‘V/H/S/85’ Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Chaos and Cosmic Horror Reign
I’ve been a devout worshipper at the altar of the V/H/S/85 from the very beginning, drooling over the terrifying found footage aesthetics and the seemingly never-ending ways filmmakers have discovered to use the technique to tell horrific stories. The franchise is back this year with its fifth entry, V/H/S/85, and the devotee within my heart can’t stop singing its praises. It takes what these films have expertly delivered for over a decade and somehow turns it up even further for a consistently disgusting, shocking, and damn fun experience.
Where V/H/S/99 leaned into the punk, DIY sensibilities of the 1990s to illustrate that decade’s rage and ennui, but with a splash of comedy, V/H/S/85 ramps up the stakes to a more cosmic level. That humor is definitely still there, but this film feels more dark and existential. It makes sense, as 1985 saw the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan, whose presidency notably ushered in much more conservative ideologies toward anyone who wasn’t a rich, white man. V/H/S/85 doesn’t explicitly dive into these politics, but regardless, those politics permeate the film as each director tackles regular humans struggling to grapple with their place within societal restrictions and within the terrifying universe. It’s not afraid to break the rules and stretch the boundaries of not just the series but found footage as a whole.
Much of the film’s success no doubt comes from the killer (pun intended) roster of directors and writers who have all previously demonstrated their undeniable skill in scaring the hell out of audiences. Gigi Saul Guerrero, Mike P. Nelson, Natasha Kermani, and Scott Derrickson all show off their already impressive directing chops and stylistic proclivities. But, David Bruckner of The Night House and Hellraiser (2022) has the biggest challenge of directing the wraparound, the part of a horror anthology that so often receives the most criticism (and was essentially altogether skipped in V/H/S/99).
But here, Bruckner doesn’t try to create an explicit meta-narrative of angry teens or authorities discovering tapes. Rather, he mimics the experience of trying to find a recording on an old VHS tape, full of fast-forwarding, with each segment playing as if it was recorded over Bruckner’s segment. With each whir of the unseen VCR, we’re transported through time and space, to different sites of cosmic horror that could spell the destruction of humanity. Bruckner is able to get the viewer invested in his segment beyond a binding agent, which is no small feat.
The recorded program in question is a pseudo-documentary about a scientific study gone wrong when a group of scientists discovers a strange piece of intelligent life that they named Rufus. They trap the creature in a room made to look like your typical suburban home in the 1980s, complete with wood paneling and a giant cube of a TV that’s on 24/7. Why? They think exposing it to things that are distinctly American, it’ll be able to communicate with them. A host ala Unsolved Mysteries guides us through the events, supported by interviews. As the film progresses, the more we learn about the team’s grisly fate.
But first, there are four terrifying segments to behold, each tackling forces beyond our human understanding. Mike P. Nelson (Wrong Turn (2021)) starts us off with a secondary bang following a group of friends who head to the lake for a camping trip that goes horribly wrong. Yes, it sounds like your typical slasher setup. But Nelson takes it to a stranger, inexplicable place. Nelson plays with your head and expectations, particularly in regard to the segment’s structure, doing something never seen in the franchise before.
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Gigi Saul Guerrero (Satanic Hispanics) brings the terror with a segment that starts as your typical disaster movie and transforms into Aztec god chaos. The 80s aesthetic is real here, as we start with a fabulous news show host in bright red and Guerrero herself planning a new reporter in a fabulously hideous jacket. Guerrero is showing the world a different kind of horror not typically seen in the mainstream. Hopefully, this means more Aztec horror is on the horizon.
Natasha Kermani (Lucky) looks at performance art and the consequences of tempting the gods for selfish gains. In this segment, a female performer disparages the advent of VR and says we’ve abandoned God for a new god of technology. Kermani smartly integrates VR into a segment set in 1985, showing how despite seeming limitations due to time period, you can still play with technology and how it has always been a site of terror. It pairs so well with the film’s overall existential dread and how technology only exacerbates that crisis of humanity.
And then there is Scott Derrickson who goes back to his iconic Sinister roots with a segment that is essentially what if Sinister and A Nightmare On Elm Street had a weird bastard son who loves The Cure and watching snuff films. And yes, that is a compliment. Written with his creative partner C. Robert Cargill, the two tap into their debut feature’s 16mm aesthetic to tell a story about a serial killer, a psychic teenager, and said teenager’s strange dreams. Blood covers every surface as the segment moves between VHS tapes recording the killings, and the cops trying to find the killer.
V/H/S/85 is perhaps the series’ most consistent entry. Similar to V/H/S/99, these segments feel cohesive within an implicit overarching theme. Plus, each segment has just a stellar commitment to draping innards across every surface. With each film, producers Josh Goldbloom and Brad Miska have upped the ante with filmmakers unafraid to get weird and disgusting. Here, these five directors come together to create an anthology that works to capture the shifting cultural consciousness of the 80s and interpret societal fears about patriarchy, technology, and our role in the universe through gods, dreams, and extraterrestrial life. Come for the gore, stay for the cosmic dread.
V/H/S/85 had its world premiere at the 2023 Fantastic Fest. It comes to Shudder on October 6, 2023.
‘V/H/S/85’ isn’t afraid to break a few rules to create the most thematically consistent, and bloodiest, entry in the series thus far.