If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: anthology horror movies live and die by story quality. That seems fairly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many coast along doing very little, relying on one segment to do the heavy lifting. I caught the most recent entry in the long-running, newly revived V/H/S series at Beyond Fest 2023. V/H/S/85, certainly maintains a consistent level of quality throughout. Each segment feels of apiece with the others, even having the obligatory framing story be more of a story in its own right than previous ones. However, while each segment is impressive, almost all of them is way too long and drags as a result.
As the title implies, this one’s conceit is that every thing is 1985. The outdated format of VHS for home movies means the Shudder era of the franchise has had to go time traveling. 1994, 1999, and now 1985. Aside from clothes and hair, plus digital tape hiss and distortion, a couple of the segments veer into the realm of “Analog Horror,” which is all the rage with the YouTube kids these days. The one that does that the best—and incidentally is my favorite—is the movie’s framing story. “Total Copy,” from director David Bruckner, is a VHS copy of weird documentary about scientists finding a very strange humanoid figure and trying to communicate with it, showing it old tapes along the way. Rarely is the framing story even a story much less the best in the movie, but series staple Bruckner nails it.
The other big name among the directors is The Black Phone director Scott Derrickson and the story “Dreamkill.” It’s sort of two layers of found footage. First we see a grisly murder from the killer’s point of view. Then we follow a police detective (Freddy Rodriguez) and a forensic videographer (James Ransome) as they go to that selfsame crime scene…days after someone mailed them the video tape. This happens a few times, with the tapes arriving before the murders take place. Eventually the cops find the mysterious mailer, and that kicks the story into another gear. I enjoyed this one for the most part, well made and performed.
The other stories are fun, but I think in every case go on too long. Mike P. Nelson’s story is split in two halves. “No Wake” finds a group of 20-somethings in a boat on a lake at the mercy of a sniper on the shore, while follow-up “Ambrosia” features the sniper afterwards. The central twist of both parts, which I won’t spoil, doesn’t really pay off the way it ought. The brutality of the deaths helps it but it didn’t do much for me beyond that.
Gigi Saul Guerrero brings us “God of Death,” in which a Mexican news program suffers an earthquake. The crew find themselves buried in a sinkhole and have to find their way out as they happen upon strange artifacts of Aztec deities. “TKNOGD” from director Natasha Kermani is the one that had me scratching my head the most. It starts as a taped performance art piece about technology becoming the new religion. Later, the artist on stage enters a very cool retro-looking VR space only to find something terrifying inside.
So, obviously consistency is good, but I do think the fact that the tone and style of each segment is so samey, nothing stands out. It’s all equally impressive, the effects and gore are great. But, aside from “Total Copy” which has to feel like a documentary on some level, we don’t get the super weird or atypical entry. V/H/S/94, for example, has a news report with a rat monster in a sewer that looks way different from the others. Similarly, V/H/S/99 ends with a segment which necessitated the filmmakers create their version of the landscape of Hell. Yes it’s true 85 has no bad segments, it also has no truly great segments.
Still, for fans of this kind of movie and this franchise, V/H/S/85 is yet another fun Halloween season romp. And hey, I hope they keep making these every year! It’ll be on Shudder on Friday, October 6.