Interview : the analogue nightmares of V/H/S/94 with Simon Barrett

The V/H/S franchise veteran discusses re-animating the cult anthology series, what makes the format so creatively effective and much more!

It’s been a big year for writer-turned-director Simon Barrett. 2021 marks the release of his directorial debut Seance, starring Suki Waterhouse (check out our interview for Seance with Simon here!) and the latest instalment in the found-footage anthology franchise V/H/S, which Barrett has previously worked on several times.

It’s been a fair few years since the last V/H/S film; the first was released in 2012 with follow-ups in 2013 and 2014. The most recent instalment, V/H/S: Viral, received a rather mixed response from critics compared to the first two – so it’s understandable that whatever came next might serve as a soft reboot of sorts.

That’s exactly what’s going on in V/H/S/94, which features segments from Barrett, fellow returning director Timo Tjahjanto and franchise newcomers Chloe Okuno, Ryan Prows and Jennifer Reeder. There’s even a wickedly heavy sludge metal score from Sunn O))) member Greg Anderson.

Frankly, it’s the strongest offering from the franchise since 2013’s V/H/S 2, and possibly my new favourite altogether. I had the privilege of discussing V/H/S/94 with Simon ahead of its release on Shudder in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on Wednesday, October 6.

As somebody who’s leapt onto each V/H/S movie as they released, V/H/S/94 is a real return to form for the franchise.

Simon: I’m biased, but I personally think 94 might be the best one. Chloe (Okuno), Ryan (Prows), Timo (Tjahjanto), Jennifer (Reeder), we all went all-out. There was a sense of wow, we’re actually being given somewhat healthy budgets to make a V/H/S movie. We really wanted to deliver, and no-one held back. No-one was worried about appearing foolish. Everyone went 100%.

It was fun, because no-one really knew any of us as filmmakers in the first V/H/S movies. We were only really competing with each other, but it was a fun, friendly competition. With V/H/S/94 – particularly with Ryan Prows and Chloe Okuno, who are younger and just made their first features – there was more of a sense of fun competition and energy again with their enthusiasm. I think that really did lead to everyone pushing themselves to really try and top each other. I don’t know who did; it’s really hard to top Timo. He’s always going to win somehow. But the good news is, my short doesn’t come after his!

There’s a manic energy that comes through in all of the segments; not necessarily trying to be scary but exploring what can be done with the found-footage format. To me, that’s the true appeal of the franchise: finding fun ways to implement the format.

Simon: It’s hard to be genuinely scary in a V/H/S film, because what makes them work is that the shortness of the segment format gets past all the general hurdles of found footage filmmaking. 

Generally in found footage filmmaking, you struggle to really find a reason why the characters would keep cameras in their hands of a full feature-length runtime, and sometimes it can get notoriously ludicrous. In Blair Witch, we just had them wearing little cameras that they hopefully forget about. Even though that’s not literally a thing that exists, whatever! That was our solution to that, and whether it was the right one or not, we had logic behind it.

With the V/H/S movies you don’t need to worry about that, because they’re so short. You don’t really have that suspension of belief within a very short format. What makes David Sanberg such a genius is how Lights Out found a way to scare you with almost no setup or investment in the characters – the short film, not the Eric Heisserer feature, which is a different animal completely in that it actually has characters and such. But the short just sets up a dynamic and it scares you. You have to be pretty clever to do that.

I tried to make my V/H/S/94 short scary, but you only have so much time to build suspense and mostly you want to get to the fun stuff. I think we all had a sense that maybe we were going to be going a little bit more for horror-comedy overall with this one rather than horror. But it also felt like the times have changed; the culture has changed and this is kind of a reboot. This isn’t V/H/S 4, it’s V/H/S/94.

For whatever insane reason, we decided to do that, and it’s completely shocking that Shudder let us actually set this movie in 1994 and use 1994 technology. It’s a remarkable leap of faith on their part, and I hope they feel like we delivered. It’s a different thing. 

The first two films were trying to be almost like exploitation films in that they were designed to feel a little bit unsafe and shocking, and we were just trying to get people’s attention. Now, this series is in its fourth entry. Now, we’re dinosaurs. If we have anything to prove, we should be proving it by entertaining people and giving horror fans the experience that they would want from it. 

So I do think we embraced a bit more silliness in our work, but I have a very hard time not being silly from time to time as a filmmaker. I have a hard time keeping a fully straight face, so for me I knew the tone that I wanted right away. I tried to make mine a little scary. I hope it’s a little scary.

There’s a sense of consistency throughout each of the segments, which you don’t always get with an anthology film. Sometimes the varying quality between segments can be part of the fun, especially if some don’t land but are still trying hard, but here I think it really works.

Simon: Well, that’s the challenge with these modern anthologies, right? With early horror anthologies, every segment would be directed by Freddie Francis or whatever. They would all have the same directors and they’d basically be shot as traditional films. In the modern era, the post-Theatre Bizarre, ABCs of Death, V/H/S sort of era, the way these anthology films are put together is they’re essentially short film festivals. Everyone’s making their own shorts and then they’re being assembled by the producers, really, so you can run into a lot of stylistic and tonal inconsistency – especially in the first two ABCs of Death films. Adam and I had a segment in the first one, and in that one we knew we should just try to be funny because we’re Q – we’re two thirds of the way through the alphabet. We know people are going to be impatient with the horror stuff and the serious stuff at this point, they’re going to want to laugh, so we knew what to do.

But what’s really brilliant about Brad Miska’s original idea of people finding tapes and such as the conceit of the series that became known as V/H/S – producer Roxanne Benjamin actually came up with that title – is that there’s an inherent stylistic uniformity to this. It’s not just found footage but glitchy, analogue, old shitty found footage. Shittier than a studio would let you get away with kind of found footage. A studio wouldn’t let you shoot a Paranormal Activity movie the way we shot V/H/S, just shooting it on old laptops and iPhones. You could never get away with that for various, very correct reasons. But we could, and so that created a cool, weird vibe. 

So I think they feel like consistent features, whereas a lot of modern anthologies do feel very uneven sometimes. They sometimes even have different aspect ratios between the segments and really distracting stuff like that. In the V/H/S films, all the segments have different voices but they kind of look aesthetically the same; you can enjoy them more as a feature viewing experience rather than feeling like a short film festival.

V/H/S/94 releases on Shudder in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand on Wednesday, October 6.

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