“Be creative with your video projects, children. I don’t want to see thirty Blair Witch knock-offs“Principal Seymour Skinner, The Simpsons
What is it about the year 1994 recently where it has become a recurrent time for horror films to take place? After being use as the time frame for the first instalment of Netflix’s Fear Street, Shudder has now chosen that same year to set their revival of the V/H/S film series. It is not clear specifically why 1994 has been earmarked as the best time for horror cinema, and in the case of V/H/S/94 it is especially puzzlesome as the year does not seem to have much relevance to the events of the film, beyond the format of its title.
V/H/S/94 is the fourth film in the anthology series that began back in 2012. Like its predecessors, the last of which released in 2014, this one too consists of a collection of found footage short films made by different directors, their connection being they were all filmed on VHS, or made to look like it. It is a cool experience but does not really innovate the genre nor does it address some of its issues on a thematic level. The big one being: why is it like this?
From the first Blair Witch film through to studio efforts like Cloverfield and Chronicle, there always has to be a reason why the character operating the camera is constantly filming everything, when sometimes it is not appropriate and they would be better off putting it down and running for their life. Some of the segments of V/H/S/94 do give credible reasons for the camera being there all the time, but others just shrug it off as being part of the landscape.
The irony being now people are more used to filming everything they do on phones, the modern day may be a more believable setting where participants film everything that happens to them. As is, the collective minds behind the project have opted to commit to their VHS roots, as well as getting on board the nineties nostalgia bandwagon. Though the events that happen in V/H/S/94’s version of the decade may not generate as much nostalgia as others who have leaned in on the recent past have.
Jennifer Reeder directs the film’s wraparound segments where a SWAT team, during a raid on a warehouse seemingly occupied by some sort of cult, are exposed to the LQ sights of these tapes. The first one, from Chloe Okuno, sees a small-town roving reporter and her cameraman heading down into the sewers in search of the ‘Rat Man’ of legend. As well as being effectively atmospheric it also has the best effects shot of the whole film, where a man’s face is completely burned off.
Simon Barrett, in his second turn in the series, follows this up with an increasingly tense vignette of a videographer trapped in a funeral home where the power keeps going out and a coffin seemingly keeps moving on its own. Another V/H/S veteran, Timo Tjahjanto, then gives us the video diary of a crazed scientist who kidnaps locals to use as test subjects in an ongoing experiment to make human-robot hybrids. This one makes best use of the format, with the best reason as to why it is all on camera, but sadly goes nowhere with its premise, has no real thrills or scares and outstays its welcome.
Finally Ryan Prows gives us a look at an encampment of jingoistic, gun-toting fanatics as they prepare for what they describe as a “mass cleansing” – but not of something so tangible. Instead they are seeking to rid America of vampires. Again it is well presented and very intriguing before eventually descending into blood, shouting and glimpses of something scary in the dark.
In an age when this kind of film can easily be made by anyone using a smartphone or tablet, cut together using editing software and distributed online, it is questionable as to why five need to compiled together in the style of V/H/S/94. It is a film that seems at odds with its time. If all of the sections were linked together in some way then there would be a reason for a film like this, but there is only a tenuous connection between the works of the five film makers on show. Some moments work well, but only on their own, and the scares will satisfy genre fans but the less effective moments drag it down as a whole.