“V/H/S” is a series of found-footage horror anthologies whose constituent shorts are made to seem like the contents of old, and possibly haunted, videocassettes. The problem to date has been that, like most omnibus films, the quality of the segments ranges wildly, so that the odd effective short winds up sandwiched between shorts that are decidedly second-rate.
“V/H/S/94,” the fourth movie in the franchise, is the first wholly successful one, for the simple reason that each of its four unique, 1990s-set segments is a winner. I suppose it doesn’t cohere into anything more than the sum of its parts. But this is the first time I’ve felt the anthology horror format really worked, and gosh, the parts are really good.
The first installment, and my favorite, is Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain,” which stars a note-perfect Anna Hopkins as a daytime TV news reporter assigned to cover a spate of mysterious sightings around the city sewage system. Okuno and her cinematographer, Jared Raab, recreate the period aesthetic so precisely that the footage looks like it’s been unearthed from a local broadcast news archive; the low-grade video style is cleverly used to obscure the image, heightening the suspense. “Storm Drain” has wit, verve, and integrity, and its gross-out punchline is the highlight of the film.
Things get grosser still in “The Subject,” Timo Tjahjanto’s gory, ludicrously over-the-top entry, which plays out with the madcap gusto of a first-person shooter. Tjahjanto had the best segment by far in the 2013 “V/H/S/2,” with the sinister cult thriller “Safe Haven,” but here he exchanges slow-burn dread for outrageous ultraviolence in the finest grindhouse tradition.
It’s an exuberant counterpoint to the installment that precedes it, Simon Barrett’s “The Empty Wake,” which buzzes with some of the same nervous, understated tension of John Carpenter’s short “The Gas Station,” from the 1993 horror anthology “Body Bags.” The finale, “Terror,” is a playful, lo-fi lark centered on an extremist militia in possession of a dangerous supernatural weapon. Directed with humor and visual invention by Ryan Prows, it keeps its secrets under wraps until the very last moments, to compelling effect. The payoff makes for a terrific conclusion to a consistently impressive four-part film.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. Watch on Shudder.
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