Back to Black: The V/H/S Horror Franchise and the Thrill of a Mystery Tape

by Samantha McLaren

When I was a kid, my uncle gave me a box filled with unmarked VHS tapes.

It was the late 90s and I was just discovering the joys of science fiction and horror. My uncle, a lifelong nerd, had recorded every episode of the Scott Bakula-starring sci-fi series Quantum Leap (1989-1993), which aired its final episode the year I was born, but any attempt to label the tapes had long since rubbed or peeled off. With streaming services still a distant dream, I experienced the series through this mystery box, never knowing if the black rectangle I was inserting into the machine was the conclusion of a two-parter I had yet to start, or the bittersweet final leap long before I was ready to say goodbye—or, indeed, whether my aunt had inadvertently taped over the last 10 minutes of a nail-biting episode with some tedious soap drama. It was at times frustrating—occasionally downright aggravating—but the thrill of anticipation never waned.

Double Feature covers V/H/S films 1-4, Breaking down every single segment of every single VHS movie in under an hour.

I experienced something similar when I first watched the horror anthology V/H/S (2012) and its sequels.

Anthologies have always had an element of mystery to them that few conventional movie formats can match, especially in an age when your streaming platform of choice kindly provides a synopsis to aid your browsing. Scrolling through Shudder, I can immediately get the gist of most of its offerings—yet the blurb for V/H/S/94 (2021), the most recent entry in the V/H/S franchise, is tantalizingly vague, describing only the wraparound story that loosely ties the disparate segments together. Reading it for the first time, I could not have anticipated that the film had nightmarish mecha-humans, explosive blood, and a half-human, half-rat deity (Hail Raatma!) in store for me. And whether I liked an individual segment or not, the anticipation about what would come next was worth the price of admission (or in this case, the cost of my Shudder subscription) alone.

The decision to eschew the one-director strategy popularized by Amicus Productions in the 1960s and 70s in favor of featuring work by multiple filmmakers enhances the grab-bag feel of the franchise. Where Amicus’s portmanteau films have a largely consistent visual style and tone that gives them a sense of cohesiveness despite the inevitable unevenness of the format, each V/H/S entry showcases the wildly different sensibilities of its various writers and directors. In V/H/S/94, for instance, Simon Barrett’s slow-burn chiller “The Empty Wake” is followed by the bonkers body horror of Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject.” And while V/H/S was hardly the first horror anthology to take this approach—1945’s Dead of Night had four directors—its success ushered in a new era of ominous omnibuses that are appealing precisely because they’re something of a patchwork quilt. You can never get comfortable with a director because you know you’ll only be with them for a few minutes more before being plunged into unfamiliar territory once again. Spin the wheel; shove another unmarked VHS into the machine and see what you get.

Of course, it’s the found footage presentation of the V/H/S films that truly earns them their titles. Digging around in a box of old cassettes you find in your family home or at a garage sale can unearth all manner of buried treasures, from forgotten episodes of a beloved show to footage of your parents’ wedding day. But some recordings are best left buried, and you never know when a seemingly innocuous tape might turn sour. The V/H/S franchise takes this idea to the extreme, bringing to grainy life all the worst-case scenarios of an unlabeled cassette: snuff, alien abductions, the self-shot ramblings of a homegrown extremist group. And though certain segments do stretch the suspension of disbelief to breaking point (how exactly some of this footage made its way onto a VHS tape is doubtful), the use of tracking and scan lines—and even, in the case of V/H/S/94, the tail end of a commercial before a program starts—give the films an air of authenticity that will make every unmarked tape you see moving forward feel like a potentially dangerous artifact.

And that’s what makes the V/H/S franchise so fascinating. For those of us old enough to remember the days of analog video, these films represent a kind of twisted nostalgia, a sideways look at an obsolete format that is now becoming trendy as modern titles are given a retro release. I never found anything more sinister in my box of tapes than an unresolved plotline or two. But I have no doubt that some truly abhorrent things have been recorded on VHS over the years and that some innocent bystanders have stumbled upon them and been scarred. The V/H/S films simply put you in their shoes—unsuspecting and unprepared. Oh boy.

Samantha McLaren is a Scottish writer and artist living in NYC. Her bylines have appeared in Scream, Bloody Disgusting, and Fangoria, among others. She also contributed to the book Hannibal for Dinner: Essays on America’s Favorite Cannibal on Television.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.