Review: With the Franchise Return, V/H/S/94 Brings Back the Scares with a Few New Filmmakers in the Mix

In the early part of the 2010s, the world was treated to a trio of horror anthology films under the V/H/S banner (V/H/S, V/H/S/2, and V/H/S: Viral), which gave us early glimpses of such filmmakers as Adam Wingard, Simon Barrett, David Bruckner, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto, Jason Eisener, Eduardo Sánchez, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, and Nacho Vigalondo (admittedly, the first two were both pretty good; the third one was trash, except for the Benson & Moorhead short). After a seven-year gap, V/H/S/94 brings back some of the franchise’s more successful filmmakers, as well as a few new faces (including Chicago’s own Jennifer  Reeder’s wraparound story “Holy Hell”; she wrote and directed the recent Knives and Skin) to bring us four new stories captured on videotape and set in 1994.

VHS 94
Image courtesy of Shudder

Reeder’s tale involves a SWAT team raiding a supposed drug-manufacturing warehouse, which feels more like a massive spook-house where each new room gives us a new combination of dead bodies, mannequins, and banks of television sets playing mysterious VHS tapes, each of which is revealed to be a new creep-tastic story. At least, I think that’s what’s happening. I’ll admit, the wraparound story is so amped-up, it’s a little tough to follow until the end. And while I tend to fear anthology films on the whole, I’ll be the first to admit that V/H/S/94’s segments are all legitimately scary (to varying degrees) and impressively original, despite their all being found-footage segments.

The film begins with a Chloe Okuno’s (Slut) straight-up creature feature “Storm Drain,” in which a news reporter and her camera crew enter a storm drain in the hopes of shedding some light (literally and figuratively) on a local urban legend known as Rat Man, which is believed to be a possibly deformed homeless person who some say has the head of a rat. Like most trips into a pitch-black storm drain, things do not end well, but they also don’t end as you might expect. The film’s concept may be the least original of the mix, but the effects are hilariously outstanding.

Next up is the most terrifying segment, Simon (Séance) Barrett’s “The Empty Wake,” which is about just what the title promises: a stormy-night wake that almost no one attends and is overseen by an underling at the funeral home who believes that the dead man in the casket isn’t as dead as once reported. With tornado sirens wailing outside, the young attendant screaming inside, and an increasingly loud pounding coming from inside the casket, the story straight up freaked me out with the way Barrett moves from all lights on to barely lit to pitch black and back again to reveal only as much as is necessary to make his point and scare us to the core.

Perhaps my favorite chapter is “Terror,” from Ryan Prows (Lowlife), in which a bumbling militia group plots to blow up a federal building using what I believe is vampire blood, which apparently explodes when exposed to sunlight. The method of collecting said blood and the test runs that the group carries out are what make the segment so special. Even though it’s probably the least scary of the bunch, it makes up for it with creativity and Prows’ clever way of weaving in modern examples of domestic terrorism. This one was freaky because it felt so real.

Finally, there’s returning Thai filmmaker Timo Tjahjanto (May the Devil Take You Too), with the longest and silliest segment, “The Subject,” about a demented scientist who is kidnapping people and merging their bodies with robotics to create an army of bio-mechanical creatures. As well produced as this short is, it ends up feeling like a first-person shooter video game, as the military tracks down and breaks into the doctor’s secret lab just as he’s beginning to activate his deadly robots, some of whom still have human emotions. Compared to the smaller scale of the other chapters, it certainly feels big and bold, but I found it more long and ponderous, despite a few hyper-violent moments.

Like most anthology films, if you hit a dud segment, you only have to wait a few minutes until the next (hopefully better) one begins. And thankfully, V/H/S/94 comprises mostly winning chapters that combine to make the perfect film to kick off your October horror viewing marathons.

The film is now streaming on Shudder.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.