V/H/S/94. Shudder, 94 minutes. Three stars
Those of us old enough to recall video cassette recorders will remember the mixed blessing of analogue VHS tapes.
VHS (Video Home System) won the market format war against Betamax, much as Blu-ray defeated HD DVD more recently. The tapes provided a means both to watch movies and record TV programming, but the picture quality deteriorated markedly with repeated viewings: it was joked that VHS stood for Very Hazy System and that wasn't the only issue.
I mention all this not only for the benefit of any younger readers but because one of the striking features of V/H/S/94 - the fourth in a found-footage horror series that began in 2012 - is that its visuals capture the feeling of viewing well-watched videotapes
There are lines, fuzziness, flickering and other effects to bring a wave of anti-nostalgia for the technical shortcomings of that outdated medium. But it's in service of the story rather than being a gimmick, and not so overdone that it detracts from the film's effectiveness,
In fact, the low-tech look is a benefit in many ways.
Some of the special effects - lots of practical work - are all the better for not being seen too clearly, and the murky darkness in some scenes has that much more atmosphere.
But such production care doesn't mean much if the movie itself is no good. Here, the results are a little mixed.
V/H/S/94 is an anthology movie, which means it's uneven by its very nature: I don't think I've ever seen a multistory movie where all the stories landed with the same effectiveness.
The fact there were multiple writers and directors here working on different segments means that the styles are different, which makes sense in context, given the "tapes" are from different places, even countries, and tell different stories.
The film, set in the 1990s, has a wraparound story involving a US SWAT team that raids a warehouse for a drug bust. It's not heroin or cocaine they're after, though, but something much more mysterious, with horrific effects. This story - which bookends the film - is a little gimmicky in the way it sets up the video stories that unfold, but it works pretty well.
In the first "story", determined TV news reporter Holly (Anna Hopkins) is sent to investigate alleged sightings of a mysterious "rat man" in her city's sewer system. It's no big spoiler to say that she and her cameraman Jeff (Christian Potenza) discover more than they expected.
The segment captures well the look and feel of a news broadcast - both "in studio" and on the ground - and the slow build-up has a satisfying payoff.
More disappointing is the yarn in which a funeral home worker, Hailey (Kyal Legend), is assigned to host a wake on - what else? - a dark and stormy night. While she waits for visitors to come and pay their respects, odd things start happening. Noises come from the closed coffin, and it also moves. And things only get worse from there.
This story feels overlong - despite the phone calls and other attempts to break the monotony of what's mostly a one-character piece - and the ending is a little anticlimactic.
Considerably less subtle than its two predecessors is the next story, a mad-doctor body horror gross-out set in Indonesia (with the dialogue subtitled, which is useful but also breaks the "found footage" conceit somewhat). If you like vivisection and plenty of violence, this should prove satisfactory in its over-the-top way.
Finally, there's a story that's creepy enough in its set-up without the supernatural element that's introduced. An American white supremacist militia with its own interpretations of things like patriotism and Christianity is preparing to destroy a government building in a novel way. Why these guys would want to film their exploits is a little vague (surely it could be used as evidence against them?) but there's a naturalistic feeling to this segment that works well.
The preview version I saw had no opening titles or closing credits which enhanced the intended "found footage" effect.
While I wouldn't call this a horror classic, it's still imaginative and, overall, well made. If you're a fan of the series or found footage movies in general and don't mind - or even enjoy - a bit of gore and splatter, it's worth a look.