Back in the 2000s, with the advent of hand-held digital cameras and the massive success of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, there was an uptick in found-footage horror films. The V/H/S franchise capitalized on this trend and gained almost instant popularity with its snuff film-esque quality. But with the decline in physical media and the uptick in digital content (yes, we all hate that word in this house), the series went on hiatus. And while various other filmmakers have evolved the found-footage sub-genre with films like Searching, Host, and the surprisingly popular Skinamarink, V/H/S retained its central gimmick, i.e., VHS tapes. They brought in directors who could mix nostalgia with gore and struck gold with V/H/S/94 and V/H/S/99. Has V/H/S/85 managed to continue this streak? Let’s find out.
Much like the previous films, V/H/S/85 has a segment that is interspersed between the rest of the shorts, some of which exist independently, while one of them overlaps. Total Copy tells the story of a group of scientists finding an alien resembling a boy and feeding it all the information that’s available through television to see how the thing reacts to it. No Wake revolves around a group of young adults camping around a lake that is littered with signs to not swim in it. Even though it seems like something aquatic is going to attack them, the threat appears from the shores. Ambrosia shows a White family performing an initiation ceremony in a rather peculiar and violent way. God of Death takes place in Mexico, where the building of a news channel is destroyed by an earthquake. When the rescue party comes to save the cameraman, who is the only survivor, they struggle to find a way out. TKNOGD sees a performance artist provoking a god of technology. And finally, there’s Dreamkill, where the police keep getting videotapes of horrific murders weeks before the actual crime happens.
The overarching theme of V/H/S/85 seems to be culture and its negative effects on society. Total Copy, which is written by Evan Dickson and David Bruckner, flips the trope of using North American pop culture to communicate with an alien on its head. A lot of sci-fi films from the 1980s featured scenes where pop culture served as a wholesome bridge between mankind and the unknown. But with time, we’ve learned that there’s a lot of toxicity that can seep through the cracks, thereby exposing the reality of American culture and inciting an adverse reaction. Mike P. Nelson’s Ambrosia talks about the normalization of gun culture, while No Wake imagines a scenario where victims of gun violence get their revenge. Given the never-ending cases of mass shootings in North America, it feels oddly relevant and weirdly hopeful. God of Death, by Gigi Saul Guerrero, critiques the abandonment of the culture that’s indigenous to the land and the adopting of America’s toxic brand of capitalism and media consumption. Natasha Kermani’s TKNOGD is pretty blunt in terms of stating that technology (virtual reality, to be specific) is bad. Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s Dreamkill calls out law enforcement agencies for hiring goons instead of people who actually care about the direction in which their society is going.
To be honest, Total Copy and Dreamkill are the segments that invite some kind of introspection. The rest are good, but their commentaries are pretty surface-level. What you are seeing is what you are getting. But Dickson, Bruckner, Derrickson, and Cargill leave an impression with their respective stories. Beyond all the sticky and gooey shenanigans, Dickson and Bruckner are questioning why humans think that they are the superior species on the planet and that they’ve got the scientific acumen to turn anything into their pet project, even though they are laying the tracks in front of the proverbial train. Why don’t we just accept that we are a bag of meat and bones and that we can be turned into puppets by those who are a little more powerful than us? Maybe that humility will open our minds. Meanwhile, Derrickson and Cargill are over there panicking about the fact that the youth is growing up with premonitions of extrajudicial violence because there’s such an overwhelming exposure to it. This is only exacerbated by the fact that violent men choose to reproduce and dump their vices and traumas onto their children instead of taking the path of self-correction. It’s a never-ending vicious cycle that can only be solved through affordable therapy.
All the anthology shorts in V/H/S/85 look, sound, and feel amazing. As someone who has grown up watching movies on VHS tapes and found-footage horror films, there’s a certain level of comfort that comes with the amalgamation of those two aspects. There’s something about the intimacy of the perspective and the nostalgia of the grainy and glitchy texture of the visuals that makes me think that I can watch a hundred of these, even if their quality ranges from middling to good. That said, in order to achieve the effect, all the anthology shorts go beyond just slapping a VHS filter on the screen. Everything from the sound design to the visual effects, the special effects, the prosthetics, the hair and makeup, the set design, the production design, the cinematography, the editing, and the stunt work have to be period-accurate. And all that is so perfect that you forget that you are watching a film made in 2022. However, and at the cost of sounding repetitive, No Wake, Ambrosia, God of Death, and TKNOGD fail to make an impact, while Total Copy and Dreamkill conjure moments, characters, and creatures that’ll probably stay with you. Additionally, based on a hallway shootout scene, Derrickson should definitely do an out-and-out action film.
The entire cast of V/H/S/85 is spectacular. Everyone has the difficult task of making it seem like they aren’t performing at all. They are just living a day of their lives, and coincidentally, someone is recording it, and even more coincidentally, something catastrophic is happening to them. And I think that’s tough to pull off, but every actor pulls it off like it’s nothing. Alex Galick, Anna Sundberg, Chelsey Grant, Toussaint Morrison, Tyler Nobel, Anna Hashizume, and Tom Reed effectively essay the group’s transformation from carefree happiness to abject terror. Evie Bair is bone-chilling. Ari Gallegos, Marcio Moreno, Felipe De Lara, Florencia Rios, and Gerardo Oñate aptly portray the fear of being trapped in a building while facing off with something ancient. Chivonne Michelle is really limited by the script, but she does a good job of being engaging throughout her awkward and cringeworthy act. James Ransone, Freddy Rodriguez, and Dashiell Derrickson’s grounded performances make the abstract nature of their anthology short acceptable.
In conclusion, V/H/S/85 is a decent entry in this long-running franchise. Scott Derrickson and David Bruckner have been in the horror business for quite some time. So, nobody will be surprised to see them prove yet again why they are the best. The rest of them are promising. I have seen Nathasha Kermani’s Lucky, Mike P. Nelson’s Wrong Turn, and Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Bingo Hell, and much like their anthology shorts, they are on varying levels of good to great. They just need to keep sharpening their skills and making more horror movies, and they’ll be ushering in a new age of the horror genre in no time. If you are squeamish, there’s a good chance that the anthology film will get to you. If you have watched enough gory and scary movies, I don’t think this will shake you up. But, regardless of the strength of your stomach, they’ll undoubtedly make you think about the 1980s and the times we’re living in right now.