V/H/S/94 was reviewed out of Fantastic Fest, and will debut on Shudder on Oct. 6.
The fourth entry in the V/H/S franchise, and the first since 2014, V/H/S/94 is a lukewarm retread of familiar found footage imagery — with one major exception. Shot within the constraints of COVID lockdown, the anthology saga hops back in time to the 1990s, with a framing story and three horror shorts made in the U.S., each of which apes a distinctly home-video look, though they rarely do anything interesting with it. However, the fourth short, made in Indonesia, bucks this trend and takes a wildly innovative approach to the genre. It makes little effort to match the themes and aesthetics of the rest of the film, but it’s also what makes the whole experience worthwhile.
In keeping with previous entries, V/H/S/94 has a wraparound story involving the discovery of various tapes, each of which then plays in full as a standalone film. This framing device, titled Holy Hell, is helmed by Jennifer Reeder (writer-director of Knives and Skin), and it follows a SWAT team making their way through a grisly, labyrinthine crime scene where they find dead and mutilated bodies seated in front of television sets playing mysterious cassettes about cult-like happenings. Holy Hell is interspersed between each anthology short, and while it purports to tell a story of its own, little actually comes of this until the very end, when it attempts to make a self-reflexive statement about the supposedly provocative nature of the rest of the film.
The problem, however, is that V/H/S/94 rarely lives up to its own inflated self-image, starting with the way Holy Hell is presented. While its characters and costumes feel plucked from the mid ’90s, its overarching fabric feels visually inauthentic. Its 16:9 aspect ratio would be forgivable, as would the clash between its videotape static effects and its high-definition footage, were they not used to capture shots that felt so obviously blocked, rehearsed, and carefully composed. Holy Hell isn’t alone in this either. Little in the film’s 100-minute runtime has the raw visual unpredictability of something like The Blair Witch Project. And while it may seem unfair to compare V/H/S/94 to one of the urtexts of modern found footage horror, the first two shorts feel like direct descendants of the 1999 landmark, in that they try and fail to achieve several of the same things.
The first short is Storm Drain by Chloe Okuno, which follows a news report by an on-scene reporter and her cameraman, about a supposed “rat man” who lives in the sewers. Like The Blair Witch Project, it evokes the feeling of an urban legend being chased in real time, and for a good chunk of its 17 minutes, it actually lives up to this comparison, between its slow descent through winding tunnels and its focus on dark and endless spaces. Unfortunately, the tension it manages to skillfully build dissipates before long, once its camera catches glimpses (and then, full-body shots) of a rather silly-looking creature, and it presents a climax that renders its own found footage gimmick somewhat unnecessary.
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For better and for worse, Storm Drain pairs nicely with the second short, The Empty Wake by V/H/S veteran (and 2016 Blair Witch sequel writer) Simon Barrett. A more claustrophobic work, it chronicles an overnight wake, whose sole attendant — a young funeral home employee — begins to see and hear unsettling things, which only grow more terrifying once a storm knocks out the power. The family of the deceased wants the wake videotaped from multiple angles, so the short has a built-in excuse for its gimmick, but this ultimately works against it. The Empty Wake is at its strongest when the attendant holds the camera in her hand and uses its light to navigate the winding corners of the funeral home, so its additional angles only serve to break the immersion. Like Storm Drain, frantic whip pans across the darkness help rack up the tension, but also like Storm Drain, that tension is deflated as soon as the unseen becomes seen, and the mysterious becomes known.
However, the third film — Timo Tjahjanto’s The Subject, about a mad scientist and his technological experiments — plays with perspective and informational reveals in delirious fashion. It feels, at once, like the cheapest production in V/H/S/94, and yet the most carefully crafted; its plentiful CGI effects are cartoonish, but its eerie production design is wonderfully detailed. Like the other shorts, it also unfolds in 1994, and while its footage is unapologetically in HD, this has a wildly original justification, one that blurs the lines between the human eye and the camera’s perspective in head-spinning fashion.
Not only does The Subject take a hilariously twisted approach to found footage, it also finds several excuses — good ones, at that! — to transform from a seedy body-horror film into an all-out action splatter-fest that resembles a first-person shooter video game. At nearly half an hour in length, it’s easily the longest segment in V/H/S/94, and the film is better for it, because Tjahjanto peppers his lunatic visual approach with a number of surprising ethical dilemmas as well. It’s a work of transhumanistic madness that’s as thoughtful as it is maniacally exciting.
Sadly, V/H/S/94 peaks with this explosive penultimate entry (though to be fair, Tjahjanto is generally a tough act to follow). Its final short, Terror by Ryan Prows, at least has the distinction of actually looking like it was filmed (or rather, taped) in 1994. It begins in intriguing fashion, by presenting a white supremacist Christian death-cult executing a man at point blank range, before it plays the execution once again, from what appears to be a different angle. However, before long, the recursive nature of this video soon reveals something more strange, sinister, and tongue-in-cheek, as the cult members wax poetic about cleansing America of impurities while preparing to unleash a supernatural weapon.
Aesthetically, Terror is easily the most on-the-fly entry in V/H/S/94, with intentionally haphazard and almost timid camerawork that rarely feels ready, but always captures something interesting (even if the sound design is a bit too polished to maintain this illusion). However, it unfortunately ends up in the company of Storm Drain, The Empty Wake, and even the film’s framing device by building to an uninspired reveal, and a climax that only ever feels like it uses the found footage element well when it’s copying something The Blair Witch Project did more effectively over 20 years ago.