THE STORY – Takes viewers on a journey into the grim underbelly of the forgotten 1980s. Unveiled through a made-for-TV documentary, five chilling tales emerge: scientists observe an unusual boy fixated on his TV, kids embark on a lake skiing adventure, a TV crew fights to survive a natural disaster, the early days of VR awaken something terrifying, and a deadly dream is captured on tape. Sinister secrets of the 1980s come to life in a way you’ve never seen before.
THE CAST – Alex Galick, Anna Sundberg, Chelsey Grant, Toussaint Morrison, Tyler Nobel, Anna Hashizume, Tom Reed, Evie Bair, Gabriela Roel, Ari Gallegos, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Chivonne Michelle, James Ransone, Freddy Rodriguez, Dashiell Derrickson, Jordan Belfi, Miller Tai, K.T. Thangavelu, Kelli Garner & Chuck McCollum
THE TEAM – David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Gigi Saul Guerrero, Natasha Kermani, Mike P. Nelson (Directors/Writers), C. Robert Cargill, Zoe Cooper & Evan Dickson (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
It’s Halloween season, and to Shudder subscribers, that means one thing…okay, it probably means many things to Shudder subscribers. But ever since the “V/H/S” series was resurrected in 2021 with the thrilling “V/H/S/94,” Shudder has been supplying new installments to fright-loving fans every October. “V/H/S/85” is the latest, bringing viewers back to the era of huge hair, wide shoulder pads, and large numbers in the titles of horror movies. It’s yet another anthology film featuring a handful of frightening and upsetting found footage short films, all shot in a retro VHS style. It’s a welcome step-up from the previous entry, “V/H/S/99,” and all the shorts are at least passably entertaining or engaging in one way or another. However, few of them are totally successful.
As with all installments in the series – except for “V/H/S/99” – this film features an overarching segment that begins and ends the movie, along with serving as interstitial transitions between vignettes. This film is entitled “Total Copy,” directed by David Bruckner. Bruckner previously helmed the well-regarded horror movies “The Ritual” and “The Night House,” along with the divisive reboot of “Hellraiser.” He also directed a memorable sequence in the original “V/H/S” and has served as a member of the producing team on the two previous Shudder contributions to the series. Thankfully, his return to the director’s chair is triumphant, as “Total Copy” is a delight every time the film checks in with it. It’s presented as a news broadcast about a lab of scientists observing a strange, shape-shifting mass that begins to take on the form of the people around it. Bruckner serves as a helpful guide for his actors, with all of them turning in appropriately pitched performances, which should be no surprise to anyone who saw Rebecca Hall’s brilliant work in “The Night House.” The creature itself is brought to life through some occasionally questionable CGI. Still, the low-grade quality of the visual effects only adds to the eeriness when viewed through the contrastingly curious tone of the news broadcast.
The first full segment turns out to be made up of two chapters – the first is called “No Wake,” and we’ll check in with the concluding chapter (“Ambrosia”) later. “No Wake” kicks “V/H/S/85” off with a startling beginning. What starts as a familiar sight for 80s horror fans – a group of young adults with sex and partying on their minds as they venture into the woods – morphs into something surprising. In fact, this mostly feels like what the doomed camp counselors in one of the early “Friday the 13th” films would record if they’d brought a video camera to Camp Crystal Lake. The performances are appropriately spirited (i.e., obnoxious), and there’s an air of dread to the whole thing to which the young folk are clearly oblivious. After some fun shenanigans on the lake, things take a violent turn. At this point, “No Wake” reveals its brilliant turn, leading to something entirely unexpected.
Next up is “God of Death,” a Spanish-language short. It takes place during the real-life 1985 Mexico City earthquake, told through a news reporter’s lens. Their early morning broadcast is interrupted by the destruction, leading to a slow, dangerous crawl through the rubble with a rescue team, which makes up most of the film. Smartly, the other characters constantly tell the protagonist to put down the camera, which is a clever way of dealing with the common criticism of characters in found footage horror movies filming everything that happens to them, even in the face of mortal peril. Fans of the series may find the conclusion a bit predictable, as it resembles many other segments from previous “V/H/S” movies. But before it arrives, “God of Death” crafts an effectively claustrophobic tale.
The middle chapter, “TKNOGD,” is easily the film’s lowest point. Thankfully, it’s quite short and does feature some charming 80s tech visuals. It depicts a piece of performance art by a young artist railing against man’s reliance on technology and worship of it to an almost deity-like level. As part of her performance, she enters a VR world and accidentally unleashes futuristic terrors upon herself. Apart from some fun gore effects, this exercise is a letdown.
The film checks back in with the world of “No Wake” with its second act, “Ambrosia.” This segment shows precisely what the franchise does best, capturing a totally typical event that would realistically be filmed on video but with a sinister twist. In this case, it begins with an unremarkable family party. It’s got everything one would expect – the goofy uncle, the controlling mother, the awkward cousin, etc. But something is slightly off. It’s impossible to go much more in-depth without spoiling, but all that matters is that it’s an unsettling and exaggerated look at the grisly traditions that can be found throughout this country. One noticeable minor annoyance between this and “No Wake” is the way it uses sound. One of my most common complaints about found footage films is how frequently many of them break their own rules by including non-diegetic sound effects and music stings, weakening the illusion that the visuals are working to sell, and these segments make unfortunate use of this technique.
The final segment is the best, or at least the most creative. “Dreamkill” is directed by Scott Derrickson, the filmmaker behind “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” “The Black Phone,” and MCU’s “Doctor Strange.” It concerns a goth teen (played by Derrickson’s son Dashiell) whose prophetic dreams of murder find their way onto videotapes that he sends to the police, after which the murders occur in the real world exactly as he dreamt. This concept allows Derrickson to capture several terrifying dream sequences that are easily the scariest part of “V/H/S/85.” Because they take place in the young man’s subconscious, he’s free from the rules and structures of a typical POV-based found footage film. He employs more abstract editing and camerawork, along with extremely unsettling music (composed by another of his sons, Atticus). In fact, these sequences strongly resemble the disturbing home movies in Derrickson’s film “Sinister,” which is sure to be enough to excite horror fans.
Overall, “V/H/S/85” isn’t exactly the highest achievement of the anthology series, but it’s certainly not the lowest. It’s another excellent recreation of TV and video effects, editing, and cinematography techniques of the past, and it’s effective enough to make one hope for another installment next Halloween.