What is it about analog media that makes it so eerie? By rights, digital media should be just as disturbing, if not more so: we’re all deluged with it on a daily basis, eating a steady diet of iPhone, YouTube and TikTok videos that can play back (or even stream in real time) the real-life horrors and troubles happening in the world. Perhaps the reason horror filmmakers have used the VHS/UHF aesthetic so much during the last decade is because analog media was and is much more involved and deliberate. Any of us can whip out our smartphones and start streaming or recording, but making a videotape or signal broadcast takes more effort, and leaves behind more tangible, physical evidence than a mere digital file. It makes the “found” aspect of found footage more immediate, the warps and flaws in the image giving the illusion of age and a sense of the past, lending the material a whiff of archeology.
This helps explain the longevity of not just the analog aesthetic, but the V/H/S franchise in particular. The first installment, V/H/S, was released nearly 10 years ago in 2012, when the found footage subgenre was still hot in the horror landscape. After two sequels quickly followed (2013’s V/H/S/2 and 2014’s V/H/S: Viral), the series laid dormant even as other found footage franchises with an analog aesthetic continued, most notably the Paranormal Activity series. What made the V/H/S films exciting and thrilling then is what makes the latest installment, V/H/S/94, so worthwhile now: the movies help keep the long tradition of the horror portmanteau film alive while presenting their shorts in a manner that gives them a spooky depth. In deliberately embracing the analog-like presentation, V/H/S/94 does for found footage what pioneering works like 1999’s The Blair Witch Project got away with more simply by insisting its footage might be genuine. With all their glitches and aged looks, the V/H/S films lend explicitly supernatural material a sense of tangible veracity.
Ironically, V/H/S’s repeatability as a concept makes its serialized elements — if any — one of the most peculiar of any ongoing franchise. Right from the first film, the “wraparound” segments attempt to give the series some sort of explanation (or at least an excuse) for the origin of each short film as a videotape that’s literally found and/or viewed by a character. V/H/S: Viral seemed to escalate the storyline by revealing that the videos seen in the films were now being spread across the internet, though there was still a large degree of ambiguity to what was happening. V/H/S/94’s wraparound segment, “Holy Hell” directed by Jennifer Reeder, concerns a heavily armed SWAT team undergoing what they believe is a drug raid but is soon revealed to be a plot to get fresh victims into a compound where a mysterious cult is worshipping and spreading the evil videos. In some press announcements about the film, V/H/S/94 is referred to as a “reboot” of the series, but that aspect isn’t readily apparent — one supposes it’s intended to mean that the ending of V/H/S: Viral isn’t explicitly addressed, but the series has never been one for strict continuity anyway. While “Holy Hell” is neither here nor there as a continuation or resetting of the franchise’s overarching storyline, it functions well as a mood-setter, with Reeder doing a great job of making the officer’s body cameras capture the action in an immediate way. It evokes the experiential aspect of found footage, the segment feeling like moving through a haunted house or dark ride — the officers literally find rooms with individual creepy tableaux of objects and bodies and such. Reeder attempts to make a subversive statement about the role of women in horror at the end in a twist that’s reminiscent of her feature Knives and Skin (2019), but it’s a bit too little too late. Still, it helps make the segment the most unique wraparound of the series.
Much more successful are the first two segments of V/H/S/94, “Storm Drain” directed by Chloe Okuno and “The Empty Wake” directed by Simon Barrett. “Storm Drain,” which is this writer’s pick for the best segment of the film (as with any portmanteau, opinions on the ranking of the segments will vary), concerns a local investigative reporter sent on a crap assignment interviewing locals about a supposed “Rat Man” who lives in the sewer system. As the title suggests, she ventures into the sewers and finds much more than she bargained for. Okuno does a pitch-perfect job of capturing the look and feel of 1994 both in setting and visual aesthetic, deploying the movie’s best scares with simple, clever composition as well as some impressively gooey practical effects. “The Empty Wake” contains the most belabored excuse for the existence of video cameras in the entire film, as it tells the story of a new funeral home employee forced to work a wake overnight by herself, the client stipulating that the entire wake be filmed by several video cameras. Of course, there’s a reason for this, as the employee discovers to her dismay. Barrett is a veteran of the series, having directed the wraparound segment of V/H/S/2, and his skill as a director is much more pronounced here, building tension and paying it off with a bonkers setpiece all in a single location.
The two most daring segments of V/H/S/94 are director Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” and director Ryan Prows’ “Terror,” both of which give the found footage format a workout. Of the two, “The Subject” is the most unique yet is sadly unfulfilling, a letdown after Tjahjanto’s incredible segment from V/H/S/2, “Safe Haven,” co-directed with Gareth Evans. “The Subject” contains a lot of promise, concerning a mad scientist who is obsessed with turning people into human-machine hybrids. Rather than the typical haunted house/dark ride vibe of most V/H/S segments, “The Subject” most closely resembles a video game — not only is it about one of the scientist’s creations fighting for her life against a government clean-up squad (as well as another hybrid creation) by using a series of gun attachments to her body, but the segment is shot with much more clarity, losing the analog aesthetic. There are a lot of crowd-pleasing moments featuring some wild gore gags and camera choreography, but these are sadly lost on a movie that is premiering exclusively on a streaming service, and leaves the segment feeling a bit shallow. “Terror,” on the other hand, evokes the 1994 setting of the film’s title not just through deliberately bad picture quality and handheld camerawork but in the plot, the segment about a white militia who plan to use a supernatural creature as their primary weapon in an upcoming terrorist attack. Prows captures the impotent ineptitude of homegrown white terrorism in America at that time, with the characters’ cause completely vague and insane (though it’s clear its roots are racist and evangelical). It takes a little while to get going, but “Terror” eventually develops into a black comedy-horror, providing a concluding segment that offers some sardonic wit along with the grisliness.
To be fair, that wit is present throughout V/H/S/94, an indicator of its aims as a film as well as a franchise. The V/H/S series isn’t interested in providing much in the way of narrative depth, rich characterization or well thought out world building. Instead, these films are the cinematic equivalent of the haunted house, the filmmakers concerned with providing an experience more than anything else. They also, happily, double as a showcase for emerging talent — Barrett and Tjahjanto were still on the way up when they made their V/H/S debuts, and folks like Reeder, Okuno and Prows are hopefully going to get a similar boost as a result of this entry. In these ways, V/H/S/94 is a thoroughly decent installment despite its relatively slight nature. It’s a film which invites the audience to have a lot of fun but keeps an air of spooky credibility intact, allowing for analog media’s eerie legacy to continue.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.
Categories: 2020s, 2021 Film Reviews, 2021 Horror Reviews, Featured, Horror