V/H/S/85 (Fantastic Fest 2023)
Dir. David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Natasha Kermani, Mike P. Nelson, & Gigi Saul Guerrero (2023)
The most recent installment of the franchise features a lake that can raise the dead, an unearthed ancient god, an undead bloodbath, and a series of disturbing murders.
The VHS series is a bit hit or miss: for every VHS there is a VHS: Viral. I've been more or less happy with the last couple of entries, however, and was super excited to be able to check out the newest film, taking place in the far-distant (which makes me unreasonably angry) year of 1985. It premiered at Fantastic Fest and is now streaming on Shudder, so it's now available for anyone like me who was clamoring to check it out. Unfortunately, it also falls a good bit short of some of the better entries in the series, so while there are some parts that may well make the film worth a watch, there are just as many that feel like they could've been done a little better.
The wraparound of the film, a mainstay of anthology films that try to tie the rest of the series together, doesn't actually do that at all in this one. While there are some callbacks within a couple of the following shorts, the wraparound itself, which features a television expose on an incident involving an alien life form that is being studied by a team of scientists, a project that naturally goes extremely awry. It's a short that is relatively creepy, but it doesn't contain much of a story beyond "alien is predictably bad and kills everyone." The short, entitled Total Copy and directed by Hellraiser remake director David Bruckner, feels more like it takes away from the other installments than anything else, an unfortunate choice that, while fine on its own, strays from much of the intention of a wraparound story.
The second short is by far the best in the film, a bloody and brutal mashup of summer camp slasher and supernatural zombies called No Wake by director Mike P. Nelson (who directed the Wrong Turn remake). A group of horny teenagers are camping at the lake when they start getting picked off by a sniper, finding themselves resurrected from the dead if they have been in contact with the lake's restorative waters. It's surprisingly gruesome and very well done, though it definitely feels like a concept that could've easily (and probably should have) been stretched to feature length.
Next up is Gigi Saul Guerrero's God of Death, in which a group of rescue workers who are helping survivors of a deadly earthquake escape from a fallen building find themselves at the mercy of the Aztec god of death. While it's a fairly well-done example of folk horror and has some fantastic creature design once all is revealed, the presence of a typical horror movie score severely undercuts the entire point of the film. There should not be a score to a found footage movie, because it removes all impression that the footage was, indeed, found without further edits. It's an unfortunate choice that is repeated throughout almost the entire rest of the film, and it detracts a good bit from the immersion that could've otherwise been a pretty decent short.
TKNOGD is about a performance artist who is decrying the future's reliance on technology, delivering a small venue showing of her latest piece wherein she dons a virtual reality helmet, called an eyephone (get it!), and she inadvertently summons a techno-god who proceeds to rip her limb from limb. It's a short short, but it's clever, and the gore within is relatively well done. Director Natasha Kermani (Shudder's Lucky) does a good job in creating an insular short film that fits very well into the VHS family, though it does at times come across more like a tiny episode of Black Mirror instead.
The next-to-last short is Dreamkill from director Scott Derrickson (The Black Phone ), a short in which police find videos of murders that are going to happen in the future. It's a bizarre short, one that suffers from extremely poor acting at times, but it's also gory and gnarly as well, delivering the best bloodshed of the film. It also makes use of Throbbing Gristle's Hamburger Lady during one of the videos, which normally would apply to the aforementioned "horror movie scores don't belong in found footage" gripes, but is actually magnificently creepy and fits well with the industrial-horror on display. It's an uneven short, one that also probably could've been stretched to feature length, but alas became one of the better entries in a subpar VHS movie instead.
Finally, the last short is Ambrosia, also directed by No Wake's Nelson and serving as more of a wraparound than the actual wraparound of the film. It ties in brilliantly with No Wake and is one of the creepiest of the shorts, a 15-year-old's party in which she is being inducted into the family tradition of killing folks. It's an excellent short, especially paired with Nelson's earlier film, and is well worth the price of admission by itself. The sociopathic family is terrifying, and I'd love to see these two combined and expounded upon in a longer effort.
At the end of the day, I'll keep watching these movies as long as they keep making them, something that producer and Bloody Disgusting owner Brad Miska seems intent on continuing to do. Whether that is a good thing or not will depend on the viewer, but it's easy to see that rushing these films to screen may end up wearing out their welcome. While I'm sure that it will get a ton of views and even more discourse, I'd rather see them take a couple of years off between sequels and formulate some truly impressive shorts like in the earlier VHS films.
Who this movie is for: Horror anthology lovers, VHS series fans, Old folks like me
Bottom line: By and large, VHS 85 is watchable but nowhere near the top of the series. It's a disappointing entry but has some interesting concepts that are explored as briefly as possible and often too briefly. The VHS series has certainly had some bumps, and I fear that this film will go down as yet another shaky installment. Nevertheless, for fans of the series, it's entertaining enough to make it worth their while and has just enough to make it not an entirely wasted effort.