V/H/S (2012) is an anthology film made up of a handful of loosely tethered found footage shorts, and over the sequels that followed the concept continued with highs, lows, and middling connective tissue. V/H/S/2 (2013) remains the best and most consistent while 2014’s V/H/S: Viral is enough of a disappointment that it essentially stalled the entire franchise. Seven years later, many of the key players (not including Roxanne Benjamin, unfortunately) are finally back with a new batch of videotape terrors — and true to form, V/H/S/94‘s frame narrative disappoints while the stories deliver some grisly entertainment.
The wraparound sees a poorly trained SWAT team pour into a warehouse filled with both period tech and various grotesqueries. TV monitors show static and images from Waco, religious iconography and corpses sit unmoving in the darkness, but soon the screens reveal something else.
A news report explores a recent spate of sightings of someone/something nicknamed “The Ratman,” and theories abound. Is it an escaped mental patient, a sign of end times, or something else? When a reporter (Anna Hopkins) and her cameraman (Christian Potenza) go into the city’s sewers looking for answers, they find plenty — but those answers come with a side of monstrous death.
Writer/director Chloe Okuno‘s “Storm Drain” opens V/H/S/94 and does a solid job setting the stage and capturing the epitome of traditional found footage as the pair move deeper into the sewer’s darkness before a different kind of darkness finds them. The tension works, at least until the answers start coming with a silly detour and the arrival of the legendary Ratman. The segment works best in its buildup, but as the exaggerated VHS imperfections ramp up — tracking lines, rolling, shaky cam, glitches — the tale’s effectiveness wavers.
A young woman lands a gig overseeing a wake, but what should be a simple few hours of her time instead turns into a nightmare. It’s just her and a dead body in an otherwise empty room, and a handful of connected cameras have been set up around the room to capture it all for the family. As the moments tick by, though, the corpse decides to liven things up a bit.
Simon Barrett writes and directs “The Empty Wake,” and had it been played with a higher, faster tempo it could have easily found a home in the pages of EC Comics. Instead it goes straight for a slow burn buildup, growing terror, and some creatively gory beats, and it works as one of V/H/S/94‘s standouts. Barrett keeps it simple, but it’s highly effective all the same as the young woman finds herself trapped with a confused, angry, and very unhealthy corpse. The cutting between cameras ramps the suspense even as unfolds in a single room, and it’s terrifically creepy fun.
A mad scientist — not a pejorative, this guy is looney tunes — records himself conducting experiments on unwilling human subjects, and these are far from traditional operations. He transplants brains, bodies, and video equipment as if they’re interchangeable Lego blocks, and results most definitely vary. The experiments are interrupted by the arrival of police searching for a missing girl, but they’re not prepared for the monstrous subjects charging towards them.
The slower pace of V/H/S/94‘s first two segments is left behind for Timo Tjahjanto‘s “The Subject,” which explodes with madness, carnage, and some FPS video game-inspired visuals after introducing its crazy bones doctor. The dank confines don’t help on the visual front, but Tjahjanto picks up the slack with the design of the human experiments — one creation in particular feels descended from the likes of Silent Hill and Bioshock — and the wet exuberance with which he lets them loose. The segment is arguably too long at thirty-minutes with some slower beats feeling somewhat repetitive, but the various payoffs mean you probably won’t be complaining.
A militia group — ie overzealous and under-educated “patriots” — is planning to bomb a government building, but while their intentions are familiar enough they have a secret weapon at their disposal. They believe they’ve been chosen by Jeebus to cleanse the country of non-white non-believers, and the thing in their barn is a gift from god towards that goal. Well, that’s the plan anyway. Too bad the gift has escaped…
Writer/director Ryan Prows ends V/H/S/94 on a high with his segment, “Terror.” It teases out the reveal as to what exactly their weapon of choice is, and it’s worth the wait watching these boneheads strutting about unaware that their own idiocy is about to bite them on the ass. Once things go haywire, though, the laughs stop and the carnage begins. (I kid, you’ll still be laughing as they’re mowed down.) You’re not rooting for these dipshits and instead take great enjoyment in the bloody karma that Prows is unleashing upon them.
V/H/S/94 is a clear step up from the previous entry, and while it can’t touch V/H/S/2 it still delivers plenty of fun for the family. (We may define “family” differently.) The VHS artifacting gets a bit out of control at times, the wraparound is DOA, and some found footage sins — why would you point your camera anywhere but at the goddamn monster?! — are committed, but inconsistency is the name of the game with both this franchise and anthology horror films in general.