“VHS 94:” Mostly Forgettable Analog Schlock

As I’ve said before on this site, I love anthology horror films. I find that, historically, filmmakers are able to be more creative and more inventive with the short film format than they ever are with feature-length films, mostly because they aren’t bogged down with all the narrative trappings that accompany a 90-minute-plus runtime. Movies like Creepshow and The ABC’s of Death are so full of fun variety and different creative energies that it’s impossible to be bored. Short films are just long enough, just punchy enough, to get your attention, gain your interest, and then wrap up without risking you souring on the concept. The segments aren’t always perfect, but even when they’re bad, at least they’re short.

In the modern age, the reigning champ of the anthology film is undoubtedly the V/H/S franchise. The brainchild of producer Brad Miska and online horror hotspot Bloody Disgusting, V/H/S began with its first installment in 2012 as a sort of exhibition hall for up-and-coming horror filmmakers. The first film featured entries from future horror hitmakers like Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, and Radio Silence, while the following two collections would go on to display works by The Raid director Gareth Evans and future Moon Knight director Justin Benson.

The content of the individual segments vary wildly, ranging from slashers to alien abductions to demonic possessions and everything in between, giving a fairly broad-strokes overview of all the different flavors of horror to be found within the genre. The only unifying feature for these shorts, as the title would suggest, is that they are filmed hand-held, found-footage style. The frame stories for each collection present each individual installment as simply one in a sea of innumerable, presumably cursed VHS tapes, all of which feature documentation of some kind of supernatural event, and that drive viewers mad if exposed to their contents.

The first V/H/S dropped seemingly out of nowhere in 2012 and became a cult hit almost overnight, with good reason. It felt fresh and exciting, and a little bit taboo and voyeuristic, all at the same time. There’s not a bad story in the bunch. The sequel, V/H/S 2, released a year later and upped the ante significantly, delivering even more creative and effective scares. Unfortunately, the third installment, V/H/S Viral, which released in 2014, felt like a significant step down, and had easily the weakest shorts of the bunch.

Reception to the third film warranted taking a step back and recalibrating from a creative and a technical standpoint, and in an effort to get back to the series’ roots, a reboot was announced in 2020 after nearly 6 years of silence. It was to be titles V/H/S/94, and it was abandoning its more increasingly modern stylistic elements for a grungier, grittier, more lo-fi 90s aesthetic. And for the first time, the individual segments in the film were to be cohesively linked, rather than being discrete non sequiturs with a narrative frame story attached.

V/H/S/94 released exclusively on horror streaming service Shudder on October 6th, and being a huge fan of the series, I tuned in opening night, eager to see if the production team learned their lesson from Viral.

So did they?

Well, not really, in my opinion.

Firstly, right off the bat, the assertion that the individual segments of the film would be linked together in some way, either thematically or narratively, was a bold-faced lie. There’s one minor connection between the last segment of the film and the wraparound frame story, but that’s it. No narrative cohesion whatsoever, just a random collection of unrelated stories. Which is fine, of course. It’s why I like these films so much in the first place. But it makes the promotional choice to stress that they’re all connected somehow incredibly bizarre. Maybe there’s more tying them together that I just missed, but if it’s that subtle, then why bother in the first place.

The segments themselves are as varied as always. We have:

  • “Storm Drain,” directed by Chloe Okuno, shows a local TV news anchor investigating reports of a mythological “Rat Man” who supposedly lives in the area’s sewer system.
  • “The Empty Wake,” directed by a returning Simon Barrett, in which a newly-hired employee at a funeral home must stay overnight for a mysterious corpse’s wake.
  • “The Subject,” directed by mad genius Indonesian filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto, an over-the-top, Doom­­-like first-shooter through a warped version of Frankenstein.
  • “Terror,” directed by Ryan Prows, which follows a group of inept right-wing militiamen as they plan a major domestic terrorist attack on a federal building with a supernatural secret weapon.

The four segments are all contained within an overarching narrative called “Holy Hell,” directed by Jennifer Reeder.

As is often the case with anthology films, the quality of each individual installment fluctuates from piece to piece. I’d say “The Subject” is easily the highlight here, which is fitting considering Tjahjanto’s “Safe Haven” from V/H/S 2 was the MVP of that collection as well. It’s absurd, it’s violent, and legitimately insane, which makes it the only vignette here that I would really say is “fun.”

Which is strange, really. Tonally, 94 is a drastic departure from the previous films in the franchise in that it seems to have largely eschewed straightforward horror for a more satirical and tongue-in-cheek approach. The earlier films each had moments of levity and humor, but were largely supported by more traditional scares and horror archetypes. Here, only “The Empty Wake” feels like a pure horror short, with the rest towing the line between the genre and dark comedy.

Another bizarre quality of this collection is the pacing. The first two segments are over in a flash, with their concepts barely explored. “The Empty Wake” in particular felt like it had a lot of room to really bring the scare factor to this anthology, which it otherwise largely lacks, and yet it’s finished just as the tension really begins to ramp up. Both “Wake” and “Storm Drain” raise more questions than answers, which isn’t exactly a new phenomenon with the segments in V/H/S, but it feels particularly glaring here when the remaining two segments drag on seemingly forever.

“The Subject” is fun, yes, but it goes on far longer than necessary, and hits a point of diminishing returns long before it realizes that it’s overstayed its welcome. And “The Terror…” Honestly, I’m not sure what to make of it. The comedy lands for the most part, mocking the “Y’all-Qaeda” type of conservative militants that we see so much of on the news these days, but the actual plot of the short itself is incredibly confusing. I think it has something to do with a vampire, which has explosive blood for some reason? It’s not overly clear, which makes following the short’s condensed third act a nauseating chore.

And oh boy, the wraparound. The frame stories have never a strength of V/H/S, basically just feeling like filler intended to justify a feature-length runtime rather than a more straightforward short film collection, but 94’s really takes the cake for being a franchise low. Following a group of aggressive, indiscriminately-numbered SWAT team as they raid some sort of cult compound, it once again tries to introduce some mythology behind the titular VHS tapes that depict each film’s supernatural content. And yet, it does nothing to further this plot in any real way, and feels almost like a prank of some kind. The acting is terrible, like a group of freshman-year drama students were given a camera and just told to go for it. It’s confusing, it’s boring, and it really doesn’t have any sort of consistency or payoff whatsoever. The frames for V/H/S and V/H/S 2 at least tried to create some sort of mystery and suspense, and for all it’s faults, Viral could at least be followed. 94’s frame is an incoherent, amateur mess by comparison.

I would also like to add that the “1994” aspect of V/H/S 94 adds nothing to the overall experience besides a slight, artificial graininess that gets overlaid on top of literally everything.

I wanted to love this movie, and there’s certainly aspects that I liked. There’s some genuine scares early on in “Storm Drain” that work incredibly well, and “The Empty Wake” had my hand hovering above my laptop’s mute button in anticipation for most of it’s runtime. But the energy just doesn’t continue past that point, with “The Subject” feeling too much like a video game power fantasy to be scary and “Terror” being too on-the-nose with its satirical content.

But overall, V/H/S 94 is a middling installment to the franchise, one that makes me a bit less optimistic for its future. It’s not quite as bad as Viral, but it’s close, coming nowhere near the highs of the original two films. Give it a go if you want a quick fix for some moderately fun anthology horror, but if you didn’t love the previous films, maybe give this one a pass.

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