Funsanity, by David Bax
Each time I’ve had to write about an anthology film, I’ve noted the inherent, unavoidable unevenness of the format. Last year’s found footage collection V/H/S was one of the worst offenders, being aesthetically repulsive and hugely misanthropic for most of its running time before finally getting it together for its two final installments. Conversely, V/H/S/2, maintaining the found footage rule, may be one of the most balanced and consistent anthologies ever made. That doesn’t mean it’s great. It’s light on scares, for one, but where the previous film was hateful and cruel, this one’s pervasive tone is one of fun. Even when you’re not grinning at the crazy ride you’re on, you’ll be laughing at the insanity of the gore. It may not be much more accessible to the mainstream than its predecessor but it’s a great deal more recommendable.
Once again, we have a framing device that tells a story of its own, brining the tally to five short films (one less than V/H/S). Directed by Simon Barrett, “Tape 49” would appear to be a sequel to Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56,” the mechanism that propelled the last film. That’s not really important though. It has more scares in the beginning and more creativity in the end than “56” but it remains a flimsy premise. A duo of private investigators is hired by a woman to find her missing son. They break into his apartment and find stacks of VHS. One of them goes to search the home while the other one stays to see if there are any clues on the tapes. Thus we get to see the films.
First up for real is Wingard himself, graduating to one of the main entries. “Phase 1 Clinical Trials” is the story of a young man who lost an eye in a car accident and has had it replaced with an experimental new implant, a robot eye through which we see the whole film. The idea that a new form of technology might allow us to communicate with the dead has been around as long as we’ve been inventing new forms of technology. Still, Wingard produces the most legitimate scares of the whole collection and has good, creepy fun with visual effects. But the stiff performances and the inclusion of female nudity for no justifiable reason at all felt leftover from round one.
The first new blood in the film (Barrett was a writer on V/H/S) shows up in “A Ride in the Park,” directed by Edúardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale, the co-director and co-producer, respectively, of The Blair Witch Project. “A Ride in the Park,” like that notorious feature, takes place in the woods. But instead of witches, the film’s concern is another staple of horror, the zombie. The walking dead may be overrepresented in pop culture but Sanchez and Hale use the first-person format to revive the trope and breathe new life into it. As it were. They also set the bar pretty high for gore but that status is quickly obliterated by the next film.
Timo Tjahjanto (whose entry in another recent horror anthology, The ABCs of Death, called “L Is for Libido,” was memorably fucked up if not particularly successful otherwise) teamed up with Gareth Huw Evans (director of extreme martial arts actioner The Raid: Redemption) to make “Safe Haven.” The story begins when a team of journalists enter the compound of a cult leader armed with cameras both plain and hidden, attempting to find out about his possibly illegal practices with the young among his followers. With the inevitable momentum of a forest fire, the story gets weirder and weirder, bloodier and bloodier until your only option is to sit up straight as a rocket and experience each horrific new madness as eagerly as possible. “Safe Haven” is the clear standout of the bunch and is worth the price of admission on its own.
Finally, Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) closes things out. Like the closer of V/H/S, Radio Silence’s “10/31/98,” Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” is a tale of thoughtless youth and a party gone wrong. It has a color palette more brilliant than anything in either film but it fails to match the inventiveness of “10/31/98” and suffers for having to follow “Safe Haven.” It does, however, contain some of the best acting in the collection and the mostly horror-free stuff that makes up its bulk is fun and well-executed.
Overall, V/H/S/2 is a major improvement. By making it shorter, making the camerawork slightly steadier and eliminating the misanthropy (mostly), it seems the producers understood the problems of the first effort and called for a do-over. They have now proved that the idea of a found footage horror anthology has merit and they’ve set a higher standard for the third one.