The year is 1994. Bill Clinton is President, Hugh Grant is the world’s hottest sex symbol, and the New York Rangers have finally won the Stanley Cup for the first time in more than half a century. Meanwhile — in more relevant news — pre-millennial panic is coinciding with a boom in lo-fi consumer video and the advent of reality television as an oblivious world steels itself for the digital revolution to come. “The Blair Witch Project” won’t emerge from the woods for a little while to come, but this is the milieu from which it was born.
In other words, it should be the perfect moment in time to set a reboot (or resurrection) of the “V/H/S” films, a found footage anthology series that mined the scuzziness of the camcorder age for two installments of unsettling gonzo fun before it betrayed its roots and went online with 2014’s “V/H/S: Viral.” Alas, not even a spot-on Slap Chop parody or Timo Tjahjanto’s whacked out tribute to the glory days of FMV can save this fourth episode from marking the new low point of its franchise, as “V/H/S ’94” so badly smudges the line between creepy throwback and self-amused goof that you’d need a DVD to see the difference.
In hindsight, however, the lack of coherent purpose is clear from the start. Per series tradition, “V/H/S ’94” opens with an eerie wraparound sequence that’s meant to provide a loose context for the four shorts to come. When done well (as it was in the original) this framing device can set the tone and then deliver the ultimate payoff; here, Jennifer Reeder’s flimsy and unfocused “Holy Hell” proves more confusing than anything else, despite establishing the vintage bonafides of a movie that captures the video nasty look of yore even in widescreen.
It begins promisingly enough, with a nervous cameraman named Gary joining a Los Angeles SWAT team for a pseudo-“Cops” ride-along as they raid a drug lab, busting through the doors with enough macho swagger to keep up with “Speed” and the other testosterone-driven blockbusters of that era. Instead of a heroin operation, however, they find the remnants of a death cult, complete with strange goop on the walls and a handful of corpses with their eyes gouged out scattered around the warehouse — one of the dead is ID-ed as the manager of a local video store. Hmm. Such a crime scene would seem full of sinister evidence that might tie into a larger plot, but “V/H/S ’94” stumbles into the first of its standalone segments as if by happenstance when a local news story begins playing on one of the compound TVs.
Chloe Okuno doesn’t have a feature to her name — the forthcoming “Watcher,” starring Maika Monroe and Burn Gorman, is currently in post-production — but perhaps it helped that she had something to prove, because the simple but immensely skin-crawling “Storm Drain” is far and away the most rewarding short here. A television reporter is sent to investigate recent sightings of a creature that people have dubbed “Ratman,” a phenomenon that leads her to interview a handful of kooky characters before winding up at the sewer where the monster has been spotted. Wild creature work and an un-fakeable nightmare location do a lot of the heavy lifting here, as the recesses of the storm drain hide all sorts of awful discoveries that love to jump-scare any uninvited guests into an early grave, but the legend of Ratman ends with a reveal that you won’t soon forget.
At least, it should have ended that way, but Okuno — whose short allows for a number of unforced belly laughs along the way — can’t resist gilding the lily with a coda that ends “Storm Drain” on a note of utter silliness. It’s par for the course in a movie that can’t seem to decide how seriously it wants to take itself, as most of the potential scares that follow are denatured by the ironic nature of an anthology that would rather wink at itself in the mirror than risk exhuming the dark energy of a time when video still felt dangerous. To that end, Simon Barrett’s ultra-familiar “Empty Wake” feels like the kind of horror short that was shot with the safety on, as the single-room story of a funeral home employee who’s left alone with a casket during an overnight wake never makes a single unexpected choice (though rock-solid effects effects work almost saves the day).
Tjahjanto — whose epic “Safe Haven” was not only a major highlight of “V/H/S 2,” but also one of the most effective horror films of its year — returns with another gonzo barnburner that feels at least twice as long as any of the other segments here, and goes at least twice as hard. Shot from the POV of a “Neohuman” cyborg that a mad Indonesian scientist has cobbled together in his underground lab, “The Subject” kicks off with the deliberately janky effect of a man’s head being attached to a metallic spider body before the cops show up and things go off the rails. Tjahjanto’s short (if you can call it that) never aims for scariness, opting instead for a degree of first-person ultra-gore that commits to its blood-soaked bit until a cheap slab of modern horror starts to feel more like cut-scenes from the sickest Sega CD game never made. “The Subject” has almost no business being in “V/H/S ’94,” but the anthology doesn’t have much of a vibe to disrupt, and so this crass and exhausting detour into trans-humanistic “Doom” territory still manages to serve the greater good.
Nevertheless, it makes for a jarring transition into the fourth and final segment, as Ryan Prows’ “Terror” does more than any of the film’s other shorts to reflect a specific point in time. This half-baked but still unsettling American horror story takes us inside a white nationalist militia who are harnessing a wildly dangerous new weapon in their woodsy compound somewhere outside of Detroit. The specifics are unclear — it has something to do with a hostage who won’t stay dead, and the threat of “detonating” an “abomination” in a local bank — but the group’s intentions are all too easy to understand. While fans of HBO’s “Watchmen” and Mike Flanagan’s recent “Midnight Mass” will get a mild kick over what happens when these supposed warriors of the master race inevitably find themselves at the mercy of the same power they sought to control, the setup is too haphazard to do justice to Prows’ excellent cast, whose believable performances as a collection of redneck terrorists are scarier than anything that befalls their characters.
And so we return to Reeder’s Los Angeles SWAT team, who end “V/H/S ’94” with such a shrug that it leaves you vexed by how a film this half-hearted could still manage to pump so much blood. These are skilled filmmakers striving to keep themselves busy (and their skeleton crews employed) during COVID, and idle hands have certainly done worse. But seeing this much talent wasted on yet another warped edition of this worn-out franchise suggests that the concept itself is no longer inspiring the people it brings to the table. After nine years and four movies, it might be time to hit the “eject” button on the “V/H/S” series once and for all.
“V/H/S ’94” premiered at Fantastic Fest 2021. It will be available to stream on Shudder starting on Wednesday, October 6.