Directors: Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Timo Tjahjanto, Jennifer Reeder, Ryan Prows
Stars: Anna Hopkins, Kimmy Choi, Kyal Legend
For me, personally, there was a mini horror renaissance around 2012/2013 when I started to discover the genuinely diverse and even subversive scope of independent horror movies that were bubbling beneath the surface, spurred on by the close-proximity arrival of films like American Mary, Excision and V/H/S.
With regards to this last particularly, the aura of scuzzy creativity within elevated the overall experience, meaning I could happily forgive tonal inconsistencies and even qualitative ones. The whole delivered a decidedly tawdry and illicit artifact. The scrappiness of this anthology piece was part of it’s very DNA. It was supposed to be rough, harsh and varied. It felt ugly to the core, and that was (and is) a compliment.
It also proved an interesting showcase for burgeoning talent. Nearly a decade on and two of the original directors have had notable big-budget releases in cinemas this year; Adam Wingard with Godzilla vs Kong and series co-creator David Bruckner with the eerie The Night House. And yet, only two years and three films into it’s existence, diminishing returns ultimately put this potent anthology franchise into early hibernation.
Now, some years after the lacklustre third film V/H/S Viral, the found footage series re-emerges with this reboot/prequel/belated fourth entry. As the title suggests, all of the ‘tapes’ housed within are supposed to be from the mid-’90s. As such, the creatives who’ve been tapped seem to have been positively encouraged to go as lo-fi as possible. To wit, V/H/S/94 is by far the murkiest collection yet, with all of the filmmakers using the poor definition of videotape to enhance atmosphere and cannily hide the seams in their horrors.
94 reverts back to the formula of the first movie; four stories contained within a decidedly creepy wraparound. Here – helmed by Jennifer Reeder – a SWAT team storm the labyrinthine site of a kind of video nasty cult, finding deceased addicts with their eyes-ripped out sat before banks of televisions. These seemingly self-inflicted injuries – brought on by the tapes we’re about to witness – read as a knowing nod to the schlock in store.
Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” is our first full episode, which finds plucky reporter Holly Marciano (Anna Hopkins) crawling into the city’s underbelly to investigate reports of a ‘rat-man’, only to discover a sinister subculture of the homeless who worship a mysterious beast. Okuno manages to economically instill a sense of dread in spite of her pressed running time, and the piece’s cult-horror themes compliment the wraparound nicely.
Wingard’s former creative partner and V/H/S mainstay Simon Barrett provides the simplest offering – “The Empty Wake” – but it is similarly effective. Here, a new employee (Kyal Legend) at a funeral home is left to oversee a nighttime wake… except there’s a tropical storm inbound… and the deceased isn’t quite as lifeless as she’d hoped. Barrett times his jumps nicely, and there’s some neat effects work involved in the pay-off.
Speaking of neat effects, 94 is punched up a notch by Timo Tjahjanto’s mini-epic, “The Subject”, an Indonesian Frankenstein story that rivals his effort for V/H/S/2 in terms of both scope and splatter. Inventive body-horror gets spliced with the mechanics of gore-hungry video gaming for an energised romp that, in spite of it’s Shin’ya Tsukamoto leanings, still manages to elicit our sympathies and provide plenty of heart.
So far so strong, but if Tjahjanto’s offering leads 94 to it’s peak, what follows struggles to return us smoothly to terra firma after such a thrilling high. With it’s Trumpian gun-nuts and redneck grandstanding, Ryan Prows’ “Terror” clearly aims to make some kind of state-of-the-nation address. Unfortunately, his satirising is mired as we spend far too much time in the presence of the ugly thickos he’s evidently keen to mock. Ultimately, “Terror”‘s supernatural element is undermined by our disinterest in these people, rendering the last full miniature a conspicuous dud.
Fortunately, Reeder’s wraparound returns to round things off nicely, and a bloody-faced Kimmy Choi sends us back out into the real world with gleeful aplomb. A minor uptick, granted, but it’s enough.
With music throughout provided by Greg Anderson of Southern Lord doom-metalers Sunn O))), V/H/S/94 doesn’t just rely on its visuals to provide its aesthetic of sludge. The sound is every bit as corrosive and corrupting as the violent horror on display, making this an ugly but indulgent little offering that has arrived just in time for Halloween. V/H/S/94 is birthed into a booming independent horror industry; part-financed and distributed by Shudder, with input from Bloody Disgusting, too.
Shudder’s involvement particularly provides further hope for V/H/S. These aren’t movies that ever found a home in cinemas (at least, not here in the UK). A straight-to-streaming future suits the handmade, found footage designs of these ultra-lo-fi tales of terror. You might well pithily call these offerings “mumblegore”, but for horror fans looking for something scuzzy, fun and disposable this October, V/H/S/94 is a sturdy bet and – by and large – an (un)healthy return-to-form for the revived anthology series.