96 min., rated R.
As last year's nastily fun midnight-movie treat "V/H/S" proved, the possibilities for a horror anthology through the found-footage conceit on VHS format are endless. Concept creator Brad Miska and another crop of filmmakers are at it again with "V/H/S/2" (formerly titled "S-V/H/S," but whatever), a slight cut above from the bite-sized horrors of its mostly-in-name-only predecessor. Once again, the production values are purposely low-rent and homemade, if slightly less sloppy, and an ever-shaking, POV-style camera is in full force. There are improvements, though: if the first installment had a snuff-film vibe with a misogynistic streak toward its usually topless females, this follow-up is even more fun, more consistent in quality across the board, and one segment shorter than before.
Threaded in between four morsels of dread, the wraparound, entitled "Tape 49" and directed by Simon Barrett ("V/H/S"), is more tightly paced than the first film's "Tape 56" but just as nonsensical (with a clip from the original tape finders' hijinks). Still, it gets the job done and offers some scary nuggets of its own. In clotheslining the quartet of freaky videos, the framing story involves a P.I. (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his girlfriend/assistant (Kelsy Abbott), hired by a worried mother, to locate a missing college student. They crawl into the young man's home to find a room with TVs and, you got it, a collection of videotapes. While cloning the kid's hard drive, both of them pop in four tapes for clues and, again, we see what they watch.
The first tape is returning director Adam Wingard's "Phase I Clinical Trials" in which Herman (played by Wingard himself) has been implanted with a bionic eye that also acts as a recording camera after a car accident. The doctor tells him he may experience glitches, natch. Before he knows it, he's seeing dead people in his pad. The next day, Clarissa (Hannah Hughes), a born-deaf girl who noticed him at the doctor's office, comes to warn him. Oh, and she picks up strange frequencies, too. This might be the least of the batch, but in terms of the batting average for "V/H/S/2," that's no less solid. As the camera turns every which way through Wingard's darkly lit home, there are eye-covering spooks and well-timed jolts to be had, including a nifty trick with a bed sheet. We get as close to the ghosts as he does.
Next in line is "A Ride in the Park," from directors Edúardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (the writer-director and producer, respectively, of "The Blair Witch Project"), and co-writer Jamie Nash ("Lovely Molly"). A biker (Jay Saunders) with a camera mounted on top of his helmet goes for a ride on a trail through the woods, but his ride gets cut short when running into some zombies. Climaxing at a children's birthday party in a picnic shelter, this zombie overhaul is generously gory, funny, and actually pretty tragic. "Safe Haven," directed by Timo Tjahjanto (of the "L is for Libido" segment in "The ABCs of Death") and Gareth Evans ("The Raid: Redemption"), goes one better and pulls out all the stops. In Indonesia, a documentary crew goes to a commune called "Paradise Gates" to interview the cult leader, "Father" (a wildly crazed Epy Kusnandar), and his family of followers. Let's just say the visitors get a hell of a lot more than they bargained for. A mini-masterpiece all by itself, this visceral, disturbingly creepy slow-burn (it runs the longest at approximately a half hour) makes the previous two segments feel like kids' stuff.
By nature, horror anthologies can be hit-or-miss, even in short-burst tales, but "V/H/S/2" one-ups itself time and again, choosing wisely as if the tapes were cobbled together by nightmare conjurers. Since these things can't be graded on a curve, the acting is still as competent as it needs to be. A minor quibble: the reactions of Levine and Abbott in the bookending/intercutting segments are too low-key after each tape. All one of them can say is, "I just watched something really weird. It couldn't have been real." Altogether, "V/H/S/2" is a freaky, expeditious blast for a Friday night. Those with a sensitivity for buckets of blood or anything dealing with the macabre should probably stick to the Disney Channel. A third one, please.
Grade: B +