When it comes to horror movies, no matter how modestly successful, a sequel is always in the works. The original VHS barely cracked $100,000 in domestic box office, but it proved a bigger hit on video… and with a budget that could fit on a couple of credit cards, the formula proved all but irresistible. We could have predicted a VHS 2 as readily as the sun rising in the east. What we couldn’t have predicted is how much better it does than its predecessor.
Both films follow the same format: found footage anthologies centered around disturbing collections of obsolete video cassettes. The first film was hit-and-miss, with a few standouts struggling against a plethora of less-than-immortal afterthoughts. The sequel uses a better framing device and establishes a better success-to-failure ratio. The opening posits a private eye (Lawrence Michael Levine) and his assistant (Kelsy Abbott) who stumble across the collection in search of a missing boy. From there, we launch into four separate shorts, involving a man (Adam Wingert) with a cybernetic eye who sees ghosts; a bicyclist (Jay Saunders) who stops to help a damsel in distress in the park; an Indonesian news crew reporting on a strange cult; and a slumber party that runs afoul of aliens from outer space.
As if realizing that the first film stretched itself too thin, the second comprises fewer segments which function far more effectively. VHS 2 strains to stay within its established format – the reasons for recording each episode are often quite contrived – but makes up for it with the kind of style and go-for-broke guts that exemplify the genre at its best. They’re essentially individual exercises in mood; the originality lies more in presentation than in content. If you can accept that, then it takes us to some pretty interesting places. We’ve seen plenty of zombie apocalypse stories, for instance, but none that show things solely from the zombie’s point of view. The gore factor looms extremely high, but so too does the imaginative way of delivering it: we’re often left cackling and marveling instead of just squirming uncomfortably.
Granted, it won’t score many points for originality. VHS 2 wear obvious influences from its betters on its sleeves, referencing everything from The Evil Dead to Ringu with little regard for its own voice. It also displays flashes of the wanton cruelty that dogged the first film, particularly a bit involving a family dog that left a bad taste in my mouth. There’s a thin line between bloody shocks and simple nihilism. VHS 2 stays on the right side of that line most of the time, but it can’t help but stumble every now and again. Furthermore, its reliance on shock tactics occasionally strays from the clever to the merely grotesque: a feature that lies in the eye of the beholder, to be sure, but nevertheless sabotages its otherwise admirable technique.
Luckily, it has a few things to offer beyond that technique, a fact that further emphasizes the filmmakers’ genre credentials. The segments tap into fundamental fears that make them more memorable than normal. Fears of birth, of powerlessness, of becoming monsters, of living in a universe where traditional morality fails us… we’ve seen them all before (and more effectively realized), but only infrequently with the verve on display here.
Most importantly, it loses the pretensions that ultimately scuttled the first film: that self-satisfied presumptiveness that equated a tiny bank account with genuine daring. VHS 2 gets the equation right, and if it’s not the best horror film we’ve seen this year, at least it puts the burgeoning franchise on a more promising path. Considering the microscopic cost of production, we have assuredly not seen the last of this series. Future entries would do well to follow the example set by this one.