A break from the format for several years and a more timely period setting finds a more comfortable space for the franchise’s return.
Synopsis: A police S.W.A.T. team investigates about a mysterious VHS tape and discovers a sinister cult that has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.
I’ve always found the V/H/S series to be a bit of a mixed bag, something which impacts numerous anthology-style productions. Depending on your tastes, you’ll either find invention or be completely turned off by a format that restricts film makers while also needing to make an immediate impact. Add to this the fact that the previous films have all felt very ‘boy’s club’ there is perhaps no surprise that the entries have variable reviews. A particular highlight in the series, for me, was Safe Haven from V/H/S/2 so that Timo Tjahjanto was returning for this entry added to the interest in it. More than that, though, was the inclusion of the series’ first female directors, Jennifer Reader and Chloe Okuno.
Jennifer Reader gets the film’s introduction with Holy Hell, introducing the police S.W.A.T team discovering the VHS tapes at a cult compound with an unsettling, if unfocused tour of the house. These discoveries provide the lead-ins to the other films and while it is difficult to see too much of Reader’s stamp, the segments are competent enough and serve their purpose. Okuno’s segment Storm Drain is far and away my favourite of the film, with a balance of observational humour that leans into the time period alongside some of the weirder scares that the film has to offer. Anna Hopkins plays Holly Marciano, an ambitious local news reporter whose desire to unveil the truth behind the ‘Rat Man’ leads her to an exploration of the tunnels under the city. That mix of frights and fun is something I’ve always found absent for much of V/H/S but is very welcome. There is a bonus here for fans of Astron-6 that delights in being able to properly situate itself within the 90s rather than the present-day trappings of the earlier films.
The Empty Wake follows director Simon Barrett’s usual flair for mixing subgenres, setting up a spooky scenario in which an under-attended wake begins to play on the woman assigned to keep watch. The Empty Wake is definitely not one for those who tire easily of motion sickness inducing camera work as much of this segment switches between the static cameras to the fluid camera, swung around doorways and corners with a pace that will likely annoy more than terrify. The result is a mixed bag that struggles to pay off its moments of well-earned tension with a satisfactory conclusion.
Timo Tjahjanto takes the reins for the most dynamic and action-packed entry of the film, The Subject. Tjahjanto is adept at getting his idea over in a short space of time and then allowing the action to speak for itself and this is no different. This segment sets up and delivers on call backs in an effective way, contributing some of the film’s best visuals and visceral impact. This is also the one that turns the furthest away from V/H/S as the medium, presenting something that looks much cleaner and more crisp than the other sections. This crispness better allows for the bloodshed to receive further attention, but in its handling of the fusing of people and machines manages to capture another interesting, dynamic way of capturing first-person focused scenes.
At the other extreme comes Terror from director Ryan Prows. This is the film’s grimiest entry, both in terms of the degradation of the visuals and the subject matter. The segment follows a white terror group who have found a unique weapon to assist them in their preparations to attack the government. The group are depicted as bumbling but vicious, making this likely the most difficult segment to derive any enjoyment from, but it is constructed in a way that exploits that sense of discomfort and ugliness to good effect. The ultimate wraparound feels a little deflating, given the variety of segments featured, although it could be said that that same variety somewhat limits how they can be linked.
V/H/S/94 proves that there is still room for the format to grow and evolve, providing interesting, if imperfect stories that fuse medium, nostalgia and recurring fears. As with any anthology, everyone will likely have their favourites and the ones that fail to impact and this certainly feels like Okuno and Tjahjanto will be the standout names.
3 out of 5 stars
V/H/S/94 screened as part of Fantastic Fest 2021. See the schedule for more information. It arrives on Shudder platforms on October 6th.