V/H/S was defined by its defiantly DIY aesthetic and pervasive "boys will be boys, girls will be man-eating succubi" tension. For some, the DIY look represented a commitment to the found-footage genre and willingness to take it to its distortion-ridden extremes, while its gender consciousness was merely an acknowledgment of horror's misogynist past; to others, it was a sporadically successful gimmick concealing a paucity of good material paired with outright gender hostility. Those who tended toward the second position may be relieved to discover that V/H/S/2, in welcome contrast to the first film's snuff-y atmosphere and general mean-spiritedness, features more humor, fewer hateful characters, and occasional twinges of relatable human emotion. Which isn't to say that the filmmakers skimp on violence; if anything, the sequel tops the original in terms of explicit gore. The difference, though, lies in context and execution, as the film isn't nasty simply for the sake of it.
The framing story—in established anthology-film tradition—is the weakest of the lot, both pointless and nonsensical. Two private investigators break into a dilapidated house to look for a missing college student and discover his stash of supernaturally themed found-footage videotapes instead. As in V/H/S, one person views the tapes while the other does some ill-advised exploring. One could nit-pick the sheer arbitrariness of the characters' behavior, but these segments are mercifully brief and the good stuff begins quickly enough. The first short, Adam Wingard's solidly functional "Clinical Trials," is a moderately creepy technological update of the old "I see dead people" trope. Wealthy man-child Herman (Wingard) gets a cybernetic implant to replace a damaged eye and isn't home one night before he starts seeing increasingly hostile ghosts. The story may be conventional, but any lack of surprises is offset by excellent direction. Jump scares are the most widely abused device in the genre's repertoire, but Wingard gets a pass for building the segment around them, interspersing each hysterical peak with effectively slow-burn buildups.
Things take a sharp left turn into bat-shit terrain with "A Ride in the Park," directed by Gregg Hale and Eduardo Sanchez, co-creators of The Blair Witch Project. The segment involves a biker (Jay Saunders) who straps on a helmet-cam for an idyllic woodland ride, only to be sidetracked by a zombie outbreak. This setup is an exceedingly clever negation of the implausibility plaguing most found-footage films: the suicidal narcissism required to continue operating a camera in the face of mortal danger. Hale and Sanchez bypass this obstacle deftly by having the biker join the undead hordes early on, creating what might be the first cinematic zombie story from the zombie's own perspective. This inversion is further augmented by hilariously excessive gore and a surprisingly poignant conclusion that hints Romero-like at a lingering humanity within the progressively mutilated protagonist.
This high point is further eclipsed by "Safe Haven," directed by Gareth Evans (The Raid: Redemption) and Timo Tjahjanto (whose short "Libido" was included in The ABCs of Death). An exhilarating demonstration of what the franchise can produce when unburdened by slavish adherence to gimmickry, the segment follows a documentary crew into the sun-dappled yet foreboding compound of an Indonesian cult leader (Epy Kusnandar). Initially suspecting the unhinged "Father" of sexually abusing his young acolytes, the crew discovers that his agenda is considerably more apocalyptic in nature. The short is a Lovecraftian nightmare of lunatic energy, indelible imagery, and a perfectly delivered conclusion that could prompt nervous laughter or terrified screams while validating either reaction. It's the Grand Guignol highlight of the franchise thus far, destined for prompt induction into the cult canon thanks to a prioritizing of high-concept narrative over the aesthetic dictates of the found-footage film.
This leaves Jason Eisener's (Hobo with a Shotgun) perfectly serviceable entry "Alien Abduction Slumber Party" in the unenviable position of trying to follow Evans and Tjahjanto's short, a task it falls short of despite considerable sturm und drang. The premise is even more tissue-thin than usual for the franchise (the chapter's title is a complete summary of its plot), and the short works more as an evocation of escalating terror than anything else. Eisener's cinematographic approach is distinguished by its incorporation of a dog's perspective (kids strap a camcorder to it in order to film a couple having sex) and this creative choice is about as visually incoherent as you'd imagine. The shaky-cam aesthetic is rendered even more seizure-inducing by an excessive use of flashing lights. But the aliens are suitably ominous and the abrupt shift from juvenile high-jinks to extraterrestrial stalk n' slash makes for a discomfiting experience.
V/H/S/2 is the rare sequel that learns from its predecessor's mistakes and improves on it in every way. Running one chapter shorter than the original, it moves at a pleasant clip and avoids the obnoxious improvisation that pads out so many of its found-footage brethren. It's a comprehensive demonstration of the anthology format's greatest strength: its ability to afford filmmakers enough space to experiment without giving them the time to get self-indulgent about it.