[Fantastic Fest 2021] V/H/S/94: Terrors of a New Digital Age

V/H/S/94. Directed by Simon Barrett, Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows, Jennifer Reeder, & Timo Tjahjanto. Screenplay by Barrett, Okuno, Prows, Reeder, Tjahjanto, & David Bruckner.
Starring Anna Hopkins, Steven McCarthy, Sean Patrick Dolan, Tim Campbell, Dru Viergever, Dax Ravina, Kimmy Choi, Christian Lloyd, Conor Sweeney, Slavic Rogozine, Thiago Dos Santos, Kevin P. Gabel, Daniel Williston, Kyle Durack, & William Jordan.

Bloody Digusting / Cinepocalypse Productions / Raven Banner Entertainment

Not Rated / 100 minutes
Horror / Sci-Fi

★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)

The following essay contains spoilers!

- V/H/S/94 - Photo Credit: ShudderI’ve been a fan of the V/H/S franchise since the first instalment, and I was ridiculed online (IMDB, mainly) in my early days of writing film reviews because I loved V/H/S: Viral. No surprise I absolutely adored the newest film in the franchise, which debuted at Fantastic Fest: V/H/S/94. There are a couple familiar names involved in V/H/S/94, plus we finally get a couple women in the mix, after a totally male lineup of directors and writers in the first three films. Best of all is the way this new V/H/S film goes back in time a little, back to the 1990s, making use of older technology, and, in doing so, interrogates the ways in which our world changed when the internet really started sprouting during the early-to-mid-`90s.

Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain” takes a news reporter into the sewers as a story unfolds about houseless people, ending in abject, existential terror as the reporter discovers terror beneath the city streets. Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” follows a mad doctor in his high-tech lab creating human-machine hybrids. Simon Barrett’s “The Empty Wake” takes a funeral viewing and flips it on its head. Ryan Prows’s “Terror”—my personal favourite of the segments—sees a white nationalist group using supernatural means to plot an act of mass terrorism. And Jennifer Reeder’s “Holy Hell” acts as the film’s structural narrative with a videotaped raid by SWAT cops on a compound where a doomsday cult are taking the next big step in their journey. V/H/S/94‘s various segments come together like a warning of where society was headed as the internet and new technologies grew rapidly, taking us to new and strange places. Except, in 2021, we’re here, we’re in it, and we’ve all but embraced the terror in our daily lives.
- V/H/S/94 - Photo Credit: Shudder

“Hail Raatma!”

One of the best, most disturbing parts of V/H/S/94 as a whole is its focus on cults, conspiracies, and their relationship with media, specifically the medium of digital video. In 2021, Donald Trump has left behind a disturbing legacy in America, helping bolster new conspiracy theories—(i.e.) QAnon—and spawning a cult of personality all his own. What’s of particular significance is the way Trump’s corrosiveness spread due to the internet. In 1994, extremist and fringe groups, as well as conspiracy theories, weren’t uncommon, and they’d already begun using the internet to network. Several of V/H/S/94‘s segments present the rise of these groups and theories, not only in America but across the world, and how online networking, particularly the sharing of videos, helped facilitate their growth. Most troubling is how, in these segments, we see law enforcement is a cult, not immune from infiltration by all manner of lunatics seeking to abuse state power to their benefit.

Reeder’s structural narrative “Holy Hell” is reminiscent at times of video taken in the immediate wake of the Heaven’s Gate cult’s mass suicide. We see cops enter a building where there are dead bodies all over the place, many with bloody eye sockets; we soon see actual removed eyeballs. Eventually—as we return to “Holy Hell” in between, and it bookends, the other segments—we see the infiltration of law enforcement by cultists. While it’s cultists specifically in V/H/S/94, today we have to worry about which cops are not only dirty but are likewise members of fringe extremist groups, mainly white nationalist groups. In Prows’s “Terror” we see a group of white Christian extremists plotting a terrorist attack (“We will take back America!”). At one point they meet with a cop who helps arm the group; again, a connection between white nationalism and the police as a state institution is revealed.
Even the Indonesian cops in Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” use state violence to effectively euthanise the human experiments of Dr. Suhendra, showing the ruthlessness of police; only a single cop out of the SWAT attacking the doctor’s lab disagrees with orders, and he’s attacked by another cop for it. Often horror focuses on the incompetence of police, and fair enough. V/H/S/94 instead focuses on the complicity of individual police in a larger, more violent institution that, in itself, is just another cult.

“We don’t need more tech, we need a gravedigger.”

The most horrifying aspect of V/H/S/94, to me, is Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” and its depiction of a new, burgeoning world in which “flesh and metal could coexist.” A simple enough concept, but it also touches on the spread of neoliberalism across the globe and its love of new technologies while leaving a human workforce behind. In Tjahjanto’s “The Subject,” machines and humans become one, albeit in a very literal, very disturbing way.
We further see a proliferation of screens in this segment, especially when Dr. Suhendra turns on his female subject’s “new eyes,” broadcasting her sight through the television; she sees screen after screen cascading as they multiply in her vision. The woman’s head becomes a camera, transmitting and recording video, foreshadowing the internet age in 1994 about to usher us into a brand new landscape of screens. Not only that, it illustrates how deeply the human brain would become connected to media, and just how constantly we’d remain connected to screens, as if our heads themselves are merely more screens.

Not only does V/H/S/94 portray how technology and the body were coming together in terrifying ways, it explores how news media only continued to become a potential medium for spreading negative, destructive rhetoric in the internet age. “Storm Drain” does follow a reporter, though the cult in “Holy Hell” is broadcasting many screens and it’s easy to believe they’re using the early internet to help spread them. When the reporter in Okuno’s “Storm Drain” makes it back to her news station, after bearing witness to Raatma, she literally and figuratively spews bile over the airwaves; she spits it on her coworker, but, more importantly, she says “Hail Raatma” into the camera, infecting the airwaves with the sewer cult’s brainwashed rhetoric. A great moment that’s semi horror-comedy, given the gnarly practical effects. Also an important scene when we consider the way the reporter acts as a messenger for the cult, bringing their awful, verminesque words to the masses above ground.
- V/H/S/94 - Photo Credit: ShudderWhile the other V/H/S films are fantastic in their own right, V/H/S/94 benefits from positioning itself in the early-to-mid-`90s. The tapes feel authentic, and they have an atmosphere of being videos you might stumble across in 1994 as the first videos were making their way online, just over a decade before YouTube. There are a few great little references to early viral videos throughout the film. Such as the gut-busting amateur sketch of “the Ratman” in Okuno’s “Storm Drain,” echoing the ridiculous sketch of a leprechaun in one of the earlier YouTube viral videos, from a clip supposedly off a local news network in Mobile, Alabama. Even the Veggie Masher commercial mixed into the tapes, and the Veggie Masher product itself, is reminiscent of Slap Chop with Vince Offer that would come nearly 15 years later, after YouTube took off.

Again, the best aspect of V/H/S/94 is the way it uses `90s-era video technology and filming techniques to replicate amateur videos from the 1990s, drawing us into a story reflecting the anxieties and potential horrors of new technologies at the time. Although I enjoyed Barrett’s “The Empty Wake” it’s the only segment that doesn’t quite fit well with the overall narrative, whether you read the film as I have or otherwise. Every other segment conjures a haunting digital landscape emerging in the 1990s, when new technology was changing the way we communicate, the way we see the world, and even how we envision our bodies. V/H/S/94 is a fever dream cobbled together from bits of David Cronenberg, Mary Shelley, and William Gibson, mixed with visuals that feel as if they were pulled from the deep, dark recesses of YouTube. A digital nightmare of epic proportions.

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