Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"By far the best instalment to date, with a stylistic consistency and a sharp wit which make it worth seeking out regardless of your feelings about the found footage genre as a whole."

A big hit on the horror festival circuit this year, V/H/S 85 is the latest entry in an anthology series which turns 11 this year. That series has earned a good reputation as an entry point for talented young directors keen to break into the genre, but its actual quality has been quite variable and sometimes disappointing. In light of that, this entry is a pleasure to review. It’s by far the best instalment to date, with a stylistic consistency and a sharp wit which make it worth seeking out regardless of your feelings about the found footage genre as a whole.

There’s a effort to establish the period setting right from the off, using select snippets of adverts and news footage to remind us what was then happening culturally and technologically – something which ill be more successful if you remember it yourself but will have some novelty value for younger viewers. This approach fits neatly into the meta narrative, whose droll narrator tells us that young Rory, whom we see sitting on a couch watching TV, seemed like a normal boy at first, when he was found atop a remote butte, but implies that he was something quite alien. We learn more about him in little snippets in between the other stories, as researchers study him in a university laboratory, and a familiar take on the overstepping of scientific boundaries blurs into an entertaining reflection on the effects of too much TV, with a pleasingly alien perspective.

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Worries about the impact of video viewing were a big concern in ’85, and the first story in this anthology would almost certainly have seen the film classified as a video nasty if it were released back then. It features a happy-go-lucky group of young people taking their van out to a lake where they set up tents and go messing about on a boat. A sign reading Welcome to Lake Evil and a curious incident involving a squirrel will have horror viewers pretty sure that they know what’s coming next, but, though no-one will feel deprived of gore, the narrative takes some surprising directions and sets the stage well for what is to come.

In the second part – the only one of the stories made in Spanish – we go behind the scenes of a Mexican TV programme where a seasoned news presenter is preparing for her show and a younger outside broadcast reporter is getting ready to make her début. When disaster strikes, camera operator Luis is relieved to receive help from a rescue team, but what they uncover in the process will change everything. Though not as historically accurate as it might have been, this story has fun exploring aspects of the country’s past, and it’s delivered with gusto. It also manages to fit in the two minutes of female upper-body nudity without which the film would not convince as a relic of the era, though sadly we are deprived of the white fuzzy lines usually present at such moments on well-loved tapes.

The third story also involves religious themes – specifically, a stage performer’s contention that modern society has killed God and replaced him with technology, which prompts her to perform an incantation in an attempt to summon a god of technology – but it goes in a very different direction. Exploring the concept of virtual reality, as it was then understood, it features super cute Tron-style graphics, but it doesn’t really have many ideas and gets away with it only thanks to its charismatic lead.

The fourth story, a cleverly structures sequel to one of the others, hinges on a teenager whose face perfectly captures the look of the era’s young stars. Receiving cheers and congratulations at a family party, she could have stepped straight out of a John Hughes film, but the traditions to which her family adheres are very different. A wonderful cast of extras and Mike P Nelson’s deceptively chaotic direction gives this the full-on Eighties home video feel, and one can imagine it being watched at gatherings for years to come, with requisite teasing and comments about how young people look, but many of its characters will not have the chance to get old.

It’s a nicely structured piece with deftly handled meta-humour, including a conversation between the heroine and her sulky elf-eared little brother about the comparative virtues of Betamax which is echoed in the final film by a shy young goth. He’s been brought in for questioning by the police after it’s discovered that he sent them a tape of a murder scene – several days before the murder was committed. There’s the sort of loop here which can easily become annoying, but it’s nicely played. The story touches on some topical issues but still manages to capture the style of the detective thrillers of the era.

Cleverly constructed, with enough shared reference points to fit together nicely as a whole, this feels as if it has finally achieved everything the series has been aiming for. You’ll be rewinding it in your mind for quite some time.

Reviewed on: 02 Oct 2023
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V/H/S/85 packshot
An ominous mixtape blends never before seen snuff footage with nightmarish newscasts and disturbing home video to create a surreal, analogue mashup of the forgotten Eighties.
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Director: David Bruckner, Scott Derrickson, Natasha Kermani, Mike P Nelson, Gigi Saul Guerrero

Writer: C Robert Cargill, Zoe Cooper, Scott Derrickson, Evan Dickson, Mike P Nelson, Gigi Saul Guerrero

Starring: Freddy Rodríguez, James Ransone, Jordan Belfi, Rolando Davila-Beltran, Dani Deetté, Alex Galick, Justen Jones, Tyler Noble

Year: 2023

Runtime: 110 minutes

Country: US

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