DVDanger: Contracted: Phase 2

Even zombies need love

About last bite: Riley (Matt Mercer) makes the zombie shuffle of shame in Contracted: Phase 2 (Image courtesy of IFC Midnight)

Horror loves sequels like Michael Myers loves masks. But considering how often the protagonist, antagonist – or both – leave the set in a body bag, sometimes it's hard to create a "what happens next?" scenario. Zombies make that easy, because the big bad is a virus. That means movies like Contracted: Phase 2 are nearly inevitable.

The original, 2012's Contracted featured Najarra Townsend as Samantha, a woman who ends up with something a lot worse than a dose of the clap after a drunken, clearly nonconsensual sexual encounter. The sequel begins where the first ended – Samantha, fully infected, standing in the middle of the road, with armed police officers staring at her, and her mother calling to her. Quickly, everything goes wrong for her, with her mother's throat torn out and Samantha on the pathologist's slab.

The first film had one really fine idea: following the first person to become a zombie as they see their own body fall apart. However, its failure was that it fell between two stools, being neither brain-eating nor heart-rending. It neither embraced the subject matter's body horror, in the way that the similarly-themed Thanatamorphose did so unapologetically, nor had the narrative and emotional strength to make Samanatha's plight equal to Abigail Breslin's teen despair in Maggie, or Alexandra Essoe's collapse into hell in Starry Eyes.

Director Josh Forbes takes over from series creator Eric England, and quickly solves some of the original's problems. First, he's prepared to get a little more graphic and gruesome in his depiction of the disease's symptoms (including a postmortem that would get a seal of approval from Canadian practical effects provocateur Rémy Couture.)

The more welcome development is in the protagonists. Samantha was inherently unlikable, and neither England's script nor Townsend's performance did nothing much to rectify that. With her in the morgue, the lens shifts to Matt Mercer as Riley. He was patient Griselda from the first film who made the mistake of letting his crush seduce him when she was at the other side of death's door.

Forbes and first-time script writer Craig Walendziak follow England's so-so body horror with a disease procedural. The hunt is on for BJ (played in the original by You're Next scribe Simon Barrett, recast here as Ouija's Morgan Peter Brown), the patient zero that originally infected Samantha. In the first film, he was little more than a perverted cipher. Now he's a full-blown avenging angel of self-righteous moral fortitude, rambling about destroying the whore that is modern civilization. The fact he's infecting it with his zombie-plague penis is not lost on anyone.

The key here is that Forbes knows that the story is pretty goofy, and he embraces both the silliest and most gruesome aspects of a zombie movie told from the infected's viewpoint. There are even some fun little jabs at how people act around death, with Riley's mother trying to set him up with her nurse Harper (Anna Lore) at a wake, and his irksome sister (Laura Vale) turning the whole affair into a launch party for her trite self-help book.

But Forbes makes the terrible mistake of tying himself to many of the tropes and visual cues that England established. It's unlikely that anyone other than fans of the first will dive into the second, meaning they don't need to see those same moments of transformation (been there, watched the maggots wriggle in that). What's disappointing is that the most entertaining moments of gore are when he finds his own path, rather than reusing the first film's gimmicks.

Plus, at a scant 78 minutes (including a highly predictable mid-credit sting setting up Phase 3), it's surprising how much narrative wadding there is here. Most glaring is Glaswegian actress Marianna Palka as Detective Crystal Young, playing Clarice Starling by way of the original Resident Evil. She's fine in the part, but there's so little for her to do that her presence and subplot feel like a way to justify calling this a feature.

It's an undeniable improvement over the first one. But as "STDs as horror" metaphors go, it's probably better for your viewing health to get a good dose of the It Follows.

Contracted: Phase 2 (IFC Midnight) is available now on DvD/Blu-ray combo and VOD.

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