When the found footage horror genre exploded with the appearance of The Blair Witch Project in theater, many producers jumped on the opportunity of being able to produce something cheap that would redeem tons of profit. With the passage of time, many films have used the format to achieve such a goal, and they have met both success and failure. It’s 2021 and a new-found footage film jumps onto the audience’s screens. Where does it stand? As a success or as a failure?
VHS 94 is an anthology film with parts directed by Simon Barret, Timo Tjahjanto, Jennifer Reeder, Chloe Okuno and Ryan Prows. The film frames the different stories around a S.W.A.T. Team leading a raid on what appears to be the headquarters of a very violent cult. The videotapes found inside the premises depict some terrifying experiments and occurrences, all tied up around a huge conspiracy.
The VHS series has made itself a space in the industry thanks to its low budget and outrageous attitude towards storytelling. This new installment in the series doesn’t really push the envelope any further than the previous films did, but it manages to add a bit of eccentric humor and increase the parody elements to a new level.
The stories are varied, and they deal with all sorts of weird threads. From the apparition of a monster in the sewers, to a funeral gone wrong, and an action packed sequence raiding the lab of a mad scientist. There’s a bit of everything in the film, but with this amazing sense of variety, there also comes a sense of disorder and incoherence. Even when the stories are framed around the S.W.A.T. findings inside the cult’s HQ. None of the stories really seem to have anything in common other than that they are violent, and they are cheaply done.
The production values in some of these stories are almost zero. Found footage movies have never been recognized for their huge budgets, sets or costume designs, but V/H/S/94 seems to have been made on a shoestring budget. Which is a very big problem, because many of the stories are trying to be too ambitious for their own sake. The effort and intent are there, but the filmmakers can not really achieve their goals. This lack of resources affects the film so much, that in many moments, the horror element transforms to pure absurdity, as many of the special effects just look too fake and goofy to be taken seriously. Many of these stories then devolve into becoming gore-fest, but after the initial shock, watching entrails being thrown around all the time becomes tiresome and boring.
When it comes to direction, it’s very strange that of the five directors working in the film, only Tjahjanto manages to have a voice of his own. The section which appears in the middle of the film is the longest, and it’s completely over the top. Lots of gore, action and creepy monsters, but it’s done with gusto and expertise. The rest of the parts don’t differentiate a lot from each other, and they actually could have been directed by the same person.
Everyone’s acting comes across as fake, and while this aspect can add a certain charm to some parts, in others it comes across as amateurish at best.
If only the directors and writers from all different parts could have worked more as a team instead of separate, the film could be more consistent and each of the parts could feed on each other.
Right now, it’s so hard to find a film that is terrifying. Audiences have seen so many ideas on screen and some of them have been done so well, that it’s difficult to come up with good stuff and execute those ideas in the proper way is even harder. V/H/S/94 doesn’t manage to be scary at all. It does come across as an effort that will only find defenders among the most hardcore of fans of the series, or those who don’t mind watching a bad film and have a laugh at it.
The film also confirms how limited the found footage format is. At this point, it should really be clear that only certain types of stories adapt well to this format. While others are just being limited in their expression and end up being hurt by a format that has such strict rules and that it needs in-universe reason in order to make sense. Filmmakers should start thinking more about this. Maybe some of the stories in this film would have been a lot better by being done in the traditional way.
Also, the VHS filter is just too much. This isn’t a pretty film to look at.
V/H/S/94 might be a step back for the franchise, but the series was never known for its production values, and there were always some interesting stories here and there. Here, everything seems half-baked, with great ambitions but without the resources to achieve them. For sure, the producers know their audience and this effort will please some of them. But taking into consideration that at least each sequel should try to surpass the previous one, this film took the 94 in its title way too seriously, taking the franchise many steps back.
Maybe a VHS film made in a more traditional way should be in the producers’ minds after this one.