A SWAT team investigate a mysterious VHS tape and discover a sinister cult has pre-recorded material which uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy.
One of the more revered found-footage series of recent years, V/H/S drops any pretence of not being nostalgia bait for this latest entry, produced for the horror streamer Shudder. It’s a series of shorts embedded in a wraparound story about people driven insane by creepy old videotapes, this time with a thematic focus on the culture and aesthetics of the early-1990s. It never reaches the level of being a focused and meaningful satire, however. Strangely, V/H/S/94 seems to want to act like it’s satirical without actually being so, alluding to important cultural touchstones like WACO and the Oklahoma City bombing, but not actually saying anything about them.
The film’s prologue is about a Waco-style drug raid on a sealed-off compound, where people are tied to chairs and lolled about in front of video screens, their eyes weeping black gunk. The SWAT team move around the compound trading functional and semi-comedic dialogue, and I’m not sure that there’s much else to say about this wraparound portion of Holy Hell. Its epilogue provides what I guess is a plot twist, although since we haven’t been given any reason to care about any of the SWAT team—who are sparsely characterised, to say the least—there’s no sense of surprise or revelation. The ending feels like it belongs in a ’90s heavy metal music video, or a made-for-MTV movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s probably the only time outside of Storm Drain that V/H/S/94 achieves an authentic and not just smug element of camp. It’s also one of the few genuinely ’90s-feeling moments. Utterly absurd and stupid, yes, but in a charming way, that Generation X pop culture sometimes was at its best. To put it another way, it looks like something Beavis & Butthead would’ve watched.
Storm Drain is the second-best of the five short films; a fun if not terribly unique satire of ’90s network TV news. It’s the one that makes the most use of and has the most fun with the 1994 setting, beginning with the end of a segment about this newfangled thing called the internet and how it’s currently in the homes of millions of Americans. The main character is an ambitious reporter, Holly Marciano (Anna Hopkins), reminiscent of Courtney Cox in Scream (1996), who’s collecting footage for an item about a rural legend. Cameraman Jeff (Christian Potenza) is her dopey assistant. The legend involves a creature called “Rat Man” who lives in a storm drain and, of course, Holly and Jeff venture into the drain in hopes of a scoop. The shot-on-video style cuts between Holly and Jeff’s raw footage and Holly’s appearances on studio TV, as well as an infomercial for a device called “the veggie masher” which stands by itself as a neat parody, and probably the most ’90s thing in V/H/S/94. Storm Drain doesn’t give you much that you couldn’t watch for free on some clever amateurs’ YouTube channel, but it’s amusing enough.
The Empty Wake is the best of the five films because it’s the simplest and makes the most use of its premise. It largely eschews self-referential humour to tell an Edgar Allan Poe-esque tale about a young woman, Hayley (Kyal Legend), who’s charged with hosting a wake at a funeral home. As the title suggests, said wake is sparsely attended, and as the stormy night drags on she becomes more and more convinced that the man in the closed casket isn’t quite dead. The Empty Wake was the only film to engage me to a significant degree from beginning to end. That might be because it’s the only one that feels like it’s telling an actual story, with a character in a relatable situation and a threat that’s never explained, but is given enough detail that it all feels real. I even bought it when Hayley didn’t just make a run for it or beg for emergency assistance right away, due to clever use of mortuary detail about noises that corpses make as they “settle”. It’s believable that a young and inexperienced person would feel compelled to stay in that funeral home despite her misgivings. The Empty Casket is an effective campfire tale.
The Subject is an Indonesian android/monster movie about a mad scientist fusing people with animatronics. It opens with a neat shot reminiscent of one of Sid’s toys in Toy Story (1995), of all films. After that, it’s a long, boring slog through cliched science-vs-military stuff, a la Day of the Dead (1985), as the dastardly Dr Suhendra’s (whose actor isn’t yet credited on either Wikipedia or IMDb) laboratory is breached (in a scene confusingly reminiscent of Holy Hell). However, an intriguing and even slightly moving story about one of Suhendra’s victims grows out of this dramatic wasteland, riffing on the old “were we the real monsters all along?” trope. I don’t know why the film doesn’t start at the point when the girl wakes up and then looks in the mirror. Everything before is useless filler, its context easily reducible to one or two lines of dialogue. Here, I’ll write it for them: “NEWSCASTER: Police believe that Dr Suhendra has been kidnapping local citizens as part of his experiments with biomechanical prosthetics. Recently, the parents of a missing girl made a public plea for her safe return.” What a wasted opportunity.
If The Empty Wake is the best of the five films, Terror has the most promising premise, from both a satirical point of view and that of V/H/S/94‘s found-footage aesthetic. It’s about a right-wing terrorist cell at a compound in the woods, who are plotting to destroy a federal building with a bioweapon they’ve somehow developed. Their leader is Greg (Christian Lloyd), a pudgy, bespectacled, moustachioed fanatic obsessed with chain-of-command, who quotes The Bible and talks in that high-falutin’ but substantively vacant way that terrorist leaders do. The cell is clearly modelled on QAnon and Deep State conspiracy theorists, to a point where I forgot that it was supposed to be ’94 until someone mentioned Clinton being the President. Yet the film doesn’t take advantage of its satirical basis. The characters aren’t really developed and the third act devolves into a pseudo-Lovecraftian, stalk n’ kill sequence. Ironically, the film would’ve been scarier if it had toned down its “scary” elements. No random executions, no supernatural monster, just a long-seized home video by a bunch of damaged, toxic men who got drunk, spewed propaganda and then committed an atrocity. I feel chilly just thinking about it.
So, there you have it. In ascending order of quality (and excluding Holy Hell, which unlike the others is dependant on the other films for context), you’ve got The Subject, Terror, Storm Drain, and The Empty Wake. Only the latter two are worth seeking out if you’re a casual horror fan looking for a good time this Halloween, but The Subject is lowermost partly because it had so much potential. It’s a legitimately good sci-fi horror short, hamstrung and nullified by a pointless first half. Hopefully, for its next entry, the V/H/S series takes off its flannel and moves into less nostalgia bait territory.
USA • INDONESIA | 2021 | 100 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
directors: Jennifer Reeder (Holy) • Chloe Okuno (Storm) • Simon Barrett (Empty) • Timo Tjahjanto (Subject) • Ryan Prows (Terror)
writers: David Bruckner • Jennifer Reeder (Holy) • Chloe Okuno (Storm) • Simon Barrett (Empty) • Timo Tjahjanto (Subject) • Ryan Prows (Terror)
starring: Anna Hopkins, Steven McCarthy, Sean Patrick Dolan, Tim Campbell, Dru Viergever, Dax Ravina, Kimmy Choi, Christian Lloyd, Conor Sweeney, Slavic Rogozine, Thiago Dos Santos, Kevin P. Gabel, Daniel Williston, Kyle Durack & William Jordan.