Directors: Simon Barrett (Tape 49/Frame Narrative), Adam Wingard (Phase 1 Clinical Trials), Eduardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale (A Ride in the Park), Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Huw Evans (Safe Haven), Jason Eisener (Slumber Party Alien Abduction)
Rating:3 and a half camera glitches for this found footage anthology sequel. I had higher expectations given that most critics agreed this is the more successful of the two, but overall I found this one to be slightly more redundant despite the shorter run time and lacking in the playful, albeit sloppy, fun that I found to be abundantly offered in the first film, no matter how hit or miss it was. Yet, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this film overall, and I did find some elements to be scarier and more sophisticated; I simply think that the improvements that were indeed made did not necessarily elevate this sequel as a more enjoyable film than its predecessor.
Taking the film apart as I did with the first film, I’d like to offer one huge item of praise that is due, and that would be for this film’s frame narrative. I love both Wingard and Barrett, but I think Barrett’s storytelling was far creepier far quicker than Wingard’s frame narrative had been, which spent more time on developing less desirable characters.
I was, therefore, really excited when I got to the first story, Phase 1 Clinical Trials. Written by Barrett but directed by and starring Wingard, I was sure this story would be my favorite, but it wasn’t. I didn’t really come away from this film with a favorite or least favorite segment and I guess that’s what disappointed me most– at least in the first film, I could pinpoint which stories I loved and which ones I didn’t, but in this film I found them all to be more or less equally effective, without loving or hating any of them strongly.
Phase 1 centers on Wingard’s character who undergoes an experimental treatment to restore vision, via a camera transplant of sorts, in one of his eyes, injured in an accident. I thought the premise was great– I’m always looking for found footage directors and writers to step up their game and find interesting new ways of justifying the style– and there were certainly some cool tricks involved, particularly because this new technological eye of his makes him see dead people in his apartment. The point at which I started to not like the story as much is when we’re introduced to a girl who has similar experiences with hearing the deceased due to a similar implant in her ears. She seemingly– it’s kind of hard to tell, but I’m glad we aren’t given anymore than we are, in this case– has sex with Wingard’s character but everything happens in a manner all too quick from that point on, a flaw I found in a couple of these stories– it was so disorienting that I was too busy trying to catch myself up to be scared at all by the tale’s conclusion.
I respected A Ride in the Park more than I enjoyed it, which may be true of this entire film, but especially here, where we are given a first person zombie movie, essentially. A man on a bike ride with a camera attached to his helmet is confronted with, bitten by, and turned into a zombie, and we see everything from his perspective which is definitely nifty, to say the least. I really appreciated being in the zombie’s point of view because that’s a vantage point we really aren’t ever given.
Safe Haven is, by far, the most creepy, unique, smart and accomplished segment within the film, and it’s the only one I don’t have any specific complaints about but I still didn’t love it, somehow. It takes its time and presents us with an Indonesian cult; our way in is through the cameras– both overt and hidden– that are being worn and toted by a news crew looking to interview the head of the cult about the controversial lifestyle on the commune (it is implied that he has sex with the children to make them pure, so the creepiness begins far earlier than anything intentionally horrific occurs). The climax, once it finally begins, is a sick and strange series of events ranging from ritualized suicide to a demonic birth. Perhaps because we are meant to believe these cameras are of a higher quality or perhaps it is merely the style and set up of what we’re actually seeing, I found this segment to be really polished and truly scary, the only one out of the four that I can honestly and confidently say that last bit about.
The final segment, Slumber Party Alien Abduction, contained pros and cons, things I liked about it and things that fell flat. I thought the aliens were really genuinely terrifying, and I commend each of the segments for their effects work, actually (except for maybe Phase 1, in which the dead people didn’t really look all that dead to me). Storytelling-wise, this was perhaps the most disorienting of all the segments. I’m still not sure if it’s because the aliens were transporting or even just physically moving these characters from place to place, but it was jarring in a way that found footage usually isn’t for me. I also, personally, found the role of the dog distressing but I should have seen it coming, as per horror movie rules that state if there’s a pet it’s going to die. But I didn’t find it all that necessary for the story and I was kind of distracted by it.
Working our way back now to the closing portion of the frame narrative, which increases in its unsettling trajectory between each segment, I was really impressed with all the final little twists and turns and even unanswered elements of Barrett’s Tape 49. I think it is, again, a much more shocking and exciting and really quite simple frame narrative all in all.
As a found footage anthology, I think there definitely was a higher level of talent at work here, but somehow that didn’t equate to how much I enjoyed the first film, when I thought for sure it would surpass it altogether. I think the hit or miss aspect of both films is somehow distributed throughout each film differently, or at least that is my theory. It amounted to a sort of mixed bag in the first– some segments were great while others maybe weren’t as great, but it was still fun no matter which you got because each story was like a surprise or an experiment, which made even the lesser segments exciting and worthy. Here, it amounted instead to a more even keel throughout, where all four segments had both strengths and weaknesses within each of them, leaving me with a feeling of consistency that somehow translates to mediocrity and ambivalence, despite my telling myself this is, technically, a better film because of it. Maybe that’s just the guilty-pleasure part of me, though: preferring to be entertained by gritty imperfection than to be impressed by solid, and perhaps even safe, adequacy.