The V/H/S anthology series has endured more valleys than peaks. The most compelling installment, V/H/S/2, was released all the way back in 2013, while the less said about the execrable V/H/S: Viral, which followed the year after, the better. Although the initial hook – a bunch of videotapes are discovered by various means, and play out over a reasonable, 100-minute runtime, showcasing anthology stories from different filmmakers in the process – was clever, the first V/H/S film wasn’t exactly groundbreaking. Horror fans embraced it because of the clever gimmick and the caliber of the assorted filmmakers, rather than because any of the stories stuck out. In fact, it’s kind of amazing that movie inspired further installments. But, at the same time, the fan-base is surprisingly rabid. There are even reports this fourth addition, V/H/S/94, is a return to the highs of the franchise. It’s not, but there’s enough to enjoy here to ensure this isn’t quite as much of an endurance test as Viral.
If nothing else, the V/H/S series commits to the brief 100 percent, which means there’s a constant fuzzy effect to the footage, suggesting damage on the tapes for those too young to remember actually watching anything on VHS. The wraparound story – inevitably the least effective part of the franchise – surrounds a SWAT raid that’s shot like an FPS shooter. It’s neither brilliant nor terrible, with Knives and Skin director Jennifer Reeder composing some creepy shots along the way, several of which involve eyes literally bleeding from watching scary movies. She’s got the toughest job overall and, sadly, the unconvincing performances let Reeder down in the film’s final moments, which for some reason strive to make an ill-judged political point (the V/H/S franchise isn’t really the place for deep thought, let’s be honest).
On the flip-side, the strongest short, entitled “Storm Drain,” is up first and comes courtesy of the other featured female filmmaker, newcomer Chloe Okuno (Slut). Presented like mockumentary Cropsey, Okuno’s installment follows a ballsy newscaster (Anna Hopkins, who impressed in Fantasia’s Tin Can) looking for a great story who ventures into a storm drain and, naturally, finds a lot more than she expected. Her subject, the so-called rat man, when he’s finally revealed in all his glory, is nightmare-inducing, while his sewer home is a terrific real-life location steeped in local mythology. “Storm Drain” is also the only short in V/H/S/94 boasting decent scares. It’s slightly derivative, but the setting freshens things up while the emphasis on practical FX makes the whole thing feel more tactile overall.
“The Empty Wake,” Simon Barrett’s follow-up to his impressive directorial debut, Séance, is a single-location chiller, which finds a young woman all alone in a funeral home overnight with a corpse that might not be as dead as it appears. The chosen time period means there’s no reliance on tech, while Barrett demonstrates an impressive control of tone, and the makeup effects are solid. His short is perfectly paced too, particularly in comparison to Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject,” which follows immediately after and is the only installment that feels long. Tracking a mad scientist who’s made a man into a spider-baby, kind of like how Sid did in Toy Story except less frightening, it teases the big monster reveal for ages, creating a plodding sensation that doesn’t pay off once it finally happens.
The featured eye camera could be a call back to a previous V/H/S/ short, too, which is unfortunate considering its appearance just makes you wish you were watching that one instead. Still, the performances are committed, and the idea is great too. It just needed to be trimmed down considerably to fully connect. Thankfully, Ryan Prows (director of the brilliant, hugely underrated, Lowlife) wraps things up on a stronger note with “Terror.” Kicking off with a load of gun-mad loons looking to cleanse the earth – a reference to current events that doesn’t make the mistake of being earnest, as Reeder’s ending does – Prows’ nifty little story involves a mysterious “creature” on which experiments are being tested. There are tons of crosses hanging in the team’s compound, which should give some indication where this is all going, but even so “Terror” is packed with fun surprises.
There are several recurring images in V/H/S/94, including dismemberment, eye trauma, and face melting, all of which are hugely impressive and seemingly achieved by practical means. The footage genuinely looks like nineties-era home video stuff, too, while the only music is diegetic ensuring there’s no cheating the found footage concept (even when it means using a camera as a weapon). There are also more women and POC involved than in previous efforts, which is always a good thing, and each short is impressive in its own way, even if the wraparound does leave the whole thing on a bum note (a problem with the series in general). Overall, though, there isn’t really anything here that would make you want to watch a feature-length version of the shorts, which is typically a marker of whether stories like this truly connect.
It’s worth noting, too, this franchise began life feeling pretty dangerous, almost as though it was something you shouldn’t really watch, like a video nasty for the modern era. Now, though, it’s safe to the point of rendering its own existence obsolete. There’s no doubting the V/H/S franchise has its fans, but for those on the fence, V/H/S/94 is unlikely to convince them there’s reason to continue it. For everyone else, it’s fine.
Catch V/H/S/94 exclusively on Shudder from October 6, 2021
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, Timo Tjahjanto
Writer(s): Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, Timo Tjahjanto
Stars: Anna Hopkins, Steven McCarthy, Kimmy Choi, Tim Campbell
Release date: October 6, 2021 (Shudder)
Studio/Production Company: Bloody Disgusting
Run Time: 100 minutes