Review by Daniel Lima
The anthology horror film has existed since the early days of cinema — a natural extension of that pervasive human ritual of sharing scary stories around a campfire. It’s an inherently uneven endeavor, but the idea of a neatly packaged collage of terrifying tales, each formed by a different creative vision, is too enticing to pass up. V/H/S/85, the latest in the V/H/S found footage horror series, is further proof that as tantalizing as the prospect is, it’s all too easy for the contributors on a project like this to abandon their role as storytellers themselves.
The framing device here, “Total Copy,” is a taped TV special about an alien creature being held under observation by a team of scientists, at first doing nothing more than watching television. Slowly, it becomes clear that the creature understands more than it might seem, but the lead researcher brushes off the concerns of his staff. Directed by David Bruckner (Ritual, The Night House), this is easily the best segment, telling a complete, cohesive story with a wry sense of humor and a mounting sense of tension. The note that it ends on is visceral and darkly comic, but also thematically rich, clarifying the nature of the alien in a way that actually makes it feel like an alien. Getting to that finale, however, is a bit of a slog.
The first segment, “No Wake,” is the most traditional, following a group of young people on a camping trip that goes horribly wrong. The standard subpar character work emphasizing that these are normal, boring people is as boring as ever, but the format forces director Mike P. Nelson (Wrong Turn, The Domestics) to dive suddenly into the horror, rather than steadily build unease and dread. That there is an additional twist and a cliffhanger ending only adds to the shaggy, pointless feeling of the short.
Gigi Saul Guerrero (Satanic Hispanics, Bingo Hell) helms “God of Death,” set during the Mexico City earthquake of 1985. A news cameraman is rescued from a collapsing building, only for him and the rescue team to stumble on something even more horrifying than the disaster around them. Most of the segment is standard found footage fare, with the characters navigating through the debris in darkness, shouting at each other, and not much else. Spicing things up is the pitch-perfect morning news segment that begins the short, and the bits of humor throughout go a long way in making wandering through ruined buildings bearable. It's not until the finale that things pop off, and even then, it feels underwhelming considering the time it took to get there. That actual news footage of the earthquake’s aftermath is used in the service of a lackluster short feels a bit distasteful.
“TKNOGD,” directed by Natasha Kermani (Lucky, Imitation Girl), is easily the worst of the pack. A woman does a performance art piece to a small audience, strapping on a VR headset and daring the God of Technology to heed her prayers. If there’s anything good to be said about this short, it’s that it does nail the amateur VHS aesthetic better than the rest, filled with uncomfortable silence and agonizing tedium. Successfully being the most painfully boring segment of an anthology film, however, is an ignoble accomplishment.
Mike P. Nelson returns with “Ambrosia,” about a family celebration that takes on a darker edge. While this is just as one note as the first three segments, it is also the shortest, and offers a decent payoff. It helps that it features one of the funniest images of the entire film.
The biggest director here is Scott Derrickson (The Black Phone, Sinister, Doctor Strange), and he turns in the only standalone short that feels like an actual story. In “Dreamkill,” a police detective begins to receive snuff footage in the mail of murders that haven’t yet occurred. This is stuffed to the brim with ideas, and while there are almost too many shifts in the narrative for its short runtime, it feels invigorating next to the drudgery that precedes it. It is doubly amusing that Derrickson seems totally uninterested in the aesthetic conceit of V/H/S, shooting in widescreen, what appears to be film in some sections, and ultimately shifting into an action movie. It doesn’t reach the heights of segments in past films, but it certainly clears the bar set by what’s here.
Ultimately, V/H/S/85 is one of the weaker entries in the franchise. It seems most of the contributors didn’t have a story in mind to tell, just one cool idea to hinge their shorts on. The portmanteau horror structure keeps the film from feeling too grueling, and it ends on a high note, but the lack of narrative direction in each section is palpable. It is a constant reminder that even in the short-form storytelling that anthology films showcase, a clear through-line is paramount.
V/H/S/85 is screening at the 2023 Fantastic Fest, which runs September 21-28 in Austin, Texas.