For V/H/S/85, Familiarity Is Both Blessing and Curse

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For V/H/S/85, Familiarity Is Both Blessing and Curse

After years of dormancy, horror fans enthusiastically welcomed back the V/H/S series of found footage anthologies with the release of V/H/S/94 in 2021. That film, the first since V/H/S: Viral seemingly killed off the concept for good way back in 2014, was a refreshing return to the format with a handful of solid entries, although it mostly served as a platform for director Timo Tjahjanto’s absolutely ludicrous (and crazy impressive) “The Subject,” a single entry that dominated the film’s center. The success of V/H/S/94, though, was more than enough for Shudder to seemingly designate the franchise as a new core, annual property, and each subsequent Halloween season has given us a new entry: V/H/S/99 in 2022, and V/H/S/85 this year.

This new status quo shows no sign of ending, but as I observed last year: Just how many entries can you cram a number after before they become indistinguishable to the audience? With the 1999 entry positioned at the very end of the VHS video format’s reign over American home video, one would have thought it would symbolically have been reserved as a finale for the V/H/S series itself. And yet now we find ourselves right back in the mid-1980s once again, seemingly destined to ride this temporal merry-go-round forever. Will every single year between 1980 and 1999 get its own installment?

As for V/H/S/85 itself, we’re presented with a mixed bag that feels emblematic of the series itself: Peaks and valleys have always been the norm. It thankfully doesn’t crib from past entries quite as much as the creatively bereft V/H/S/99, but it also has less to recommend than the most creative bits of V/H/S/94. This is a true middling installment, floating in the ether between the others from the last few years. Neither its highs nor its lows are particularly extreme.

It should perhaps not come as a surprise that the most consistently engrossing of these short films is from director David Bruckner (The Night House, The Ritual), who gave the V/H/S series its most enduring segment, “Amateur Night,” way back in the first entry in 2012. In lieu of the more traditional narrative wraparound segments that typified the earlier V/H/S movies, Bruckner’s “Total Copy” is implied to be the background material of this overall tape itself, with the other entries occasionally interrupting it. Shot in the style of a TV science documentary, it follows a crew of scientists or researchers who have discovered some kind of inhuman life form, and have confined it to a lab where it is fed a steady diet of American TV programming as a form of education or “enrichment.” The aesthetic calls to mind the dystopian laboratories attempting to harness psychic powers from children in the likes of Stranger Things, and it’s easy to see where things are headed with a lead scientist who has arrogantly convinced himself that he has some kind of special, emotional connection with what of course turns out to be an incubating monster. It’s a classic example of someone believing themselves to be a “main character,” only to find out just how wrong they are … with a wonderfully macabre, darkly humorous stinger in its final moments. “Total Copy” can also boast some of the strongest acting performances of any V/H/S entry, which isn’t something one can often point to in the series. Bruckner clearly knows exactly what he’s doing in this medium.

The other highlight is Mike P. Nelson’s “No Wake,” which is actually separated into two different segments in the film, with the second not being clearly related to the first until about halfway through. The first segment, shot from the perspective of a group of Friday the 13th-esque young people being massacred at a campsite, stands out for its unflinchingly brutal depiction of what it would be like to actually be in the center of a mass shooting event. This is disturbingly realistic in the extreme, and one wonders about the tastefulness of such a concept–it’s one thing to watch teens being killed by a monster in such a short film, but another entirely to have a sequence of deaths that so accurately captures our nation’s very real crisis of gun violence. The viewer may very well find this distasteful, though those feelings may ebb when a supernatural twist upends what we think has been happening, sending the story hurtling in the direction of revenge. The follow-up later in V/H/S/85, meanwhile, sees an entire family of spree killers getting a taste of their own medicine in a hail of police bullets, with action that is fun but a little incomplete. If this segment had brought more of the over-the-top, explosive gunplay it seems to promise, it could potentially have earned “No Wake” more comparisons to Tjahjanto’s “The Subject,” but it sadly cuts itself off right when it begins delivering the grisly goods in earnest.

The other segments range from the thoroughly conventional to the distractingly disjointed, with Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “God of Death” being the most familiar of the bunch. This is the most classical “found footage horror” short, set in a TV station in Mexico that is leveled by a powerful earthquake. The early moments of what one might term “disaster horror” are the most effective, following a cameraman and rescue workers as they try to make their way out of the ruined building, but by the time we end up in the subterranean catacombs beneath the city, the proceedings have come to feel very familiar indeed. Would you believe that there are monsters, down there in the dark? Or Aztec deities in this case, to be precise. It’s a competent short you could have plugged in to any previous V/H/S installment.

The Black Phone director Scott Derrickson, meanwhile, tries to get far more ambitious in segment “Dreamkill,” but with results that feel constrained by the found footage concept as soon as you start considering his choices in composition. The concept itself is refreshingly novel–a young man with violent, prophetic dreams starts seeing his dreams enacted on TV, so he tapes them and tries to warn the police department about the upcoming murders–but the grainy murder footage itself is far too choppy and disjointed, and feels like Derrickson repeatedly trying to recapture the more infamous snuff films seen in his movie Sinister. Those clips were most effective because of their brevity and suggestion of brutality, but here Derrickson makes it all too clumsily literal. The portion of the short following the police investigation is more interesting, but the director seems to forget at times that he’s making a found footage film, repeatedly featuring a handheld camera perspective that doesn’t actually seem to correlate with any character who would be there to hold the camera. It’s as if they couldn’t figure a way to get the shots they wanted within the context of a police interrogation, and just abandoned the format entirely by using a camera perspective that can be anywhere, at any time–not exactly in the spirit of V/H/S if we’re being honest.

That brings us to the weakest overall segment, Natasha Kermani’s unfortunately derivative “TKNOGD.” This short sees a speaker on stage railing against mankind’s reliance on technology and the birth of a “god of technology,” with a visual styling that suggests something between “cult meeting” and “2 a.m. public access TV programming.” Donning a VR helmet and the obvious and unavoidable references to TRON that come with it, the speaker taunts the nonexistent technological deity to show itself. Which it promptly does, to the surprise of no one. “TKNOGD” swings itself between droning and uneventful, and then bloody, but its overall tone (and its visual FX support) render the effect as unintentionally funny more than anything. All in all, it feels out of place next to all the other shorts in V/H/S/85.

It’s clear that the quality of the shorts in the anthology films of this series are tied directly to the willingness and ability of the filmmakers to work creatively within the boundaries of the style, something easier said than done at this point. V/H/S remains a found footage horror series; that’s what the filmmakers genuinely need to deliver, which means paying deference to the rules of the genre. If the assignment has grown increasingly difficult for them, it’s because they’re tied inextricably to this format, and that format is so familiar to viewers at this point that it has an increasingly difficult time making a major impact. It may still be possible to make great V/H/S-style entries, but one has to question whether there’s a solid rationale to do so in 2023 and beyond, other than “there’s money to be made.”

But more likely than not, I’ll see you again next year for V/H/S/86. Or V/H/S/90. Or perhaps V/H/S: Bloodlines. Let’s just hope David Bruckner is back.

Directors: David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Mike P. Nelson, Natasha Kermani
Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, James Ransone, Jordan Belfi, Alex Galick, Chelsey Grant
Release Date: October 6, 2023 (Shudder)

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.

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