The first V/H/S movie came out in 2012, arriving at the tail end of the low-budget found-footage horror craze (Paranormal Activity and REC came out in 2007; Cloverfield was 2008) and capturing the last moment in culture before VCRs became totally obsolete. Two sequels followed, with 2014's V/H/S: Viral embracing phone footage and the power of the internet. Now, after seven years, there’s a new entry in the anthology series: V/H/S/94, which is set in 1994—a choice that justifies its use of you-know-which outdated technology, though its content feels at times more like a throwback to 2004, the heyday of “torture porn” flicks like Saw and Hostel.
That’s not a slight on V/H/S/94, which tells you right there in the title that it’s going to be a retro viewing experience, and there’s clearly some creative thinking behind its use of shaky-cam, carefully-placed tracking blips, and general adherence to grimy production values. The characters “filming” the action may be amateurs, but the directors who are really calling the shots know exactly what they’re doing. The point of found footage is to make you feel like you’re watching something “real”—and even if nobody’s actually been duped in that regard since The Blair Witch Project, creating that illusion is still one of the genre’s driving tenants. V/H/S/94 knows exactly what kind of movie it is, and it knows that its audience does, too; it gets around the “why is someone still filming this?” issue that always plagues found-footage movies in clever ways. More importantly, it realizes that the horror part of found-footage horror is what people are tuning in to see. And in that aspect, it more than delivers—there are so many mangled, sliced, skin-ripped, exploded, and otherwise outrageously mangled human heads in this thing, it’s almost as if the directors involved were trying to one-up each other on the gross-out scale.
Again, that is not a slight on V/H/S/94. Its splatter factor is sky-high and the attention to gruesome detail is admirable across all its segments. The frame story, “Holy Hell,” written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, chases a police raid on what looks the underground headquarters of a doomsday cult—a place filled with mannequins, static-blasting TVs, and human body parts. “Storm Drain,” written and directed by Chloe Okuno, follows an ambitious TV reporter as she and her cameraman track an urban legend known as the “Rat Man” into the sewer... only to discover something way more intense than a cute human-interest story. “The Empty Wake,” from writer-director Simon Barrett, is about a young woman tasked with filming an overnight service at an otherwise empty (at least, she thinks it’s empty) funeral home. “The Subject,” from writer-director Timo Tjahjanto, is about a Dr. Frankenstein type obsessed with creating a human-machine hybrid by any means necessary. And “Terror,” written and directed by Ryan Prows, introduces an extremist militia group that has somehow armed itself with a “metaphysical superweapon,” the true nature of which we won’t spoil here.
Each segment has some great (and/or gleefully disgusting) moments, but at 100 minutes, V/H/S/94 feels a bit overly long, especially since every frame feels like it’s been run over a couple times (on purpose, of course, but still). While “The Wake” is on its own excellent—it’s the segment that makes the most use of a stationary camera, which is welcome, and also uses a tornado siren to terrific effect—it’s the one that feels the most out of place with the others and probably could have been excised to bring down the running time a little. There are also a couple of nit-picks that the viewer just has to let go of—the use of TV news to provide convenient exposition in “The Subject” is probably necessary, but still feels kind of lazy; the uneasy feeling across the entire movie that the hand of an unseen editor is at work, somehow stitching together all the bits from the various cameras being used in each segment; and at least one instance where the camera is pretty obviously involved in a huge explosion... and yet somehow, the footage appears unscathed before our eyeballs.
Forgiving those storytelling frustrations and logic holes is necessary if you want to enjoy V/H/S/94, which is certainly possible to do. It leans into a mood that feels like the apocalypse could arrive in the blink of an eye, but there’s a sly sense of humor running throughout; it even works a chipper infomercial (directed by Stephen Kostanski) for a curiously violent kitchen appliance into its flow. Though that doesn’t really count as found footage, it definitely captures the film’s intended spirit: nostalgia that fills you with utter dread.
V/H/S/94 arrives on Shudder October 6.
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