When The Blair Witch Project premiered in 1999 it popularised found footage to the masses, but before that the technique had only been seen in a couple of other horror films. Cannibal Holocaust and Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood were both thought at one point to be real snuff films —the pretty iconic tale goes that Charlie Sheen saw Guinea Pig 2 and called the feds thinking it depicted real life murders, and Cannibal Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato was famously arrested for his film and it was subsequently banned in most countries.
Blair Witch managed to catapult the subgenre into a big, new world where it was fit for the silver screen — massive theatrical success has been enjoyed by the Paranormal Activity franchise and Unfriended since then — but its dirty home movie-esque roots will never be forgotten. V/H/S/ 94‘s 1994 setting falls somewhere in between these two ‘eras’ and definitely feels like a retreat to the roots of the franchise after the previous instalment, V/H/S: Viral, critically bombed, and screen-based horror in general has become the main reference point for contemporary found footage films with the likes of Unfriended, Host and Searching.
Even the film’s release on Shudder, as opposed to a theatrical run, gives the anthology an authenticity where it may never leave the confines of your home. It’s as if you’ve really uncovered something that was never meant to be found, a golden nugget of brutality and myth ready to be rolled out into its own urban legend. In our current era of rampant conspiracy theories, 4chan and deepfakes, many of V/H/S/ 94‘s segments could easily find themselves on some reddit thread as undeniable, uncovered proof of a world-wide conspiracy.
As is standard in the V/H/S series, the film is broken down into four short films, tied together with one overarching narrative that relates to VHS tapes. In this instalment, Jennifer Reeder directs that narrative with ‘Holy Hell’, a grainy police raid on a supposed drug ring in an abandoned warehouse that turns out to be the base of a sinister cult. Out of all the previous V/H/S introduction stories, Holy Hell is by far the most imaginative. Reeder really impressed me with her high school noir Knives and Skin, but never really delved into outright horror — especially the gory and grimy kind — and she definitely excels at it: more please.
‘Storm Drain,’ directed by Chloe Okuno, leans fully into the cultish imaginings of V/H/S/ 94 and gives us easily the entire franchise’s most iconic character: Raatma. This rat/man creature hybrid terror is reportedly lurking in the city sewers and reporter Holly (Anna Hopkins) and cameraman Jeff (Christian Potenza) are sent down to investigate, meeting a black ooze-covered homeless man on the way. There is something about the stillness of ‘Storm Drain’ that is skin-crawling. So much of found footage often relies on the shaky camera; dropping it to the ground; the creature running towards you so its barely visible, but Okuno lets Jeff’s camera linger on the black ooze, on the horrifying figure of a man crouched in the corner, of symbols carved in a wall — it is calm and collected with a desire to creep and disgust rather than shock.
Simon Barrett’s (writer of You’re Next and The Guest) ‘The Empty Wake’ is the shortest of the anthology and sees a young woman left alone to host the wake for a man at a funeral home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many people have not been allowed to attend funerals and wakes, with some parlours offering online services instead, this is chilling enough. More chilling still is when the body begins to stir, eventually rising, partially headless, to attack the young woman.
‘The Empty Wake’ often has the feeling of a first-person shooter game from the early 90s, and that theme is pulled through to Timo Tjahjanto’s sensational, ‘The Subject’. The hideously grotesque lovechild of Tetsuo and Ghost in the Machine, Tjahjanto’s short is balls to the wall insane, and V/H/S/ 94‘s standout — an entire feature of this, please. It follows a mad scientist (Budi Ross) who is creating man-machine hybrids with a lab full of various failed ‘subjects’. The film is seen mainly from the perspective of one such subject, Subject 99, a young woman-turned-cyborg who is attempting to escape the facility. This film is truly wild; it is grimy, extensively gory, manic and leaves just enough to the imagination to leave you craving more.
Tjahjanto is undoubtedly the most experienced filmmaker in this selection with seven feature films under his belt, so it seems natural that his segment would be the standout. Anthology horror is truly a game of pick and mix but V/H/S/ 94 does manage to ride the waves of quality and pacing at a particularly admirable speed.
The final film, ‘Terror’, directed by Ryan Prows (Lowlife), is bursting with more social relevance and focuses on a white religious extremist group, the First Patriots Movement Militia who encounter a vampire in the midst of a plan to blow up a government building — huge MAGA vibes. While the background concept of white Christian supremacists is honestly terrifying, and a very legitimate fear for many minorities across America, the actual terror — the vampire — ends up being the least scary part. Perhaps coming after high-octane fight scenes of ‘The Subject’, ‘Terror’ just fades into the background but still remains a solid entry to an overall highly entertaining anthology.
Admittedly, I was never really a fan of this franchise — or anthology horror in general, really — but V/H/S/ 94 has pulled me back from the point of no return. The segments are carefully balanced between supernatural and man-made horror and frequently teeters on the line of reality. Combining themes of conspiracy theories, cult, weaponised cyber futures and white supremacy, V/H/S/ 94‘s positioning in the early nineties ultimately has more social relevance to contemporary society than any of its predecessors. It harks back to an era of DIY filmmaking that pushed censors and audiences to the very limit, successfully recapturing the stylistic freedom that comes with limited visual parameters. This anthology is covered in a layer of guts and filth incredibly hard to shake. Hail Raatma.
V/H/S/ 94 is now available to stream exclusively on Shudder
by Chloe Leeson
Chloë (she/her) is the founder of SQ. She is a costume designer and trainee teacher living in the North East of England. She thrives watching 90s Harmony Korine Letterman interviews and bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Green Room and Pan’s Labyrinth. Find her on Letterboxd here.