Adam Wingard

“Safe Haven” in V/H/S/2 is one of five segments making up the horror anthology.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Magnet Releasing | Daily Texan Staff

Of all the films one would expect to launch a franchise, “V/H/S” is both one of the most unlikely and the most surprisingly sequel-friendly. “V/H/S/2” ups the ante in every way, with a much-improved roster of reputable horror directors delivering a veritable Baskin Robbins of terror. From zombies, ghosts and aliens to the Antichrist himself, the quartet of films that compose “V/H/S/2” are just as varied as they are terrifying, making the follow-up to the first film unexpectedly promising and ambitious.

Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the architects of the series, direct the first two segments. Barrett helms the film’s wrap-around segment, which finds a private detective breaking into a missing college student’s house to track down clues to his whereabouts. Instead of evidence, the detective and his sidekick find a massive collection of horrific video tapes, each one a short, found-footage style horror film from a different director.

Wingard’s segment is a fairly typical horror exercise, starring Wingard as a medical patient whose eye is replaced by a synthetic one that’s able to see ghosts. This is easily the weakest of the film’s five parts, but its solid scares and grimy aesthetic sets the tone nicely for what’s to come. While Wingard’s contribution fails to stand out, that’s merely because of the creativity and horror acumen the rest of the shorts in “V/H/S/2” display.

Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez, the creators of “The Blair Witch Project,” direct the most original segment in the bunch, capturing the dawn of a zombie apocalypse from a freshly zombified bicyclist’s point-of-view. It’s hard to find a fresh take on the zombie mythos in today’s oversaturated cinema, but Hale and Sanchez do a good job making their spin on the undead a gory, entertaining and even surprisingly heartfelt addition.

The next tape, from Indonesian directors Gareth Evans (“The Raid”) and Timo Tjahjtanto, shows documentary filmmakers entering an infamous cult’s compound on a fateful day. This short, easily the highlight of the film, is brilliantly constructed, setting up the geography of the compound and the location of the doc crew’s cameras carefully before devolving into horrific chaos of the highest order. Evans has a knack for building relentless, varied set pieces, and this segment mixes several flavors of nightmarish imagery brilliantly, perfectly encapsulating everything that works about horror in a pantheon-level assault on the senses.

The final segment from “Hobo With a Shotgun” director Jason Eisener is something of a comedown from the thrilling Indonesian horror bonanza, but his tale of aliens invading a quiet slumber party is funny and jarring in all the right ways. While Eisener’s alien abductors are just scary enough, they’re fairly generic, but his work truly shines in his writing of their targets, a group of rambunctious teens. Eisener nails the way teens interact and goof around, and he captures those moments of carefree interaction so authentically that it’s easy to be invested in their survival.

As far as horror sequels go, “V/H/S/2” is the rare follow-up that surpasses its predecessor in terms of scares, quality and consistency. The sequel also conveys an ambitious sense of a deeper mythology behind the tapes that its unfortunate leads absorb, and as long as the franchise can keep the scares as nail-bitingly, spine-chillingly intense, another “V/H/S” film would be more than welcome.

 

Kate Lyn Sheil dons a mysterious mask in Ti West’s segment of “V/H/S.” In this movie, hers is the most character centered segment of six short films. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

 

Horror films have to choose a style and stick with it. It is tough to navigate between the jump scares of slasher lore, the slow burn or the haunted house jamboree, but “V/H/S” makes full use of its anthology format, combining the voices of several budding horror directors in an eclectic, varied and effective collection of short horror films that will terrify you on multiple levels.

Several of the half-dozen directors of “V/H/S” have worked in horror before, but Adam Wingard is perhaps the most promising filmmaker in the group. However, he’s given the shortest shrift here, relegated to directing the film’s connective tissue. The film features a group of miscreants hired to break into a house to procure a videotape. Instead, they find a dead body and numerous stacks of cassettes, leaving them to sift through the tapes, each of which contains a different director’s take on found-footage horror. While this segment is absolutely necessary for “V/H/S” to work, and occasionally evokes a lo-fi “Clockwork Orange” with its enthusiastic depiction of thuggish shenanigans, it lacks Wingard’s directorial stamp.

While Wingard fails to bring anything distinctive to the film’s framework, directors like Ti West and David Bruckner are well within their wheelhouse here.

Bruckner’s feature debut was in another anthology, zombie thriller “The Signal,” and his segment here features a group of college guys who hit the town with a camera hidden in a pair of glasses and less-than-honorable intentions. Both Bruckner’s and Wingard’s VHS-shot openings are distractingly ugly and tough to watch, and if all found-footage films looked this terrible, the genre would be dead in the water. However, their commitment to their premise is admirable, and Bruckner’s short rewards those that stick with it with a bloody, satisfying climax.

West is also playing in familiar territory here, and takes a more traditional approach to found footage, simply sampling from the camcorder of a vacationing couple played by Joe Swanberg and Sophia Takal. West has practically mastered the slow burn by now, and squeezes in scares that are chilling in their simplicity alongside predictably strong character work. He even manages to get a decent performance out of Swanberg, a consistently irritating screen presence, and “V/H/S” finds West effortlessly doing what he does best on a much smaller scale.

Meanwhile, Swanberg directs his own addition to the film, a ghost story told through a long-distance couple’s Skype interactions. His short has easily the film’s most nerve-wracking scares, and its most relatable character work, helped along by the adorable Helen Rogers. Using Skype proves to be an innovative choice, making for the film’s most spine-chilling moments and a refreshing change of pace for Swanberg.

Glenn McQuaid wins for the most creative application of the film’s premise. His tale of a camping trip led astray stands out for its plentiful gore and the audacity of his villain, a monster that can only be seen in the playback errors of the VHS tape. However, the best thing about “V/H/S” is its final segment. The Halloween-set segment follows a group of friends who wander into an empty house in search of a party. Everything is off, ever so subtly, until they stumble upon something horrible in the attic, and then “V/H/S” flies off the hinges, tossing off scares left and right in one of the most entertaining sustained horror sequences in recent memory. It’s a rollicking, excellent finale to the film.

Printed on Thursday, December 4th, 2012 as: Directors pool horror preferences

Tilda Swinton stars as the mother a demented child in Lynne Ramsey’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Aliquam vestibulum lorem eu augue interdum et tincidunt magna consectetur. (Photo courtesy of BBC Films)

Fantastic Fest, which was held at the South Lamar Alamo Drafthouse from Sept. 22 to 29, is an annual film festival composed entirely of genre fare, from horror to sci-fi to fantasy to whatever genre the average Japanese film falls into. It’s also arguably the best week of the year to be a film fan in Austin, both for the sheer eclecticism of the films offered and the great community of movie buffs that springs up at the Alamo Drafthouse. Attendees range from Austinites, filmmakers, fans from around the country and even from the furthest corners of the world.

While previous festivals have held their opening night gala at the Paramount Theatre, often screening a hotly anticipated genre film, this year, the entire festival relocated to the Drafthouse, resulting in a smaller scale that carried over to the festival. While last year’s opening night included a double feature of “Buried” and “Let Me In,” this year gave us the revolting “Human Centipede II.”

In fact, very little love was lost for major studios at this year’s festival. Lionsgate, which purchased the award-winning “You’re Next” after its Toronto debut, canceled a second screening of the film, making its sole Saturday midnight screening one of the most in-demand of the festival. Paramount’s “The Loved Ones” was pulled from the program a few days before its first screening (although they did make it up to the crowd with an early screening of “Paranormal Activity 3.”)

While the lack of major features was apparent at this year’s festival, this just made room for a wide range of wonderful, under-the-radar titles that became popular as the festival went on. Small titles like “Juan of the Dead” and “A Boy and His Samurai” were discussed at length, heralded as the best of the festival, and additional screenings sold out quickly.

Thanks to the staff at Fantastic Fest, actually attending the movies was made much easier. In previous years, lines formed outside the Drafthouse around 9 a.m. every day of the festival — not an easy schedule to keep when most attendees are operating under the explosive combination of midnight movies and plenty of beer for the entire fest. This year, online ticketing was available, a huge benefit that removed the drawback of roasting in line outside the Drafthouse to get tickets.

As always, Fantastic Fest remains the most fun and unusual of Austin’s three large film festivals, with opening night’s human centipede-themed party, the first-ever Fantastic Fest prom and a closing night superhero carnival where the deep-fried culinary options could clog your arteries on sight. To put it simply, any Austin movie buff who misses out on Fantastic Fest is missing out on much more than the films — they’re missing out on a wonderful week where a small community springs up at the Alamo Drafthouse, fueled by a mutual love of food, beer and movies, and there is no better place to be in the last week of September.

Below, the best films of Fantastic Fest:

“You’re Next”

The story of crossbow-wielding, animal mask-wearing menaces terrorizing an anniversary dinner at a mansion in the woods could have been a commonplace home invasion film, but thanks to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, “You’re Next” is a smart, funny and often scary twist on the genre. Thanks to the film’s quick pace, skill at subverting the audience’s expectations and relentless, confident execution of its premise and characters, Wingard has crafted a true crowd-pleasing slasher flick and perhaps the best American horror film of the year. “You’re Next” will probably see theatrical release sometime next year, and this one is more than worth the wait.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

There was no better performance at Fantastic Fest than Tilda Swinton’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” tour-de-force and director Lynne Ramsay’s challenging gut punch of a film is a red-tinged examination of the odd relationship between a psychopath and his bewildered mother. Swinton’s mother, torn between her maternal obligation to her son and her instinct to get away from the malicious Kevin (Ezra Miller), is a fascinating character to watch, and Swinton sells the internal struggle with everything she has, from the barely-contained sanity as an infant Kevin sobs from sunrise to sundown to the pure devastation of the film’s final moments. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is enthralling, disturbing stuff and a very hard film to shake, executing its deeply unsettling material with a nuance that makes the potentially exploitative feel creepily plausible.

“A Boy and His Samurai”

Who would have thought one of the best films at Fantastic Fest wouldn’t have a body count? Yoshihiro Nakamura’s understated romantic comedy about a time-traveling samurai (Ryô Nishikodo) is perhaps the sweetest and most wholesome film of the festival, and its predictable formula has enough new elements and easy charm that its predictability is more or less irrelevant. Really, “A Boy and His Samurai” proves that Fantastic Fest-ers are a bunch of big softies at heart. Even if a film doesn’t fit into the traditional confines of the festival, it will still be wholly embraced if it’s as great as this one.

“Juan of the Dead”

“Juan of the Dead” is both the first independent film to come out of Cuba in 50 years and a relatively fresh, original take on the zombie comedy genre. As Juan, Alexis Díaz de Villegas is likeable even as he exploits the impending apocalypse for financial gain, and writer/director Alejandro Brugués stretches his budget to impressive levels, working in a few large-scale scenes of zombie mayhem and one of the most memorable mass undead decapitations to ever grace the silver screen. “Juan of the Dead” is heartfelt, just gory enough and oddly, kind of touching, and one can only hope it finds a U.S. distributor so zombie fans all over can see this unique film.

Sleep Tight

“Sleep Tight” is a creepy, creepy movie, one that worms under your skin and wiggles around, so icky and squirm-worthy that it’s near impossible to stop thinking about. Director Juame Balagueró has a true exercise in gross-out intensity with the film, which stars Luis Tosar as Cesar, a doorman obsessed with one of the tenants of his Barcelona apartment complex. The film doesn’t play nice, and a few of its late revelations up the creepiness to uncomfortable levels, but nothing at this year’s Fantastic Fest came close in terms of nail-biting, seat-clutching intensity as “Sleep Tight.”

Printed on Monday, October 3, 2011 as: Fantastic Fest pleases crowds with smaller scale