Not the only Halloween-ready franchise being resuscitated this month, “V/H/S/94” puts back in action the omnibus series that was last seen seven years ago with disappointing third entry “V/H/S: Viral.” This belated return lands closer in quality to the 2012 kickoff feature than the following year’s superior “V/H/S/2,” as a mixed bag of entertainingly diverse if variably successful horror shorts. Going straight to genre streaming platform Shudder on Oct. 6, it should provide fans with a satisfying enough, seasonally apt new package of macabre tales still linked by a faux-found-footage concept.
That style does not seem a natural fit for Jennifer Reeder, who made the very mannered, David Lynchian feature “Knives and Skin” two years ago. That divisive movie certainly had a firm grip on its aesthetics, and she seems divested of both inspiration and conviction having to go with a hand-held video look here. An underwhelming wraparound frame for the other segments, her “Holy Hell” finds a group of SWAT cops raiding a gated compound of warehouse-type buildings where some twisted business has been going on, complete with now-dead people watching (and/or being filmed for) VHS tapes.
The first two regular stories are quite creepy until we see what our protagonists are up against, at which point both become too literal-minded and silly. “Storm Drain” by Chloe Okuno (best known for standalone 2014 short “Slut”) has a local TV reporter (Anna Hopkins) and cameraman (Christian Potenza) investigating rumors of a “rat-man” living in sewage tunnels — to their grief, of course. Likewise, a new funeral home attendant (Kyal Legend) overseeing “The Wake” in Simon Barrett’s episode is distressed to discover that the corpse in the coffin is not remotely resting in peace.
After that just-serviceable pair of slow-burning miniatures, each about 15 minutes, it’s bracing for a while to dive into the giddy mayhem of Indonesian “Headshot” director Timo Tjanjanto’s “The Subject.” This sole non-English-language chapter is an immediately over-the-top mad scientist fantasia, with Budi Ross as a cackling nutcase in scrubs whose unfortunate subjects (there are many) get subjected to the most diabolical surgical procedures. Those few who survive soon face more bloody chaos, once a military rescue squad storms the underground lair. Energetic, gory, campy and full of FX, this mix of “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” and “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” matches its cheerful tastelessness with a high body count. Too high, arguably. The main drawback is that at half an hour, this manic free-for-all starts to wear the viewer out.
Fortunately, the best is saved for more-or-less last, via “Terror” from Ryan Prows, whose 2018 debut feature “Lowlife” was an impressively mordant, twisty ensemble crime tale. While set in 1994 like the others (if only to maintain the VHS-tape premise’s relevance), it’s the sole segment to engage with current issues, and in a grotesquely funny way besides. The “found footage” here is ostensibly shot by the all-white, all-male members of “the first patriots-movement militia,” who’ve taken a “blood oath” to “redeem the soul of the USA” — by wreaking havoc on a Federal building in Detroit, apparently. Meanwhile in preparation for that act, they’re running around like idiots on a wintry rural farm in wintertime, wearing camo, waving around assault weapons, and otherwise playing G.I. Joe.
Our first sign that something more than garden-variety reactionary insanity is going on here comes from noticing that these vainglorious yahoos keep executing the same captive over and over. It’s quite a while, however, before we see “the creature” that is their planned secret weapon, though unsurprisingly it proves their undoing instead. Prows’ payoff is more hectic than cogent. Nonetheless, the satire of extremist rhetoric and culture — mixing pomposity, absurdity, machismo, Jesus and tantrum-throwing — is spot-on. This segment’s cast (notably Christian Lloyd as the group’s vainglorious leader) and crew also best carry off the “home video” pretense, something far less persuasive in the wraparound thread’s conclusion.
Overall, this is a fun way to spend 100 minutes or so, warts and all. The “V/H/S” series has existed largely as a springboard for filmmakers, often providing a transition from shorts to features, or new audiences for foreign talent. While the most accomplished sections this time are from relatively experienced directors, “V/H/S/94” still gives all concerned a visibility leg-up, even when the material they’ve provided themselves is less than first-rate. FX work is solid in a movie otherwise faithful to reproducing the scrappy look of amateur videotaping nearly 30 years ago.