Just in time for the Halloween season is the latest found footage film, ‘V/H/S/94’ derived from the acclaimed original ‘V/H/S’ from 2012. The release of this first V/H/S was somewhat of a watershed moment in horror; given that the found footage subgenre was being replicated with far too much enthusiastic frequency, the quality of the output was mixed. With its convincing video tape aesthetic, the original boasted some truly exceptional talents such as Adam Wingard, Ti West and David Buckner and unsurprisingly spawned several sequels of varying quality. At its core these were anthology films, with the inclusion ‘found footage’ as a signature narrative device.
Most anthology films will possess a primary narrative, or ‘wrap around’ to further draw the viewer into a self-contained universe rather than present these as a blatant episodic format – thus making these as distinct from TV series such as ‘THE TWILIGHT ZONE’, ‘THE OUTER LIMITS’ or ‘TALES FROM THE CRYPT.’
‘V/H/S/94’s’ main narrative (directed by Jennifer Reeder) is no different as it centres around a daring SWAT team raiding a drug den, which is devoid of any dealers or narcotics but and instead produces a room full of the deceased flanked by multiple video screens. Unsurprisingly, each screen relates to a corresponding story which the police view and leads to each of the film’s short stories. These are as follows:
• Chloe Okuno’s ‘STORM DRAIN’ chronicles a television reporter and her camera man investigating a bizarre cryptid, known only as the ‘Rat Man’ that lurks around the sewers.
• Simon Barrett’s ‘THE EMPTY WAKE’ is a seemingly simple recording of a funeral wake during a thunderstorm, with a solitary victim being the hapless new employee.
• Timo Tjahjanto’s ‘THE SUBJECT’ veered into the realm of Frankenstein, with a mad (and evil) scientist attempting to develop a human machine hybrid, and creates havoc in the process.
• Finally, Ryan Prow’s ‘TERROR’, aptly titled as it tells the story of an extremist militia group from Michigan that seemingly harnesses the supernatural to achieve their bloody revolution.
Evidently these brief descriptors would easily pique viewer interest, given the diversity in this set of self-contained stories. Kicking off with ‘STORM DRAIN’ was a master stroke of genius, as Okuna’s creature feature retaining a greater sense of tension and effective pacing. The confines of the sewer create an awful sense of complete claustrophobia, with the ever-present threat of the ‘Rat Man’ being a clear and present danger. This tense immediacy fosters a palpable feeling of unease, as we the audience already know that the reporter and camera man will undoubtedly meet an unfortunate end; but with an added swerve, this piece was fantastic.
Opting for a somewhat more traditional horror format, ‘THE EMPTY WAKE’ has Simon Barrett composing a simple yet elegant ghost story that evokes feelings of loneliness, as a solitary employee oversees an empty wake. Though one of the more intriguing premises of the anthology, there are too many wasted opportunities as the piece becomes all too predictable and filled with tropes. It is a shame, as the acting of the protagonist in this instance is impressive.
Though Timo Tjahjanto’s ‘SAFE HAVEN’ (2013) was one of the standout pieces in ‘V/H/S/2’ (notably co-directed with Welsh maestro, Gareth Evans) his offering here with ‘THE SUBJECT’ is the token oddity. Starting off as a tribute of sorts to the body horror of David Cronenberg’s ‘RABID’ (1977) and Shinya Tsukamoto’s ‘TETSUO’ (1989), ‘THE SUBJECT’ devolves into something more akin to a gory contemporary first person shooter game, that is clearly at odds with the essence of ‘V/H/S’ – with its clinically slick digital photography and too modern aesthetic making it feel very much out of place. It could easily be applauded for its creativity and slick production, however, its design choices inevitably paint is as an exercise in dissonance within the constructs of the V/H/S narrative.
‘TERROR’ stands out as the most unique, with some comedic undertones of the rants and ravings of a backwoods militia timestamping itself in a juncture where home grown acts of terrorism were gaining widespread media attention. Prows pieces together the haphazard series of events, with the unfortunate folly of an almost slapstick militia group given centre stage as they spruik their own brand of patriotism; ironically promoting this through anarchic means, that are somehow supernatural. It’s clever social commentary (that references Waco and Oklahoma City) perhaps makes it more of a dark satire than traditional horror; though this is notable, it somewhat diminishes the tone of the totality of the film.
As a result, this seems to compromise the final act of the film which is overtly jarring despite its requisite twist.
Within ‘V/H/S/94’, it is evident that there is emphasis on a slow burn (or slow build) leading up to a disturbing finale, punctuated by violence or something unexplainable. Whilst V/H/S/94 does admirably achieve this, it falters in parts thus making the outcomes predictable thus minimising any ounce of tension that thus seems more artificially manufactured.
Certainly, the retro aesthetic does capitalise on the era in which the movie is set. In a period far before the accessibility of streaming platforms, the ardent horror fan’s diet purely stemmed from VHS tapes. The raw flavour of this medium, clearly juxtaposed against the high-definition benefits of today and that lower quality lends to the appeal of ‘V/H/S/94’ – with an illicit relatability. Lacking any modern sensibility means that this low quality evokes a true sense of menacing faux realism, that deliberately seeks to cause as much unease as possible. For the most part, this is where ‘V/H/S/94’ easily excels where the glimpses of something horrific are seemingly more real than imagined, captured by outdated equipment.
Although this is a true strength of ‘V/H/S/94’, it also becomes the film’s biggest Achilles heel with the consistency in its format marred by some thematic choices and the excessive amount of gore.
Anthology horror isn’t revolutionary by today’s cinematic standards, but its presence offers a unique multidimensionality to storytelling. Condensed tales of terror are devised for utility as much as economy, with shorter works often resulting in something efficiently punchy. As such cinematic history presents us far superior anthology films such as ‘DEAD OF NIGHT’ (1945), ‘THE TWLIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE’ (1983), ‘CREEPSHOW’ (1982), ‘AFTER MIDNIGHT’ (1989); newer offerings like NIGHTMARE CINEMA (2018) to foreign offerings such as the brilliant KWAIDAN (1965) and obscure but surprisingly excellent Indian horror film, DAARNA MANA HAI (2003). Perhaps these are fondly remembered as classics, as they succeed in expertly crafting macabre story-telling, rather than seeking to shock with found footage tropes.
Within the horror genre, sequels and prequels often put themselves in an unenviable position; they wantonly capitalise on brand recognition but very clearly run the risk of being labelled as a duplicate. Although iterations like ‘V/H/S/94’ will inevitably struggle from coming out of the shadow of its far better predecessors, this latest offering is inventive enough to warrant a viewing. Ironically, the presence of modern technology may ofcourse render these current found footage films as moot, but the intention behind this style of film making is apparent; to blur the line between fiction and reality.
Given the time of year, ‘V/H/S 94’ may be uneven in parts but it provides the requisite spooks that prove that although the found footage genre is no longer in vogue – it is far from dead.