismay, they find that the ticking clock happens to end at the exact time they're in the compound, and the literally apocalyptic crumbling going on around them has rather unpleasant personal ramifications. Forgive me for being vague, but it wouldn't do to spoil the surprises, which are many, and almost all wonderful (though the punchline at the very end is pretty much useless). This is by far the most imaginative of the shorts, with the most ingenious effects and, it has to be said, the flimsiest grasp of the found footage gimmick that animates the entire concept of the anthology. There are scenes which abandon it altogether, turning into a normally-edited film with barely a fig-leaf of "there's a camera here" to stitch things together. No accident that it makes the film more watchable and kinetic. It doesn't, ultimately, re-write any rules, but it offers quite a lot of energy and gory fun for those who like those things, without feeling as hamstrung as its bedfellows.
Some of that high spirit continues to the beginning of the cryptically-titled "Slumber Party Alien Abduction", which opens with a bunch of boys making a home movie about dog-eating robots, and in a flash offers the best justification for a found-footage movie in years: it's kids dicking around with a camera. The one group of people who actually would keep shooting even after some of their own start to die off, finally put front and center. And the opening few minutes, documenting pre-teen and barely-teen boys being assholes to each other, has an exquisite ring of truth; but once the slumber party tails off and the alien abduction kicks in, it becomes so noise and chaotically hand-held that it's almost impossible to follow, and from the brief snatches of aliens we see, it's just as well that we can't. Things end nastily, and because of the age of the cast, it's quite a bit more sour than in other found footage movies where things end nastily (all of them), but it caps off five minutes of such pure cinematic misery that it honestly comes as a relief when the last of the children is dead.
So that's it: one hit, one acceptable miss, one miss, and one dead-on-arrival mistake. Still a better percentage than the first movie, or most found-footage horror as a whole. It's still a hollow concept that feels more and more tired with each passing year, but at least V/H/S/2 doesn't compound its hollowness by being rancid on top of it.