The V/H/S franchise has become one of the most consistent in horror. Not necessarily in quality, mind you, but at the rate they crank these movies out. They’re practically a Halloween tradition, starting with the initial trilogy of films from 2012-2014 and returning with annual entries in 2021 with V/H/S/94. Producer Brad Miska’s concept for V/H/S is ingenious: gather a bunch of the most unique filmmakers in horror – past installments had heavy hitters like Adam Wingard, Chloe Okuno, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, Timo Tjahjanto, and Nacho Vigalondo to name a few – and have them each make found-footage horror shorts loosely combined into an anthology.
As far as the anthology format goes, it often leads to an unevenness that makes the final product less than the sum of its parts. Recently, the franchise has been trying to shake things up by adding an extra layer of theming to the VHS tape style, as well as not reusing the same directors over and over again. V/H/S/99 and 94 did an adequate job of mimicking ‘90s videography, and the latest installment, V/H/S/85, successfully tries its hand at invoking the dark side of the nostalgic look of the ‘80s aesthetic. Nonetheless, although V/H/S/85 has stronger parts than most, making it a minor standout in the series, it’s still suffocated by the format.
The amount of talent assembled for V/H/S/85 truly impresses. Therefore, it’s best to give each segment its due, reviewing them individually, and then looking at how the whole enterprise hangs together. One of the earliest segments, “No Wake”, directed by Mike P. Nelson (2021’s Wrong Turn), marries Friday the 13th-esque horny teenagers going to party at a lake with a scuzzy home video aesthetic. It works beautifully on its own as a classic slasher done in the V/H/S/85 style. Just as one expects all of the cast to die gruesome deaths… what “No Wake” presupposes is, what if they didn’t? Beyond that little tease, this is a short whose pleasures lie in just how strange it gets. A quasi-surrealist turn gives an uncanny vibe to the rest of this short that makes it really stand out
It’s no wonder that a second segment later in V/H/S/85, also directed by Mike P. Nelson, titled “Ambrosia”, following a wealthy 15-year-old’s celebration of sorts that ties into the prior short, is also one of its best. The juxtaposition of high society and the gruesome/sociopathic breeds a delicious uneasiness, and the lore carried between these two shorts makes you compulsively lean forward in your chair. A theme that will be carried through more than a few of the segments of this film, “No Wake” would’ve made for an excellent standalone feature. Or at the very least a better wrap-around/framing segment than the one we ended up getting.
Director David Bruckner (last year’s Hellraiser, The Night House) helms the segment that links the others together, “Total Copy”. More specifically, it’s the segment that interrupts other shorts in V/H/S/85. “Total Copy” is set up as a faux documentary about a strange unidentified organism that scientists are studying that begins to mimic things from the TV set up in their station. The visuals are neat, and the concept is there, but it doesn’t go anywhere exciting with it. Worse yet, the narrative moves so incrementally that whenever it comes back on it’s not clear as to how the story has progressed, if at all. It’s a total dud and a waste of a framing device.
The segment by Gigi Saul Guerrero (Bingo Hell) entitled “God of Death”, thankfully, has the juice horror fans are looking for. During a news broadcast, the entire station’s building – and many of the surrounding ones – start collapsing in what appears to be an earthquake. Guerrero employs highly visceral filmmaking, as the station’s crew simply tries to survive. As they go deeper and deeper, the proceedings begin to take a different, much more bombastic turn as the nature of why this disaster happens comes forth. Bending sub-genres in horror, “God of Death” gets into the action quickly, keeps escalating, and puts a gruesome little button on it. No complaints on this one.
Another great one comes from director Natasha Kermani (Lucky), entitled “TKNOGD”. Here’s the logline: a performance artist experiments with VR in front of a crowd and ends up communing with a force beyond her comprehension. Her performance plays out in real-time, making handy use of the fuzzy 1985 home video look and the wonky digital graphics of yore. The progression of this short remains unsettling throughout, as cosmic terror invades the inherent creepiness of the analog. Following the prompt of “old-school technology meets the supernatural”, “TKNOGD” earns high marks. This could very well be the crown jewel of V/H/S/85.
The last short of the bunch casts the most disappointing shadow. Directed by Scott Derrickson of Doctor Strange, Sinister, and The Black Phone fame, “Dreamkill” has a hook to die for. Police interrogate a local goth kid (Dashiell Derrickson) who has videotapes of grisly murders being committed. The kicker? The tapes record his dreams. On paper, the prompt is followed to a T and there are many thrills, twists, turns, and inventive uses of the V/H/S house style. It’s just too damn short. Too many ideas compete for screen time that “Dreamkill” plays less like something made for the film specifically and more like Derrickson condensing down a feature script. It’s choppy, brightened by flashes of brilliance dulled by how quickly it goes by.
As a combination of short films, V/H/S/85 goes down fine. That’s all. A couple of them are great examples of the anthology format, one is so well done you wish there was more, and another feels like it outright didn’t understand the assignment. Additionally, the wrap-around narrative comes off as useless. That leaves us with a net positive that’ll please genre fans without drawing in any newcomers.