Fantastic Fest Review: V/H/S/94
Fourth entry is a return-to-form for the found footage franchise
By Trace Sauveur,
4:44PM, Tue. Oct. 5, 2021
The V/H/S franchise has become a lot like the monsters, demons, and killers lurking within the shadows of its scuzzy, bite-sized horror shorts: it just won’t die.
Yet after the palpably negative reception to previous entry V/H/S: Viral, it seemed like the franchise would be better off buried and forgotten. In this sense, the seven-years-later revival V/H/S/94 can be seen as an attempted course correction.
Obviously, the best way to get things back on track is to revert to the initial selling point of spooky stories being filtered through the style of creepy, low-fi analog videotapes (it's actually the name of the series if you didn’t notice). It also doesn’t hurt that helping spearhead the operation are series veterans Simon Barrett and Timo Tjahjanto, along with newcomers Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, and Jennifer Reeder. All the filmmakers feel represented by the final product: this is a V/H/S for the fans, infused with a new sense of life that makes it feel like the freshest entry since the first.
Unfortunately, you wouldn’t know that from the wrap-around that ties the shorts together, an obligatory inclusion that’s notorious for always being the worst part of any of these. Reeder’s attempt at it involves a police SWAT unit conducting a raid on a building housing a bevy of dead bodies and those ever-mysterious tapes. Not to single out a particular filmmaker – the task here certainly isn’t enviable – but the framing story moves from feeling arbitrary in the beginning to downright incoherent by the end.
Luckily, this is the only true dud in the mix. Okuno kicks things off following a news reporter who gets too close to a local legend regarding a supposed “rat man”, eventually leading to her investigating down a pitch-black storm drain. An example of the series at its most sublime, it incorporates a balanced mix of genuine stomach-turning dread and satirical 90s news-hour pastiche with a story worthy of a feature. It’s complemented by Barrett’s segment immediately following, as both share commonalities in their slow-burn dread, amazingly freakish creature design, and late-night-campfire-story feel. He sets himself up for success in his setting and situation: an eerily unattended wake at a funeral home on a stormy night that a young employee is left to wait out alone, with a dead body that seems like it may still be kicking. It’s the simplest of the shorts, which is why it’s so effective.
Over on the batshit crazy end of the spectrum, Tjahjanto’s segment is a masterclass in full-throttle cyberpunk body horror. The longest of the bunch, it moves through several phases and is as much an homage to the gritty American splatter films of the early aughts as it is to the likes of Tetsuo: The Iron Man and even the first-person-shooter-style POV of Hardcore Henry. Such an inspired, uninhibited vision would have done well as the closer, which instead is given to Prows. His The Thing-inspired quasi-satire about a militant group of hillbilly radicals in the woods slows down the momentum by abandoning the mayhem of his peers, opting for a reminder that “the real world is what’s scary, man!” But he, too, has something a little more monstrous up his sleeve that makes the tedious build, if not totally worth it, at least somewhat forgivable.
Of course, that dissonance of differing quality and ideas is an inherent trait of any anthology, and you could do much worse than what’s offered here. This collection should be a surefire hit on anyone’s Halloween rotation this year and argues that it may be worth pulling out the VCR for another entry.
Fantastic Fest 2021, Sept. 23-30.
Follow all our coverage at austinchronicle.com/fantasticfest.