JANUARY 11, 2016
There aren't a lot of zombie sequels, and of the few, they generally follow an unwritten rule that there shouldn't be any strong continuity between them, if at all. Likely because of the game backdrop, the Resident Evil series is an exception, and Re-Animator sort of counts (I never really think of them as zombie movies, more mad scientist movies). But otherwise, they're always stand-alone: none of Romero's movies are connected in any meaningful way, The Dead 2 was basically a remake in a different country, the ROTLD's didn't have much to do with each other (4 and 5 were connected, if memory serves, but not even the film's owner wants anything to do with those), etc. Contracted: Phase 2 bucks that trend, however, as it not only picks up the second the first left off, but actually requires you to see the first in order to make sense out of a couple of its plot points (including the setup for a 3rd film). Even more surprising, it does this with a different creative team, making its rare approach something of a minor miracle in the horror genre - a new filmmaking team with some respect for what came before?
Of course, whether or not the movie is GOOD is a different matter. The first Contracted wasn't a masterpiece by any means, but it was an interesting approach to a zombie movie - what if, instead of having the outbreak happen in the first 10 minutes (or already ongoing, as many modern ones do), we just follow patient zero? The heroine got what she thought was an STD early on and proceeded to spend the movie degenerating in the usual ways (discolored eyes, veiny skin, hair and teeth falling out, etc), but it wasn't clear until the very end that she was becoming a traditional, human-flesh eating zombie (see the movie Thanatomorphose for the non-zombie version of a similar scenario). You would think that a sequel would have the outbreak further along and give us some traditional undead action, but (probably for budgetary reasons) they opted to more or less do the same thing, showing the slow transformation of Riley, one of the original's minor characters who was stupid enough to have sex with the protagonist when she was all but ready to eat him.
It's always a gamble to see a supporting character take the lead in a sequel, and it largely works here, even if there isn't an element of surprise. Riley was the sort of character you expect to die horribly in the first movie because he's nice and sweet, the type of person who has no place in dark horror movies, so the fact that he survived at all was already a surprise - I wouldn't have expected him to take main protagonist duties in a followup. Riley's lovesick angle is dropped (in fact, a new character pines for him and he barely shows interest) and we meet his sister and his best buddy, who happens to be a doctor, but it's not all new faces. Three other characters from the original return, but only one of them is given a proper reintroduction. That would be "BJ", the guy who gave the girl in the first one the disease when he date raped her, and is up to his old tricks in this one - we see him injecting a hooker with something, proving his infections are in purpose. BJ is played by actor Morgan Peter Brown this time instead of Simon Barrett (who, if memory serves, was barely seen in the original, making it a fairly seamless recasting), and the role is bulked up considerably - we hear his silly "I will end the world" MO and he even gets to shoot up some cops at the hospital during the climax.
The other two returns are treated as a surprise of sorts, for the hardcore Contracted fans I guess - they just show up and we have to know who they are. I don't know how many people will be watching if they haven't seen "Phase 1", but if such a person exists I assume they will quickly understand why zombie movies usually don't bother with a continuing storyline. I'm not sure anyone really cares about what BJ and [REDACTED] are up to, because that wasn't the appeal of the first film or even the bulk of the followup. BJ's scenes here are fine, but they ultimately just build up more mystery instead of settling it, trusting that we will see Phase 3 for the answers to questions we didn't exactly have when we sat down. Don't force our investment, movie!
But watching Riley's journey is still a decent enough premise for a sequel, especially when it's only like 70 minutes or so without credits (and two stingers). One interesting thing is that he actually contacts the police about BJ instead of doing all of the investigating on his own, allowing him to try to go on with his life. So he goes to work (where another infected person shows up), goes on a date, etc. And in one inspired bit, he goes to a wake for the girl who got killed in the first movie, where he has to endure her awful hipster friends, including one who sings a painful (read: hilarious) song about her with lyrics like "Alice, come drink from my chalice..."). There are other little bits of humor like that sprinkled throughout the movie, which I wouldn't go so far as to say it SAVES it, but certainly keeps it squarely in "perfectly fine" timekilling entertainment.
As for the gore gags, they're similarly OK. Riley doesn't get AS decrepit as the original girl, but there's a pretty horrifying blood pissing scene to make the guys squeamish, plus a nice bit where he confronts his love interest about her own symptoms, and a would-be hero, thinking Riley is bothering her, intervenes and pays the price. The makeup work on their skin/eyes/lips/etc is quite good, though it seems like it takes longer for Riley's symptoms to really get bad, so we don't get into really gross stuff for quite a while (except for the blood piss, but that's always been a particularly tough one for me to watch). The movie offers a few more infected parties (four, I think?) but they're used for quick jolts of action, not so much for deteriorating body horror that the first one excelled at. I wish there was a look at the makeup FX process in the bonus features, but alas we only get two: a trailer and an extended trailer, and if you think I bothered to watch both to note the differences, you sir/madam have never had a child or a crippling video game habit that demanded your free time.
Overall, I give them credit for trying something different for a zombie sequel (and with Marvel, the Fasts, etc, you can't really blame anyone for embracing continuity), but when it ultimately feels like an extended setup for a 3rd movie, I can't help but feel kind of annoyed. Maybe if Phase 3 (if it ever exists) is a knockout, I'll be more forgiving, the way I softened on Saw V when the next one proved to be such a fine return to form, but that's a big IF. Die-hard fans of the original, if they can get past the fact that it's not from writer/director Eric England (who doesn't seem to be too thrilled about this one's existence, if his Twitter is any indication), will enjoy seeing the supporting cast take the spotlight, and sequelphiles can add it to the admirable world of "picks up the second the last one ended" followups (joining Halloween II, the Hatchet sequels, etc), but as its own entity, it falls short of being a success. Watchable, sure, but I can't imagine a scenario where I'd ever want to watch it again.
What say you?
P.S. If the new director's name sounds familiar to you, it's because it's the same Josh Forbes who made some headlines last year when he launched a (successful!) crowdfunded campaign to buy his ticket for the MTV Video Awards, where he was nominated for his Walk The Moon video. MTV, apparently, doesn't give nominees a ticket unless they're famous (and thus wouldn't bother to go as they'd probably have something better to do with their time). He lost to Fall Out Boy, for the record.