3 out of 5
Directed by: Various
They almost had it: the best V/H/S/ entry. Admittedly, the bar is somewhat low, but that’s exactly the point – I haven’t thought very much of this series overall, and was expecting to feel the same here. I do think there’s a good level of consistency here, such that nothing sinks the movie, but it ends way weaker than it starts, which is kinda what leaves the last impression, unfortunately.
The framing setup (‘Holy Hell,’ directed by Jennifer Reeder) is somewhat typical of these things, in that it’s not allowed to be very compelling until its concluding section, however, I found it less distracting than before; that is, it does actually work on its own by remaining pretty focused on getting us to the next video – cops are raiding some drug-producing facility, filled with eyeball-missing bodies and lots of TVs ready to queue up our films – and is also open-ended enough to not feel like we’re being force-fed some mythology that will go nowhere. So it is effective in its task as a wraparound, and maybe more importantly, doesn’t tip off the immersion by feeling like an acceptable use of POV video.
First story Storm Drain (Chloe Okuno) concerns a journalist and her cameraman descending into the titular locale to get footage of local legend “Rat Man,” and, of course, finding more than they would’ve bargained for. Okuno does so much right with this one: the banter that balances flippancy with the pursuit of a big story feels legit; and the pacing that leads us deeper into the drain is about right, giving us jump scares and glimmers at appropriate to lead us (and our characters) further. And I love how it keeps going – there’s a fantastic creature gag, but it’s the ‘epilogue’ that’s the real payoff. Definitely a good start.
…And a good followup! While Simon Barrett’s The Empty Wake is very typical setup-wise, and does some usual camera panning tricks to set up jumps – a funeral home attendant is the sole employee during a wake which no one attends, leaving her quite alone with a coffin that’s going bump in the night while a storm rages outside – it builds up to one of the best gore gags this series has yet to employ.
Alas, right from the jump of Timo Tjahjanto’s The Subject, things are off. Tjahjanto wasn’t as dedicated to the grimy VHS aesthetic as others, making the rather HD-nature of his short stand out. That shouldn’t be offensive if the material is good – it’s okay – but it definitely instantly kicks you out of the purposefully degraded visuals we’ve been witnessing up to this point, and we’re back in 00s era FP horror, with overlain battery indicators and static forcefully cueing us in that we’re watching a video. It’s also ridiculously digital looking in general, and Timo structures it bizarrely, rather ruining the potential of some reveals by showing us stuff right up front. While this does allow for some gore to the be the focus later on, the wait between those moments isn’t exactly worth it, and the whole video game vibe of the thing – though entertaining – just belongs in a completely different movie. It’s conceptually fun, but drags in its execution. The Subject features a scientist who’s showing off his machine / human hybrids, and similar to Safe Haven from V/H/S/ 2, after some setup, things go nuts. Except the ‘nuts’ feels very relative here; it never quite breaks out the way I think it was intended to.
Ryan Prows The Terror starts pretty strong, but wanders off. It posits a white supremacist group who are harboring some supernatural weapon – a creature – the powers of which are eventually shown. Prows’ tone for this is good, using the setup to poke a little bit at a mentality which is certainly still around today, but it never quite makes it across the line into satire, just like it never quite develops its concept past the idea stage.
Aaand, alas, Holy Hell also concludes with a moderate thud. I do like, again, that Reeder avoided any mythology nonsense, but a lot of FP horror tries to do this thing where the camera itself is used to inflict violence, and that never makes sense to me; it always comes across as what it is: a cheap way to avoid in-camera effects, and just show the aftermath. It especially seems illogical in the context in which it’s used here. However, Reeder appreciably doesn’t drag things out – the frame is wrapped up with the same efficiency it used in its interludes.
Setting aside The Subject rather dragging at points, it’s visual excesses are certainly enough to give it highlights, and both it and The Terror are not bad, just underbaked; not as well-honed as the previous entries, balancing this 4th V/H/S/ entry back to being an okay movie.