PLOT: A SWAT team finds that a death cult’s hideout is full of TVs playing video tapes chronicling horrific events involving monsters and maniacs.
REVIEW: After a seven year break, the V/H/S found footage anthology series continues with V/H/S/94, which consists of five segments (including the wrap-around story) from a mixture of franchise veterans and newcomers. The V/H/S movies have always been the sort of anthologies to have different directors handle each segment in the films, and this time around the contributors were Jennifer Reeder (Knives and Skin), short filmmaker Chloe Okuno, Simon Barrett (who contributed to the first two movies and also directed the film Seance]), Ryan Prows (Lowlife), and Timo Tjahjanto, who previously co-directed (with Gareth Evans) the Safe Haven segment of V/H/S/2, one of the most popular entries in the franchise.
Reeder took on the unenviable task of directing the wrap-around, and was warned up front that these segments are “notoriously hard” and that people “mostly don’t like the wrap-arounds”. So she came up with a story that’s called Holy Hell and follows a SWAT team that thinks they’re raiding a compound to make a major drug bust. Instead they find a death cult that likes to spend their time watching video tapes of horrific, usually paranormal events – and after they’ve consumed a bunch of this creepy stuff, they remove their eyeballs. The other segments that make up the film are videos being shown on TV sets in the cult’s compound.
The first one we dive into is Okuno’s segment Sewer Drain, which starts off as a fun play on that real-life viral news clip about people in Alabama thinking their neighborhood has been invaded by a leprechaun. In Okuno’s take on concept, we find people in a neighborhood thinking a “rat man” is lurking in the local sewer system. This segment really captured my attention and imagination when I realized the setting is Westerville, a suburb of Columbus in my home state of Ohio. So on a personal level, Sewer Drain entertained me by telling me there’s a rat monster in a real city that I have spent some time in. But even without that personal connection, Sewer Drain is a fine way to get things started, with the amusing elements of the initial news footage quickly being overtaken by a very creepy tone as the reporter and her cameraman venture deeper into the sewer tunnels. This will probably be a lot of viewers’ first time seeing something by Okuno, it was my first time watching anything she has made, and it’s a promising introduction that balances horror and humor very well.
Next is Barrett’s segment Empty Wake, which is set in a funeral home and shot by three cameras that have been set up around a room to record the closed casket wake of a man they say was killed in a terrible accident that destroyed his face and head. One funeral employee is tasked with supervising the wake while her co-workers go home, and from the moment one of departing employees notices that the casket has moved slightly, it’s obvious where this segment is going. It takes its time getting there, though, making us watch several minutes of one person sitting in a room with a casket, waiting for someone… anyone… to stop by for the wake. Once Empty Wake decides to show us what we’ve been expecting, it is fun for a moment. I’m a fan of a lot of Barrett’s work (among other things, he wrote The Guest and You’re Next), but I found this segment to be the weakest part of the film.
Tjahjanto provided V/H/S/2 with its longest segment and he does the same for V/H/S/94, as his segment The Subject takes up 29 minutes of the 103 minute running time. This one finds a mad scientist filming himself as he conducts experiments on human subjects in a dingy underground lab, doing things like sticking a severed head on a mechanical spider body. The guy is interesting to watch, but it takes a while before we’re shown anything other than him tinkering around. In this case, however, the pay-off is absolutely worth the wait. When the authorities come busting into the lab (with a camera of their own, of course), this Frankenstein’s mechanical monsters are unleashed on them and the result is a glorious bloodbath. It’s the most exciting thing in the movie and should have been the end, because you’re never going to be able to top a Tjahjanto massacre packed with insane special effects. There’s some less-than-convincing CGI in there along the way, but that doesn’t take away from the fun too much.
It feels like the film has already reached its rousing climax by the time the segment directed by Prows begins, forcing the viewer to come down a bit to connect with the story he’s telling. But despite its placement, this is a very good stretch of the film that centers on a militia’s plan to carry out a domestic terror attack on a federal building. Whatever they’re doing, it involves “detonating the abomination”, so rest assured that there is a classic horror element in this segment. Prows lays out the story well and it builds to some nice action, but not as much action as The Subject delivers, so this segment, titled Terror, should have been placed before Tjahjanto’s.
Between segments, we get updates on that SWAT raid and see the situation fall apart piece by piece. In an interview with Cinapse, Reeder joked that she hoped her wrap-around wouldn’t be “the most hated wrap-around of all the hated wrap-arounds”, and I think she’s safe from that fate. Holy Hell is fine. It does the job.
I wasn’t on board for a lot of the first V/H/S and felt that V/H/S/2 was a big improvement, then I liked V/H/S: Viral even less than the first one. V/H/S/94 I would rank up there alongside V/H/S/2 – and in fact, would probably even choose to watch this one over part 2. Most of the segments worked really well for me, and even when the movie wasn’t working for me I didn’t think it was bad, just underwhelming. I also feel that setting the entire movie in 1994 was beneficial, because for the first time there’s no questioning why every story plays out on VHS. I know the overall idea of the franchise is that these videos gain some kind of supernatural power when transferred to VHS, but it always felt very strange to me when previous movies would have segments shot through devices like webcams and bionic eyes. Everything was on VHS from the start here, even if the camera happened to be built into a science experiment’s head.
If you had asked me any time in the last seven years if I wanted to see another V/H/S movie I would have had a negative response, but now we do have another V/H/S movie and it’s actually pretty good.
V/H/S/94 is being released through the Shudder streaming service on October 6th.