Directed by Simon Barrett, Timo Tjahjanto, Jennifer Reeder, Ryan Prows, and Chloe Okuno.
A police S.W.A.T. team investigates a mysterious VHS tape and discovers a sinister cult that has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.
As much as horror anthologies have a tendency to be rather hit-and-miss affairs, the V/H/S franchise – created by Bloody Disgusting founder Brad Miska – managed to fill an untapped niche, melding found footage thrills with a clear nostalgia for the heyday of grotty horror movies on videotape.
But after two solid entries, the execrable third film, V/H/S: Viral, caused the franchise to flame out in 2014, well before its time felt truly up. Yet with the recent streaming media boom offering a low-maintenance platform for horror filmmakers to get their work seen, it’s not terribly surprising that a fourth V/H/S film is now here, having been shot in secret during the ongoing pandemic.
The big deviation from the prior films is that the entire anthology’s script was reportedly written by one person; David Bruckner (The Night House), who also directed the short “Amateur Night” from the first V/H/S.
And though pre-release hype has made much of the fact that this anthology’s story unfolds over a more singular continuity, it’s absolutely fair to say that V/H/S/94 is still a fractured assortment of four stories glued together by a wraparound. As such this new entry doesn’t so much feel like a reinvention of the original formula as it does a playful remix.
The wraparound, “Holy Hell” (directed by Knives & Skin‘s Jennifer Reeder), follows a SWAT team that raids a dingy drug lab only to find themselves facing off against a far more sinister enemy, who is responsible for displaying the four other stories we witness throughout the anthology.
In order, the four segments are; “Storm Drain” (from Chloe Okuno), where a reporter (Anna Hopkins) enters a storm drain to try and photograph the mythical creature known as the “Rat Man”; “The Empty Wake” (from You’re Next writer Simon Barrett), following a young funeral home attendant who oversees an overnight wake for a man; “The Subject” (from The Night Comes for Us‘ Timo Tjahjanto), depicting a mad scientist’s experiments with fusing man and machine; and “Terror” (from Lowlife’s Ryan Prows), where a white militia attempts to use a captured supernatural entity to carry out a terrorist attack on the U.S. government.
First off, fans can rest easy that V/H/S/94 is a fun time, and certainly leagues ahead of the bungled previous entry. While more a funhouse of scares than a particularly inventive or original ride, it should deliver the goods for those who preferred the more considered thrills of the first two V/H/S movies.
If there’s any one complaint to have about this refined take, it’s that having one writer pen all the segments robs the filmmakers of the opportunity to put their own artistic stamp on their work. Timo Tjahjanto’s certifiably bonkers short is really the only one among the bunch that has a distinct personality, and given that the fun of the better V/H/S films has been watching filmmakers experiment within the constraints of short-form storytelling, it scarcely feels worth hiring five directors to tell a story from the mind of a single creative.
But if you can forgive some occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue – particularly during the SWAT team wraparound, which feels almost deliberately indebted to ’90s FMV video games – there is a lot of fun to be had here. Bruckner and his filmmaking team achieve a largely winning fusion of mild creep, nauseating gross-out, and periodic perverse comedy – the latter especially so in the segment that takes satirical aim at America’s white militias.
But first and foremost, V/H/S/94 is a sensory triumph; the wrapped-in-clingfilm aesthetic of VHS tape is perfectly captured here, while the series’ signature glitching video conveys skips between “scenes.” It all feels real rather than smacking of high-def digital video that’s been downgraded in post-production, with the filmmakers reportedly using of-the-era video equipment to make it as authentic as possible.
Beyond that, ’90s touchstones are brilliantly captured; news reports are shot within the stylistic conventions of the era, retro computer graphics and all, and a fake infomercial for a “Veggie Masher” is so startlingly believable I had to check it wasn’t in fact a real ad. Elsewhere expect to see a lot of CRT TVs, occasional glimpses of the earlier Internet, and of course the inevitable presence of grunge music.
It’s all tremendously effective in generating the desired mood, and the low-fi presentation also helps mask the limitations of both the visual effects and cheap sets, many of which were reportedly built in hotel rooms and conference rooms. Throw in the complications of producing such a film during a pandemic and it’s truly impressive how ambitious V/H/S/94 gets with some of its production elements, rough around the edges though they can be – albeit sometimes intentionally so.
Fans of cranial destruction should be left especially satisfied by some of the ultra-violence on display here, as the filmmakers cannily meld practical effects with digital assistance to get the job done. This is especially important in Tjahjanto’s short, the longest and most technically challenging of the lot.
The version of the film pre-screened for press without opening titles clocks in at 103 minutes, and could’ve used a few quick nips and tucks – easily disguised with digital glitches – to shorten some of the longer-than-ideal downtime. The final resolution to the wraparound also feels relatively deflating, like Bruckner hitting a wall of writer’s block, but in the very least leaves the door open for future V/H/S volumes.
Despite Bruckner’s oversight of the entire project lending it a theoretically holistic feel, there’s still an air of inconsistency to the project, with Simon Barret’s funeral home short sticking out as by far the weakest of the lot. The other three main shorts, however, achieve a fairly harmonious balance of unnerving suspense and balls-to-the-wall action, aided by the efforts of a solid ensemble cast.
While the more traditional anthology format, with each filmmaker writing their own story, is both messier and more interesting, this new take is still an encouraging step back on firm ground for a sorely-missed franchise. Flawed but fun, V/H/S/94 is a marked return to form for the horror anthology series, and hopefully indicates it’s back to stay – especially with horror-streamer Shudder co-producing the project for release on their platform. More of this, please.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.