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V/H/S/94 Review: Throwback Thrills And Chills

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V/H/S/94 Review: Throwback Thrills And Chills

As soon as you hear the title “V/H/S/94” it has the power to make you think “Oh, of course!” The horror anthology series that launched in 2012 with a very specific kind of found footage aesthetic has always been built on the raw, grainy power of lost tapes playing in faraway VCRs, and if you grew up in the 1990s, you know that magic all too well. It makes perfect sense to marry that particular time and place with the overall approach of the “V/H/S” franchise, and that means that by virtue of its title alone, “94” has its hooks in a certain kind of viewer even before they press play.

After you press play, what you’ll find as you dig into the five new segments inhabiting this dark new chapter in the anthology is a film that very much lives up to the promise of that title, for better or for worse. If you weren’t around in the mid-1990s, or you’re lacking a certain cultural awareness of the period, certain segments might not land as well as others for you. If you remember what the era was like, though — for mass media, for horror filmmaking, for cultural fears in general — what you’ll find in these tales is another batch of darkly comic, deeply disturbing horror shots that fit perfectly into the “V/H/S” approach while delivering fresh shocks that make you cheer as often as they make you cringe.

Cryptids, terrorists, and more

Though they’re all thoroughly committed to the “94” gimmick of the titles, the segments of “V/H/S/94” vary widely in tone, subject, and sense of horror propulsion, creating a chilling blend of subgenres that all still manage to jell together into a consistent piece of entertainment.

This time around the frame story, directed by “Knives & Skin” helmer Jennifer Reeder, focuses on a SWAT team as they conduct a raid on a mysterious compound that seems to be packed to the rafters with VHS tapes and flickering televisions. We won’t get into what’s actually going on in that building for the sake of spoilers, but it proves to be a satisfying delivery system for the film’s four other segments, each offering a different flavor of terror to the viewer.

In “Storm Drain,” director Chloe Okuno (“Slut”) takes the tabloid news addiction of the 1980s and 1990s to startling new degrees with the tale of a field reporter and her cameraman who are trying to get a story about a strange rat creature that might live in a city’s sewer system. The deeper they go, the more startled they are by what they find.

In “The Empty Wake,” from “V/H/S” veteran Simon Barrett, a funeral home attendant sets up camera to film for a memorial service during an overnight wake, only to find herself alone with a corpse that might not be entirely what it seems.

In “The Subject,” from fellow “V/H/S” veteran Timo Tjahjanto, a mad doctor uses his basement lab to add various “enhancements” to unwilling subjects, merging machine and human flesh in a body horror extravaganza.

And in “Terror,” from “Lowlife” helmer Ryan Prows, a white supremacist group believes they’ve found the ultimate superweapon in the fight to “purify” their nation, only to discover that what they actually have isn’t quite as under control as they think.

Together, they merge into an experience that somehow runs the gamut from popcorn-throwing horror-comedy fun to deeply unsettling cerebral terror, all while recalling the thrills and chills of 1990s movies full of monsters both human and inhuman. The result is one of the wildest horror rides of the year.

Slow burns and all-out gore fests

Though each segment works as part of a larger whole, the various pieces of “V/H/S/94” each still manage to find ways to assert a sense of individual personality, including the frame story, which Reeder imbues with a sense of frantic energy punctuated by almost meditative moments of quiet leading into each of the other segments. Those segments lead off with “Storm Drain,” which for me played like the weakest of the bunch but still managed to home in on a certain kind of desperate, ratings-starved news tone that I remember all too well from the 1990s, wringing a lot of horror out of that sense that we can’t stop watching, no matter how long the news stays on.

From there, the film moves into “The Empty Wake,” and Barrett showcases the power of quiet tension in a spare, deliciously taut tale punctuated by excellent sound design, culminating in a final reveal that legitimately made me shoot back in my seat. Then comes “The Subject,” Tjahjanto’s latest bonkers effort in genre filmmaking, which combines some of the most stomach-churning visuals you’re likely to see in a horror movie this year with the most inventive camera work in the entire film. It’s one of those stories that heaps payoff after payoff into its wild narrative, and even when you think it’s done, it’s found a way to give you more. And finally, there’s “Terror,” which begins as the story of an extremist group planning something horrific and … well, let’s just say that wherever you think this is going in the opening minutes, it’s headed somewhere else entirely, and Prows engineers a phenomenal payoff along the way.

As with every other film in the “V/H/S” series so far, “94” proves to be inventive, fun, and thrilling in its blending of subgenres and filmmaking styles under the overall umbrella of its gimmick, but with the caveat that if a certain kind of found footage horror isn’t your thing, it just might not land for you. That’s the challenge with every hyper-specific kind of filmmaking out there, but with that challenge comes a sense of conviction that shines through in every frame of “V/H/S/94,” a kind of renegade, whether-you-like-it-or-not quality that gives the film an added sense of energy. That energy crackles through the whole piece, and brings with it a certain sense of flickering, gritty nostalgia about the day when you could just pick up a tape in a basement, press play, and have no idea what you were about to find. It’s an intoxicating feeling, and if it’s a feeling you love, “V/H/S/94” will you have swooning with it.

“V/H/S/94” arrives October 6 on Shudder.

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