Review: Found footage anthology 'V/H/S 94' marks low point for horror series
Courtesy of Shudder
The “V/H/S” anthology marked a rare turning point for the worn-out and dated found-footage model. By the time 2012’s “V/H/S” arrived, we were knee deep in “Paranormal Activity” sequels and countless POV possession thrillers with no end in sight. “V/H/S” put those worries to rest in a refreshing format that sparked creativity among its talent pool of up and coming writers/directors, among them Matt Bettinnelli-Olpin who is a co-director on the forthcoming “Scream” film. “V/H/S” and its sequel “V/H/S 2” were terrifying jolts of small-scale horror, composed of four 15-20 minute shorts (with a loosely intertwined framing device). I’m not sure anyone stumbled upon the franchise, usually a friend had to show it to you, like the ceremonial passing of a VHS tape.
So here we are, almost ten years removed from when the dying light of found-footage was reborn, staring down the barrel of “V/H/S 94,” a half-baked attempt that doesn’t come close to capturing the magic of those first two pictures. On paper, thrusting this analog series to the heyday of cassettes seems like a no-brainer, and the overall presentation has a grainy, worn-out look as if someone did lend you their recorded version of the movie. But the fanfare only goes so far and despite some terrific practical effects, “V/H/S 94” isn’t a satisfying dose of nostalgia.
For starters, the film lacks a clear throughline and it's evident from the opening frame. As is the case with previous iterations, “V/H/S 94” brandishes a framing device to keep the movie flowing. Here we start with Jennifer Reeder’s wobbly “Holy Hell,” which doesn’t have the payoff nor situational awareness to connect this convoluted puzzle together. Told from the POV of a Los Angeles SWAT team as they perform an intense drug raid on a lab inside an industrial complex, the officers find more than drugs, er, the last remnants of a drug cult, including the local video store clerk with his eyes gouged out. The practical and creature effects during the run of “V/H/S” have never faltered in quality and “V/H/S 94” is no different, “Holy Hell” oozes with all types of gooey goodness.
When you assume these stacks of dead bodies will play into a grander, more complex narrative, “V/H/S 94” awkwardly shifts gears to a news bulletin on a nearby TV. The best short by a mile, Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” gets the blood pumping as we follow a television reporter on assignment to track down the elusive “Ratman,” a creature locals claim dwells in the nearby sewage tunnels. Okuno creates a solid foundation for the characters to explore, doing the best at taking a minimalist approach and keeping audiences on edge, concluding with a shocking reveal no one will see coming. (Again, the practical effects are mint here).
The same can’t be said for Simon Barret’s “Empty Wake,” a short that doesn’t take nearly as many bold swings as others in the “V/H/S” library have. A sluggish 15-minute interlude, “Empty Wake” plays exactly like its uneventful title (I miss the days when films were called “Alien Abduction Slumber Party”), which follows a funeral employee left to babysit a casket overnight and things that shouldn’t come back to life, well, come back to life. “Empty Wake” coasts on familiar tropes and gimmickry, and, once again, the practical effects team earn their paycheck.
Next up is Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject,” a barebones, “Hardcore Henry” brew of hypecaffinated nonsense. Sure to ignite cheers from devout fans of Tjahjanto’s “V/H/S 2” classic “Safe Haven,” this one left me feeling empty and unflinched. It’s the only short in “V/H/S 94” where the special effects don’t salvage the jittery plot. Told from the POV of a cyborg who’s just gotten their head attached by a mad Indonesian scientist, “The Subject” forgoes anything spooky for buckets of simulated gore and mindless dismemberments. For a series built on cultivating terrifying stories that made you think afterwards, I couldn’t wait for “The Subject” to end. Nor does it belong anywhere in “V/H/S 94.”
Finally we arrive at the fourth and final segment, Ryan Prows’ “Terror,” an unsettling story about a group of right-wing militants harboring one of the deadliest new weapons on the planet. Their snowy compound, somewhere in Detroit, provides a fascinating backdrop for what will eventually be their own downfall. The specifics of their plan is never laid out clearly enough for the audience (it’s something that definitely explodes), but the ideologies of these Proud Boy inspired goons presents a scarier lens than anything Prows’ narrative cooks-up.
“V/H/S 94” will create a new generation of young fans who will pass the torch between sleepovers, (never a bad thing) and I’m all about that sense of discovery, but it’s why “V/H/S 94” is such a disappointment. In the previous iterations (sans the equally as dismissive “V/H/S Viral”) there was plenty of shock value to accompany the smart writing and each entry felt incredibly unique. The series sparked innovation and exemplified guerrilla style filmmaking at its finest. “V/H/S 94” not only loses those grungy values, but ends up playing like a lazy reboot the original “V/H/S” was trying to combat. Hit the rewind button.
VHS 94 streams on Shudder Wednesday, Oct 6th.