Fantastic Fest 2021: V/H/S/94 is a Glorious Return to Form for the Franchise

A rare example of a necessary sequel

While sequels are notorious in this day and age, as countless corporate conglomerates mine beloved franchises and IPs hoping to make a quick buck, sometimes, just sometimes… a good thing happens. Take the V/H/S series for example, which worked at not only digging into the 80s/90s video nostalgia that was all the rage at the time, but was also a great way to highlight up and coming genre directors or give a place to those more seasoned auteurs looking to hone their craft. While the first two entries were solid mixtapes featuring the best and brightest horror directors of the early aughts, the third entry went off book after losing Simon Barrett (who functioned as the series architect) and effectively became a franchise killer.

For those unfamiliar with the horror anthology series, the V/H/S films are comprised of segments of supposed found footage, with a supernatural or horror angle. The gist is you’re watching tapes that appear to be traded around by some kind of underground cult, which are somehow also involved in and perpetuating this phenomenon in the shadows. This cult aspect is usually the narrative glue that strings the films together and populates the wrap around segments. This story appeared to be moving forward to some logical momentum, that is until V/H/S: Viral came along and derailed all that groundwork. The other big difference was that film went in a more modern viral video direction, hence the name, in a move that backfired.

V/H/S/94 goes back to the analog roots of the series as the name implies and brings back series alums Simon Barrett (You’re Next and Seance) and Timo Tjahjanto (The Night Comes for Us) along with newcomers Jennifer Reeder (Knives & Skin), Ryan Prows (Lowlife) and Chloe Okuno (Slut). The opening and wraparound, titled Holy Hell, calls back to the cult from the first two films as a SWAT team raids what they think is a super lab, but soon discover its something much more sinister. It’s actually the compound of the group that deals in these tapes, and from segment to segment they encounter more and more evidence of their experimentation on their unwilling subjects. Starting with that first segment, there’s a tone set here, more of suspense and dread rather than shock, and it’s a welcome realignment, as we transition to our first story.

Now, if you were to tell me one of my favorite segments of the new V/H/S was going to be about a reporter, in the sewers looking for a creature known as “The Rat Man”, I would probably say you were full of shit, but it’s true. Storm Drain by Director Chloe Okuno is a straight banger. The segment follows a down on her luck investigative reporter Holly Marciano (Anna Hopkins), who while doing a piece on local urban legend “The Rat Man” is lured into a storm drain, with the promise of a story when her cameraman spots something moving down in the sewer. Through the madness she endures, its Holly’s descent in this madness that keeps the audience vested in this piece, thanks to Hopkins’ performance. It really hooked me in, making me genuinely care about what happened to her as Okuno hits you with one final twist before transitioning back to the wraparound story.

Storm Drain was an immensely strong start that leads into the next static filled tale, Simon Barrett’s The Empty Wake, which is a masterclass in misdirection and suspense. The segment takes place at an overnight wake, which I never knew was a thing, where a new hire at the funeral home is tasked with keeping the requested video cameras running and the mood reflective to what we think is an empty room with a casket. This one is just effortless in how it builds to its conclusion, which is a great release after Barrett fans that fire for the first 13 minutes. But that’s the point, to lull you into that state of comfort as everything basically goes to glorious hell in the final moments of the piece.

Next up is The Subject, which has a mad scientist kidnapping unwilling subjects to attempt to marry man and machine in what could be best described as the Indonesian Robocop. After a few minutes of setting the stage, The Subject unleashes a relentless volley of action setpieces that really takes the series to a whole new level. It does some interesting things with character building as well, since we are viewing this sci-fi splatter fest through the “eyes” of a missing girl who has had a video camera implanted in her head, that now functions as our perspective. The story manages to use that plot device to imbue it with a real sense of heart and danger since we are experiencing most of this tale from her point of view.

Our next tape which unspools is Ryan Prows’ Terror, which follows a very Trumpian militia that is planning a terror attack. But when their secret weapon is revealed to be of supernatural origin, and it turns on them in a welcome slice of insanity, giving new life to a segment that really had me wondering where it was going. Thankfully after it finds its footing it absolutely swings for the fences and redeems its clunky first act. Just keep that in mind when watching this one, that you do get a pay off, you just have to pay attention. This third act twist definitely had me pondering some of the finer points of its reveal for the last few days as I mulled this review over. I think the strength here lies in its final execution and how that house of cards is meticulously built through the piece only to be burned to the ground.

V/H/S/94 is a return to form for the franchise and presents the rare case for a necessary sequel. This is to redeem the franchise and show there’s still plenty of life here left in this concept, whether it be another film or a limited series on Shudder (who will be premiering this October 6th). Whatever it is, you can count me in as 94 brings back that suspense and creepiness of the first two, with a recalibrated focus on character development, rather than simply going for shock and gore. It’s good horror 101, plain and simple. Seven years have passed since Viral, but this film shows there’s plenty of stories to tell in this static laced world and more dark corners to be explored. This is no doubt also thanks to the more inclusive roster that also gives a new perspective on terror.

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