To call a horror film anthology “uneven” is essentially a trope of anthology reviewing at this point, an assumption so universal and taken for granted that it barely needs to be uttered in the first place. Horror anthologies are uneven by nature, often scattershot in the level of talent and production capability available to them. Typically, this is simply a function of the unpredictable nature of filmmaking and producing, but Shudder’s new V/H/S/94 may be the first time I’ve watched a horror anthology where the “unevenness” seems less an unintended consequence and more an acknowledgement of intent from the start. Put simply, V/H/S/94 is almost less an anthology than it is a vehicle for a single, deliriously creative segment from director Timo Tjahjanto, which dominates the entire center of the film. All the other segments simply orbit this central anchor, caught in the inexorable pull of Tjahjanto’s demented imagination, which manages to give V/H/S/94 at least 30 minutes in which one cannot look away. It’s impossible to divorce one’s opinion of the film as a whole from Tjahjanto’s segment—it feels like the reason why the rest of them were shot.
This film is of course a return to the pioneering V/H/S series of found footage horror anthologies, which first delighted horror geeks with two quality installments in 2012 and 2013, kicking off a fresh wave of both horror anthologies and found footage experimentation. Each of those first two installments contained some truly stand-out horror short films of relatively equal quality, but the fortunes of V/H/S turned sour after the critical drubbing of third installment V/H/S: Viral in 2014, which was seen as a true shark-jumping moment for the series. A refractory period was clearly needed before this return in the form of 94, which bolts itself onto 1990s home video nostalgia while providing a platform for both returning filmmakers (Tjahjanto, David Bruckner, Simon Barrett) and new ones (Chloe Okuno, Jennifer Reeder, Ryan Prows) to explore their darkest fantasies.
At the end of the day, though, what people will be talking about is Tjahjanto’s absolutely gonzo segment “The Subject,” which sucks all the air out of the conversation with its adrenaline-pumping display of bloody action. The piece revolves around a mad scientist conducting gruesome experiments in an attempt to fuse man and machine, creating hideous biomechanical monsters in an underground compound that is eventually breached by an overzealous squad of riot police determined to put an end to the butchery. Here, “The Subject” plays nicely with perspective by giving us two key viewpoints that each frame the events in a different light: A camera being wielded by a member of the police documenting the raid, and a camera in the head of one of the mad doctor’s timid creations, who seeks only her own survival. Surrounded by an army of hulking, murderous monstrosities with razor arms, and riddled with gunfire from equally bloodthirsty police, the female creature is an obvious beacon of empathy. It’s like seeing the ending of Bride of Frankenstein from the Bride’s perspective … if the Bride had then picked up a futuristic gun arm and battled her way out of Dr. Frankenstein’s castle in an absurdly gory first-person shooting sequence reminiscent of Hardcore Henry on steroids.
And rest assured, “The Subject” is completely and totally absurd—never “frightening,” but existing in a horror sphere entirely beyond the attempt to legitimately scare an audience. Instead, its purpose is to dazzle the viewer with its joyful, grisly showcase of outstandingly grimy production design and slick melding of practical and CGI gore effects. To say this segment takes chances that none of the others venture is an incredible understatement—it’s orders of magnitude more technically complex, while simultaneously tapping into ethical themes that none of the other segments are interested in approaching. Never have I seen an anthology film so dominated by a single contribution.
The low-stakes nature of the other segments, meanwhile, is perhaps best summed up by Simon Barrett’s “The Empty Wake,” a single-location horror short with a story that could also easily be told in a single sentence: “A woman left alone at a wake begins to hear odd noises coming from the casket.” It’s a premise so straightforward and so elemental that it feels like it could have sprung from a two-page spread in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark—not “ineffective,” per se, but so thoroughly familiar and safe that it stands out in particularly sharp contrast with the imaginative weirdness of “The Subject.” So too does Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” feel like prototypical found footage fodder in comparison, as it follows a TV reporter descending into the sewers in search of reports of a “rat man.” The aesthetic of ‘90s nightly news is nicely memorialized, and the segment contains a few well-shot moments of claustrophobic tension, but next to the boundary pushing installment that follows in the center of V/H/S/94, it just reads as another safe exercise in genre platitudes. At least “Storm Drain” concludes with a hilariously gory gag, though it throws away its own “serious” horror bonafides to do so.
Indeed, of the other shorts in this feature, only Ryan Prows’ “Terror” stands out as something notably unusual—a series of home video recordings of a white nationalist militia as they plan to attack the federal government with the aid of a powerful supernatural weapon derived from a seemingly undying prisoner. In addition to capturing the tenor of delusion and conspiracy that has taken center stage in the right-wing American psyche in the age of QAnon, “Terror” is the one segment of V/H/S/94 that truly feels like something out of its era. Its subtle VHS video effects and shooting style by far come closest to evoking a truly amateur, handheld feel, though it unsurprisingly suffers from many cases of “there’s no good reason why anyone would be filming these conversations.” Still, its gaggle of drunken, racist idiots are more believable a cluster of victims than those in any of the other shorts—I can fully accept that if these guys stumbled on the kind of power they possess, this is precisely how they would bungle it.
The weakest aspect of V/H/S/94, aside from the inability of any of its segments to project the same vitality and ambition as “The Subject,” is framing device “Holy Hell” (directed by Jennifer Reeder), which sees another squad of police exploring what appears to be the site of a mass cult suicide. Suffice to say, it clumsily functions as connective tissue between the film’s interior segments, but is mostly distracting for the amateurish performances of seemingly every actor involved, especially as it builds to its absurd conclusion. What is meant to be a grounding story to thread the film together instead becomes borderline embarrassing, having none of the simple, stark realism of something like the modest framing story of the original V/H/S. Blessedly, these segments pass quickly, and they’re easily forgotten in the wake of acid melting off a man’s face in “Storm Drain,” vampires erupting like nuclear bombs in “Terror” or the entirety of “The Subject.”
So yes, V/H/S/94 is most definitely “uneven,” although it feels like there’s essentially no way it could have avoided the descriptor: It’s a single short film of epic proportions, padded out by a handful of others that primarily get by on more familiar, mundane charms. Whether that gives it enough mileage to be essential viewing this Halloween season will almost certainly be a matter of what you make of Timo Tjahjanto’s work, but its wanton disregard for sanity and good taste ultimately gives V/H/S/94 its gory raison d’etre.
Directors: Jennifer Reeder, Chloe Okuno, Simon Barrett, Timo Tjahjanto, Ryan Prows
Writer: David Bruckner
Release date: Oct. 6, 2021 (Shudder)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.