94 marks a distinct shift in the V/H/S franchise from the classical phase of the first three films to a self-consciously classicist era. V/H/S, V/H/S/2 and V/H/S: Viral came out of an anarchic horror collective loosely overseen by Bloody Disgusting media, whereas V/H/S/94 reintroduced the franchise as an exclusive property of the Shudder streaming service. While 94 remains an anthology film, for the first time there’s a loose overarching screenplay, conceived by David Bruckner and Brad Miska, indicative of a growing concern about quality control. Similarly, in stark contrast to the self-destructive tendencies of Viral, 94 outlines a clear and streamlined future direction for the franchise – focusing each subsequent film on a specific year during the VHS era. Underpinning all these decisions is Viral’s recognition that the video cassette had become redundant, even as a haunted object, in the smart phone era. It may well be that Viral was the first and last film in the franchise to really collide VHS and smart phone technology, and that future films follow 94 by staying firmly in a video ecology.
Of course, these meditations were what made Viral so experimental, and so true to the spirit of V/H/S, which continually bled its short films back into its putative framing device. By the time we reached Viral, the typical framing narrative of the series – people discovering an arcane bank of televisions and video machines – had been almost entirely obliterated. Insofar as the third film had a framing device, it was a character following a police chase he’d seen on television and trying to capture it with his phone in order to go viral. Not only does 94 return to the trademark banks of televisions in contradistinction to the diffuse loops of Viral, presenting us with the most economical and streamlined framing device to date, but it focuses on contorted televisual configurations more than any previous release. Across the first three films, the strongest instalment was probably “Safe Haven,” the cult episode in V/H/S/2, and 94 knows it, opening with a police outfit storming the headquarters of a video cult. Each time we return to this framing device, the troops come across a new televisual sculpture, all of which feel very attuned to the television art of the 80s and 90s, sandwiched somewhere between Nam June Paik and U2’s Zooropa tour. Similarly, each episode details a tangent to the cult’s worldview, evoking the collective cult mentality of the early-mid 1990s.
Throughout all these episodes, there’s a more quotidian sense of VHS, which makes it both funnier and (at times) more suspenseful than the original films, at least in a conventional way. 94 is less about haunted tapes in the present than about people tapping into the occult powers of VHS at the time it was popular – as if directors had discovered found footage horror half a decade before Blair Witch. In fact, watching 94, I wondered why people hadn’t thought of found footage earlier on, since camcorders were around well before handheld horror entered mainstream cinema. Perhaps it was simply because VHS technology was so normal for a while, much as the film immerses us in a time when videos were a part of everyday life. If anything, I remember VHS feeling unbelievably immediate, rather than glitchy or fractured.
With all that in mind, “Storm Drain,” the first episode in 94, plays like a correction, a reset, and a blueprint for the future of the franchise. In part, this means returning to, and capitalising on, the most effective parts of the first three films. As we follow a news reporter into an underground drain, in an effort to discover an elusive “rat man,” director Chloe Okuno leans into a classical sense of suspense that was almost entirely absent from Viral, even as she draws upon the evocative culvert spaces that formed that film’s signature. Again, in contrast to the diffuse loops of the third film, she emphasises the material culture of the 90s, and the sheer swathe of media detritus, as the news crew pick through all the objects in a homeless encampment. At the same time, Okuno introduces a perkier and more topical sense of the present, starting the story with a news broadcast about “the internet, or the net, as it’s called,” prompting our reporter to playfully aver “I think I’ll stick to my telephone for now.”
This perky sense of humour is the calling card of the new V/H/S franchise, signalling the swagger of a newfound (or refound) serial momentum. Comic flourishes abound throughout the first story in particular, from the reporter giving a homeless man her business card, to her final tribute to the ratman when she returns to television. That comedy seeps into a broader sense of horror absurdity, a tribute to the lurid prosthetics of the 80s, when the reporter discovers that the drain actually harbours an entire rat cult. The second story, which details a woman who has been instructed to watch over a body at a funeral parlour, exhibits the same suspense, the same quirky comedy, and the same cult focus. Like the first film, it’s technically accomplished in every way, and yet this also gives these first two episodes a sameness, a streamlined uniformity, that mitigates against the eerie discontinuity of the earlier franchise.
The third film, “The Subject,” is both different from and equally economical to, the first two episodes. It’s directed by Timo Tjahjanto, one half of the directorial team behind “Safe Haven,” the cult instalment in V/H/S/2 that gives 94 its focus. Once again, this episode draws on and “corrects” the earlier filmsblending the first-person shooter of “Safe Haven” with the embodied GoPro aesthetic of “Bonestorm,” the third episode in Viral, to establish a new trope in the franchise – namely, a third act that shifts us into a overt gaming register. That makes sense in the context of 94, since cult horror typically involves storming a compound, which lends itself to a first-person shooter perspective. It also gels with 94’s broader fear that its VHS premise will become redundant in an era where digital technology has been fused so completely with the body. “The Subject” gestures towards these fears by unfolding in the laboratory of a mad scientist who has spliced humans and analog technology in every conceivable way. We experience this from the POV of one such spliced subject, who witnesses all these botched human-analog combinations (a bit like the failed Ripley-xenomorph hybrids at the start of Alien Resurrection) and responds by dismantling and exposing the materiality of all the “real” police bodies that find the laboratory and attempt to dispose of its creatures.
In other words, “The Subject” presents us with a sentient camera, and is accordingly the longest film, lasting for the duration of the camera battery as it asks us to consider how thoroughly our own subjectivity has become spliced with technology. Yet the fact that this technology is analog, and that any digital spillover is quickly wrapped up in a gaming aesthetic, means that the third film doesn’t have any chance to bleed into the warped, cracked, defiant anarchy of the earlier franchise. Instead, this just becomes another gesture of streamlining, an algorithmic approach designed to ensure that as many people watch the film as possible. As a result, “The Subject” is the most disappointing and tedious episode in 94, encapsulating the film’s compulsion to absorb and neutralize the sharpest points of the franchise in the past.
There’s thus a strange paradox at play in 94 – it attempts to economise a franchise that thrives on glitch, disruption and incompletion. For all the cosmetic static of 94, the sheer anarchy of the originals is somewhat repressed here and, like all repressed entities, returns in inchoate ways, as a genuine strangeness yearns to peer through. We see it in the disembodied eyes that continually gaze back at us, like vestiges of the original franchise peeking out of the streamlined (and streaming) texture of it all. We also see it in the almost programmatic dissonance and dislocation of sound and image, as if 94 were working against itself, or despite itself, to undercut the professionally packaged product that it offers. The first film emphasises the camera and boom as separate devices; the second film presents a zombie that can hear but can’t see, while some of the creatures in the third film have artificial eyes, and others have artificial ears, unsettling the seamless audiovisual continuity of 94 as whole. It’s as if the sheer dissociative power of VHS is operating despite the film, insisting on its uncanny alterity even or especially when the directors try to suppress it, or to shoehorn it into a period effect.
This alterity finally breaks to the surface in the fourth film, “Terror,” directed by Ryan Prows, the only episode that approaches the spirit of the original franchise. Unlike the first three episodes here, “Terror” is oblique, elusive and almost incomplete in its vision of a white survivalist compound who describe themselves as “the last decent men of America, the true patriots.” These survivalists live in the woods, but have their eye on a Federal Building in Detroit. At first it seems as if they’re planning to commit a terrorist act in the vein of Timothy McVeigh, who would go on to to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City the following year. Gradually, however, Prows reveals a more occult agenda at play. It seems this survivalist group are closer to a cult, and have discovered a vampire, whose blood they are harvesting. Once they’ve got enough, they will somehow introduce it into the water supply, and infect the public, who will explode, viscerally, when they are exposed to sunlight.
I found this to be easily the most compelling story in 94, for at least two reasons. First, in a film that’s driven by cult horror, this is the most incisive vision of the way cult thought operates in America today, along with its ideological ancestry. Prows evokes a proto-Trumpian ideology emerging from an obscure and occult matrix that calls for the “fall of the unholy American empire,” and whose blood oaths depend on the draining of vampire fluids. Second, so much of “Terror” is left out that it’s like seeing a feature film condensed to twenty minutes, forcing us to imagine both the gaps within the story and the gaps between this story and the almost-occult Republican cultism that defines the present. As the only episode that is true to the original franchise, it makes sense that this is tacked on to the end of 94, since there’s nowhere else it could conceivably go without disrupting the new streamlined register.
Even then, 94 has to somewhat repress the import of “Terror” via the franchise’s cleanest and most contrived ending so far – a campy exposition on a “far-out film cult” that is the most bathetic moment in the franchise to date, partly because it explains so unequivocally how all this material happens to be on the same tape. Even when the earlier films had a putative framing narrative, there was no real sense of how it all came together as a tape – it was as if the short films simply emanated from the occult power of the video cassette itself. For all its economy, then – and because of it – 94 doesn’t have the alterity of the classical phase of the franchise, which is to say that it never feels like a found object. It’s lots of fun, genuinely scary at times, and good for the franchise, but it does make you a little nostalgic for the sheer strangeness and antisociality of those earliest V/H/S releases – nostalgic for the video nasty.