To some extent, V/H/S/2 follows the template of V/H/S, the first film in the franchise. Once again, we are presented with an abraded and distorted video tape that glitches in and out of a series of short films. Once again, too, each film is helmed by a different director, and each explores a different horror genre. The first, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” directed by Adam Wingard, delives into surgical and haunted house horror; the second, Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hales’ “A Ride in the Park,” explores zombie splattercore; the third, “Safe Haven,” directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, takes the franchise into cult horror; and the fourth, Jason Eisener’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” is, as the title suggests, UFO horror.
Underpinning these four films is the framing narrative, “Tape 49,” directed by Simon Barrett, and it is here that we first start to glimpse the way in which V/H/S/2 departs from the original. As in V/H/S, the framing story involves a couple of people who break into a house and discover a bank of televisions and VHS devices. This time, however, the bank of televisions is augmented, on the one hand, by the presence of a laptop and, on the other hand, by an entire room full of VHS tapes. VHS technology is both more material and immaterial than ever before, split between the cassette collection and the laptop, foreshadowing a film that contemplates the fate of recording devices on the cusp of total digital media saturation – the last film in the franchise that is able to plausibly ignore smart phones as our media horizon.
For that reason, V/H/S/2 moves away from literal video to focus on recording devices that are more embodied in, and more disruptive to, the body and the eye. In the first film, glitch was fused with viscera, static with wounds. The sequel makes that link even clearer, deflecting glitch into gore for its first three episodes, before returning to the most flamboyant glitch of the franchise in the fourth. Where the first film presented static and glitch as an assault upon the eye, V/H/S/2 is preoccupied with eye violence, or with footage that is painful to watch. At the same time, V/H/S/2 moves away from the austerity of the original shorts, which typically trapped us in just one recording device. Here, most stories have several recording devices, although they all centre on whatever device is recording or disseminating eye trauma, as if this were the last way to insist on the analog body in the face of an omniscient digital regime.
The first film, “Phase 1 Clinical Trials,” introduces this new approach in a particularly literal and gruesome manner. Its protagonist Herman, played by Wingard himself, has had a chip implanted in his eye after an “unusual injury” that is meant to gradually correct his sight. Instead, the chip reveals a host of ghosts in his house, one of whom eventually pulls out the eye-camera, and forces him to swallow it. The last image we see is the inside of Herman’s digestive tract, as Wingard embeds sight back into the body (his own body) in the most literal way. Similarly, the second story, “A Ride in the Park,” focuses on a biker, played by Jay Saunders, who is attacked by zombies, and becomes a zombie himself. We see his subsequent rampage from the perspective of his GoPro, which is entirely immersed in his first victim’s stomach as he ravages the entrails. Shortly after, the biker, and his new zombie companions, come across a family, who fight back by stabbing him in the eye with a knife. For the last part of the film, this knife protrudes from his eye, in the bottom half of the GoPro frame, before the biker finally pulls it out, eyeball and viscera attached, while the camera remains running.
At stake in both these stories is a belief that video technology engaged the body and eye, and affirmed that we possess bodies and eyes, in ways unavailable to digital technology. Accordingly, the third film, “Safe Haven,” the best in the franchise to date, juxtaposes this older embodied eye with a more digital eye. This time around, the action is shot from a buttoncam that a trio of reporters bring into a cult compound in order to covertly film its activities. No sooner does the reporter wearing the buttoncam enter the presence of the cult guru, however, than she starts gagging and convulsing. This triggers the apocalyptic rituals of the cult, who tie the reporter to a table, torture her, and then slaughter themselves, before returning from the dead to greet the monstrously reincarnated guru who breaks out of her chest. The buttonhole camera thus leads to an extravagant outpouring of gore, and yet directors Evans and Tjahjanto pair this with a video game aesthetic, using the buttoncam as an avatar that takes us up and down corridor after corridor. When Herman, in the first film, returned home after the artificial eye implant, the first thing he did was start gaming, and the directors continue that trend here, suggesting that the tortured eyes of video viewers have turned into the mobile eyes of gamers, spread and distributed across screens in a new way.
“Safe Haven” is powerful partly because it remains ambivalent about whether the eye of the digital gamer is more or less engaged than the eye of the video watcher. It’s the same tension that drives Evans’ masterpiece, The Raid, both one of the most embodied and most game-like action films of the last decade. This ambivalence is the pinnacle of the film, and leads to the epilogue of “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” the last and shortest episode. Rather than attempting to be scary, this episode aims to be abrasive in the most concrete sense. There’s a nominal narrative about a group of teenagers who are surprised by an alien attack, but it’s quickly subsumed into the most flamboyant glitch textures of the entire franchise. From the start, V/H/S/2 emphasises glare more than the original, as if to bring static full circle with the white light fields of digital life, and that tendency culminates here, as the abduction event becomes an intermittent strobe pulse that seems designed to engender an epilepsy attack, a migraine, or some other drastic bodily reaction. In effect, the fourth film aims to abduct our bodies, or abduct us from out bodies, leaving us hovering between analog embodiment and digital dissemination, much as the teenagers spend most of the film between ground and sky.
While V/H/S/2 might not be as scary as V/H/S, then, it’s a fascinating addition to the franchise – and a genuine attempt to come to terms with the mammoth technological shifts that can take place in the span of a single year. Between 2012 and 2013, a lot changed, making this sequel as much of a period piece as the original. In doing so, it sets a profound challenge for the rest of the franchise – how to maintain the VHS concept in a world where smartphones have become the new normal? V/H/S Viral provides one answer to that, in arguably the most extravagant and eccentric entry in the franchise, and V/H/S 94 and 99 provide another answer, by reverting to specific years during the VHS era, but by asking the question in the first place, V/H/S/2 holds a special role in the series, and is the lynchpin of its serial evolution.