Wednesday 11 October 2023

V/H/S/85 (2023) review...

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The V/H/S portmanteau horror anthology franchise has been a mixed bag from its inception, but this inherently goes with the territory. The first film, from 2012, was a bold but flawed beginning that was clearly one story too long and, most egregiously, suffered from featuring numerous characters who were outright wretched to spend any time with. The 2013 follow-up clocked in at an agreeably brisk 92 minutes, balanced the tone and characters, and explored a nice variety of ideas, styles, and approaches to the set-up. Sadly, 2014's V/H/S/Viral was thoroughly misguided, at times appearing embarrassingly cheap and sloppy, while also featuring mostly uninspiring tales.

Fast forward to 2021 and horror streaming service Shudder co-produced and distributed V/H/S/94, which proved to be a return to form and an impressive doubling-down on the 'vhs style'. It had some weak aspects, but it's strengths outnumbered its weaknesses. Hopes were high, then, for 2022's V/H/S/99, which absolutely dropped the ball. Aside from one segment ("Suicide Bid"), the film was a mess of miss opportunities, half-baked ideas (some of which didn't fit the format or franchise tone whatsoever), aggressive amounts of shaky-cam, and poorly-placed humour.

Nonetheless, V/H/S/99 was a ratings hit, but this was no doubt built more on the achievements of its immediate predecessor that it's own content, as born out by numerous reactions from the audience. Approaching V/H/S/85, therefore, came with some serious concern that the wrong lessons would be learned from V/H/S/99's success. Thankfully, V/H/S/85 feels more in-keeping with the first two entries in the franchise as well as V/H/S/94...

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"Total Copy" (the wrap around story) convincingly recreates the feel of those 1980s television documentaries about the paranormal, oozing a creepy and unnerving sci-fi-tinged tone, and is balanced well throughout to not outstay its welcome while maintaining a sense of mystery.

"No Wake" features a group of young friends out for a party at a lake that turns into a blood-soaked nightmare. Fortunately, the cast of characters aren't the irritating idiots we've too often seen depicted throughout this franchise in some segments since its creation. However, the acting is uneven, so the viewer is always aware that they're watching actors performing their lines, replete with unnatural pauses in character's dialogue and actions, but a twist in proceedings invites further interest.

"God of Death" mixes natural disaster horrors with supernatural wrath and arguably features the best acting of all the segments in the movie, but feels a bit weak on the scare front. The series has often featured a single segment from a non-English-speaking nation, which adds a little variety to proceedings, but they do inevitably feel slightly off-kilter with the rest of the segments. The ABCs of Death movies, aided by their structure, have better handled this notion of a multi-national horror anthology, but this is still a solid portion of V/H/S/85.

"TKNOGD" faithfully recreates that feel of a pretentious black box theatre performance, but that's also its biggest problem. Quite often with these films there's one segment that just doesn't fit, and V/H/S/85 could have easily done without this segment and quickened its overall run time. The idea of using VR is interesting, but doesn't quite work in the 1985 context. There's some good gore effects in it, but this one sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb. Each viewer's opinions of each segment will naturally vary, though, another aspect that is inherent to the portmanteau format.

"Ambrosia", quite enjoyably, is linked to an earlier segment and is fairly unnerving, breaking a little bit of new ground within the V/H/S copybook. Yet another slew of new characters being introduced is deftly handled, avoiding the potential for viewer fatigue, and so the only downside is that a lot of questions are left unanswered, so the story feels unfinished, but the connection of two segments adds a nice spin and a thrill into what is now the sixth instalment of a long-running franchise.

"Dreamkill" is the most stylish of the segments, combining serial killings with the gritty style of 8mm film in a dream-like way (fans of director Scott Derrickson's film Sinister will be in familiar visual territory). The mystery of exactly how/why the murders are appearing on videotapes before they happen never quite gets a satisfying exploration, but the mystery, gruesomeness, and chilling style of this segment really stand out in a good way. Much like "No Wake/Ambrosia", this segment feels like it could easily be expanded into a feature film in its own right.

V/H/S/85 has some flaws, the most obvious of which is that there seems to be a general lack of true tension and frights. Could this be the curse of being a seasoned horror fanatic? Then again, even the generally quite poor V/H/S/99 managed to elicit visceral reactions from its 'Suicide Bid' segment as it keyed into numerous common fears that are all deeply felt by those who endure them. However, despite the lack of scares and sweaty palms, V/H/S/85 was consistently entertaining (one segment notwithstanding), and all said and done it proves to be a successful entry in the franchise.

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