Fantastic Fest Review: V/H/S/85
Found footage anthology finds a future by pushing the rules
By Richard Whittaker,
9:04AM, Wed. Sep. 27, 2023
The V/H/S films began as an experiment in form, and have over time become a sort of seasonal event, a veritable cottage industry of found footage shorts by a murderers row of horror filmmakers.
With V/H/S/85, the sixth in the series and third in the "period piece" phase of retro chillers, it's arguably brought those two elements together in a way that neither the rough-hewn V/H/S/94 nor the highly uneven V/H/S/99 achieved. It's still very much straight off the production line (in the nicest, most Roger Corman way), but also feels like the first time that the year-specific era of V/H/S feels comfortable to push boundaries of more than scares and good taste.
The biggest experiments come from directors Scott Derrickson (The Black Phone) and Mike P. Nelson (Wrong Turn) – Derrickson in content, Nelson in form. Derrickson's "Dreamkill" is assembled from police footage of a series of grisly murders – including some that seems impossible unless it was shot by the killer. Unless, of course, there are some other forces at play, and they are what allows Derrickson to play with editing and non-diegetic sound that would normally be verboten in found footage. It's ingenious, and something never really seen in the franchise before – which is the point.
Similarly, Nelson actually gets to weave two separate stories to create an anthology-within-the-anthology: bloody beachfront romp "No Wake" ends on a cliffhanger, which is wrapped up with a sick, sly grin by the seemingly unrelated "Ambrosia."
Not that everyone is trying to reinvent the wheel, and newcomer Natasha Kermani (Lucky) successfully mashes together early VR and 1980s experimental performance art in "TKNOGD" for a good, old-fashioned gross-out splatter comedy. Similarly, Gigi Saul Gurrerro gives a supernatural spin to the carnage of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake with "God of Death," a recovered broadcast from a TV station. It relishes its period-specific details while giving the same kind of zippy thrills as great rail runner instalments from earlier films, like Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's "Bonestorm" from V/H/S Viral or V/H/S/2's "A Ride in the Park" from found footage innovators Edúardo Sanchez and Gregg Hale.
Speaking of old hands, David Bruckner makes his return to the franchise as a director for the first time since the 2012 original with wraparound "Total Copy," a well-executed revival or the late night TV special news event, in which a team of scientists misguidedly try to make friends with a squishy alien pile of goo. It's entertaining, but it's one place where V/H/S/85 and V/H/S/99 really fall down. The original trilogy had a meta-story about tape collectors swapping obscene proof of the supernatural and uncanny, and V/H/S/94 keyed into that idea. Bruckner's element would make a great standalone segment and doesn't need to be the wraparound, which somehow weakens the structure.
But that's almost a minor gripe when the V/H/S movies seem to be course-correcting after a brace of almost too rough and ready instalments. If they're going to keep being an annual event, it will be through both fitting and busting its own mold.