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The “V/H/S/94” Team On Pushing Forward by Looking Back

Friday, October 8, 2021 | Interviews

By ROCCO T. THOMPSON

Uniting a handful of series regulars and promising up-and-comers, V/H/S/94 is a soft reboot of the popular anthology franchise first launched in 2012 Simon Barrett, and Bloody Disgusting‘s Brad Miska. The plot concerns a brutish police swat team who launch a high intensity raid on a remote warehouse, only to discover a sinister cult compound whose collection of pre-recorded material uncovers a nightmarish conspiracy…

The Shudder Original features segments by franchise alums Barrett (Seance) and Timo Tjahjanto (May the Devil Take You Too), as well as newcomers Chloe Okuno (Slut), Ryan Prows (Lowlife) and Jennifer Reeder (Knives and Skin), who was also responsible for the film’s wraparound narrative. RUE MORGUE sat down with Barrett, Okuno, Prows, and Reeder to discuss fans’ (and occasionally the filmmakers’) love-hate relationship with the series, what spoke to them about the period setting, and how the cultural issues that plagued us in the mid-90s continue to haunt us today.

The first three V/H/S/ movies came out in pretty rapid succession, but this one’s obviously something of a recalibration of the series. Is that something you all discussed and what were those discussions like?

RP: Yes, the discussion was, “How do we just absolutely annihilate the first three movies?” Which I feel pretty confident we did.

SB: I mean, there was definitely a sense, an awareness on our team that people wanted more V/H/S/ films and that there was an audience for them. With that, you do have to hit a certain threshold of expectation. You do want to deliver on a certain level of entertainment. After the first two V/H/S/ movies, I remember being like, “I don’t want to do any more of these unless we have like more resources and a better way to do them, because they’re just such a pain and you have no safety net.” I think that was the goal on [producers] Brad Miska and Josh Goldbloom’s part, to put together one where we’d have enough resources to actually plan and design, for example, prosthetic makeup effects. [That] genuinely hadn’t really been an option in the prior films just because we were doing them without the time to properly build or plan anything. Some of them were conceived and shot within a week on the first movie. We literally conceived and shot and edited Joe Swanberg’s segment in like about a week. It was really fast and that’s not a great way to make permanent art. I think the idea [with V/H/S/94] was that if we had a proper budget and proper schedule, we could do one of these things a little bit better. It [something] that does always itch the back of your brain as a filmmaker at night, the idea that, “Maybe we haven’t done like the best possible version of this yet.” By the way, already, I’m hearing the other V/H/S/94 filmmakers getting that itch in their brain. Like, “Well, maybe I would do another one but this time I want to do something different.” That is kind of how you get hooked on these. You’re like, “Well, you know, that was a fuckfest but now I know.” Now, you’ve got a taste for it.

Simon, obviously, you’ve been attached to some pretty high-profile stuff. But I’m kind of curious for Jennifer, Chloe, and Ryan, why was V/H/S the best next step for you in terms of your career or artistic growth?

CO: Well, I got hired on it quite a few years ago. At the time, I wasn’t even really thinking, “Is this strategically good for my career?” I was just a fan of the series and I was a fan of the filmmakers who were involved. Any chance to like go work with [producer] David Bruckner and Simon Barrett and Radio Silence, I was on board. I don’t know if I’ve geeked out to you, Simon but I’ve told you before how much I love The Guest and your other stuff. I was just psyched to be part of this group!

How about you, Jennifer?

JR: Well, I had just finished the festival and theatrical life for Knives and Skin right in March of 2020. Like so many people, I spent that whole next year planning work but not making anything. On the one hand, that’s not to say that if anything had come along, I would have been like, “Yeah. Fine. I’ll shoot it. I’ll do anything,” because that’s not the case. Previously, I have, with the exception of very few projects, written what I have directed or authored from the ground-up what I have directed. [With V/H/S/94], I stepped into a directing position that David Bruckner had been attached to. He stepped off to do Hellraiser and then of course, the other V/H/S/ [films] have already existed [as a franchise] as well. It was like I had to jump onto a train that had not only kind of like left the station, but it was part of a bunch of trains that had already left the station. Just that kind of challenge alone felt curious to me. I think that I am known for narratives that lean more into the surreal or the experimental on some level. I actually wanted to make something that already, in terms of its fans and its sort of circulation, existed in a much more kind of conventional or commercial horror world. I just felt like I wanted to be able to say I can do the things that I do, but I can also do something that lives in a different world and still bring myself to that.

That’s an interesting point, because I wouldn’t consider Knives and Skin, or your breakthrough feature Ryan, Lowlife, straight horror movies. Was it sort of exciting to get to apply your template or your style to a clearer cut horror segment like this?

RP: Yeah, for sure. I really was excited about trying to apply, like you said, my approach to the V/H/S universe and storytelling style. I just thought it was going to be a really cool challenge. Once I landed on the setting, and what I wanted to talk about, and the creature, and what I was kind of doing with it, I felt like it was a fun way to really mess with the form and genre.

JR: Yeah. I think that even though so many of my films over the years have featured pools of blood, bleeding humans, dead bodies, I would agree that a lot of that was used to tell a different kind of a story. It was fun to shoot a proper, gory bludgeoning, which I had never done before. There’s another film that [I was] shooting that has some gnarly bludgeoning, which I had already written before I got attached to V/H/S/, and wrote the bludgeoning that’s in my section. [I thought] “I’m going to shoot it and then if this is something that I don’t want to do again, I can jettison it from the new script if it’s not too late.” But I actually think that I went back and made the upcoming bludgeoning even more gnarly!

RP: Bludgeoning game up!

I think we’ve sort of recently moved out of the ’80s nostalgia era and are moving towards referencing the ’90s and early 2000s in filmmaking, so V/H/S/94 feels like it’s hitting that wave at just the right time. Where did the idea to set it in 1994 come from how did it influence the conception of your individual segments?

SB: I’ll speak to this one because I think I was the most involved with talking to David Bruckner at the early stage because that was [his] idea. [That’s] the weird thing about doing these interviews now without him because it was really his creative spark [that], if we were going to do another one, it needed to be a kind of reboot that’s interesting thematically. I think he picked because 1994 the technology of that era particularly excited him – VHS had started to look pretty good, the later digital video technologies were in terrible infancy [but they were] the right tools [for] a found footage filmmaker in terms of making things look glitchy and scary. It is interesting to think about nostalgia and this phase of pop culture cycling and how people really only react to things that trigger some familiarity in them that reassures or flatters their self-image.

It kind of makes me think that if we were going to do another one of these, which I wouldn’t be involved in, it would be good to do like V/H/S/ ’03, [in the] Iraq War era, and call attention to how weird that period was and how the period we’re in right now now feels so distinct from that period. [It] does feel like a different cultural time, even though, for an elderly person like me, it feels like yesterday. I really have concrete memories of 1994, [and] I think that might be why I didn’t want to lean into the nostalgia as much just because I don’t have a positive association with the mid-90s, I just remember being alive and not enjoying it. But it is interesting to think about what that is for different people of different ages.

 

“We are living in a hellacious time loop of white terror gooberness.”
JR: Well, what I really loved about doing a project like this set in 1994, and then specifically setting the wrap around in a warehouse where I knew there would be lots of television monitors kind of blasting content, was knowing that 1994 in particular, we have a lot of [cultural] memories that exist because we have footage of it. Tonya Harding’s ex-husband allegedly whacking Nancy Kerrigan in the knee. We have the OJ’s Bronco chase. We have the Branch Davidian Fire in Waco, Texas. Kurt Cobain died that year, we’ve got lots of memorial footage of his funeral and whatnot. 1994, in particular, felt like there was a lot of actual VHS footage produced that became a kind of a cultural index for a year when no one could have predicted that that would be the case.

Something that was also inspiring for my section was actually something that didn’t happen until, I think actually 1997 but it was the Heaven’s Gate cult.  I was really fascinated by the way that that cult leader used an analog video feedback loop in the propaganda videos that sort of made his head kind of wander into infinity. I was somebody who was using a lot of analog video [at that time] in the same way to create effects that only analog video could do. I remember thinking, “Anybody who doesn’t understand what’s happening [with] this technology, do they genuinely buy into the idea that he’s magical or infinite?” Anyway, that doesn’t happen till after 1994, but I felt like setting it in the mid-90s was a way for me to think about what other kinds of cultural memories were produced based on analog video footage that existed in the news.

Chloe, Ryan, do you have any personal connection to the time period?

CO: I’m always psyched to do a period piece. I think I was seven in 1994, so, there is sort of a nostalgia that I can lean into and I enjoy vague memories of that era but now it is sort of like way back in the day. But I also hope that some parts of mine feel kind of contemporary. I wanted to tell a story about this person who goes on TV and seems to have been inducted into this strange insane cult mentality and then literally spews bile promoting this insane cult mentality. Hopefully, even in the silliness of this, there’s some sort of modern day relevance.

RP: When I started looking into what I was going to do…modern militia, white power violence, white supremacy, toxic male bullshit. It’s all in ’94 about the same as it is today. I thought it was a pretty poignant message to be able to talk about something that was extremely relevant then and we’re feeling the aftershocks of [now], and will continue to. It was fun and terrifying to write something that felt like it could be now or then. Even for mine, the hairstyles and the costuming didn’t really change that much from back then to now either. We are living in a hellacious time loop of white terror gooberness.

V/H/S/94 is also a departure from the others in that it sort of builds toward a single conclusion. I know things were shot under COVID protocols, but did you have a lot of contact as a group and were you able collaborate and bounce ideas off of each other?

SB: I mean, not really. Chloe and I quarantined. Ryan and I filmed it about the same time earlier this year around February, March. Chloe filmed in December. Mostly, we communicated about the living situation and how to order food and how to order marijuana and I communicated my grievances regarding how things were not to my satisfaction…

Jennifer and I use the same cinematographer, [Andrew Appelle]. That was an instance where I was able to say to her, “Andy is 100%.” But she also didn’t really need me to say that. She’d seen his work. There wasn’t as much creative collaboration as it might actually seem in the end result. But that’s also because as soon as you start your segment, you’re kind of underwater. I think there was a notion initially that we’d all be sharing crews more, but, of course, everyone wants their own DP and it doesn’t really make sense for us to use the same special effects technicians because they’re going to be building stuff and it doesn’t really make sense for us to be using the same production designer for the same reason. Once you get that far, you’re basically doing your own productions. Ryan and I piggybacked a bit and we were able to use that. In the case of Chloe’s DP, Jared Rabb. He’s friends with Andy. They’ve worked on a bunch of Matt Johnson’s movies and stuff together. So, they were able to do camera tests that we all benefited from but aside from those essentials, we weren’t able to work together  as much as we might have enjoyed just because we were all keeping our segments afloat past a certain point.

JR: By the time that I went into production, which was at the very beginning of May, I had access to Ryan and Simon and Chloe’s sections. I wanted to try to incorporate some of their sections into the wraparound. In all of the footage that we have coming off of the monitors, Chloe’s Channel 6 logo exists in that footage. There’s a little blip of a broken apart casket that refers to “Empty Wake” and there’s some upside down wooden crosses in another section. They’re kind of quick. We didn’t want to linger on it. I had multiple conversations while I was in Canada with Timo, who had not shot his section yet and it was really hard to get any details from him. If you’ve seen his section, it still is like just wildness on top of wildness. It’s fantastic but I had almost nothing to go on, even after reading his script, to figure out what we could incorporate. But it was great to be able to have these little bits of the other sections that, just for a moment, if an audience is paying attention, it pulls in content from the other shorts.

SB: I should actually clarify my previous response and say [that] Jennifer was really burdened with trying to tie these disparate things together. In addition to the normal burden of the wraparound, which is having characters space out in front of a TV screen every three minutes or so, which is a more of a narrative restriction than you might think, she had to deal with the fact that they wanted this interconnectivity. She really had to take that test on. Anything you see that makes it feel like this is a stylistic, uniform motion picture is really her retroactively looking at what we had and figuring it out, which is great. So, thanks, Jennifer but, also, sorry.

JR: Thank you!

Regarding either your individual segments or the film itself, what do each of you hope viewers take away from V/H/S/94?

SB: I hope they’re deeply shook and realize that with very little positive reinforcement, Brad and Josh are willing to make another one of these, I hope [that] kind of chills them to their bone. I hope they kind of realize like — okay, if I put this on on Shudder and, I don’t know, fall asleep, it’s [still] going to register as a play. They need to really think about what they’re doing…

JR: I don’t know how to top that.

RP: All on the same page.

CO: Yeah. What Simon said!

JR: I loved reading the comments when the trailer was posted. It’s all super fans – either people who love the series and they can’t wait for the next one, or  they’re super fans of hating it and they’ll express that.

RP: I’ve never heard anyone phrase it that way but it’s true. The fans of V/H/S/ seem to also hate V/H/S/. I actually think that’s because we always just like go for it completely and especially on this movie V/H/S/94. Everyone is just like, “Boom. I’m going to create something insane.” I think that’s why the fans, they enjoy them but they’re just like, “Yeah but, like I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone.”

All our segments have kind of split the room. That’s really fun to see. When I started, I lined [all my fellow] filmmakers’ headshots up on my mirror, like Ivan Drago, and every day, I would take one off to destroy to [motivate myself to] make the best segment.. We want to shock people to their very core. Hopefully this one holds up to the previous ones [or] tops them. God bless you, RIP V/H/S/2, everyone’s favorite!

V/H/S/94 is available now, exclusively on Shudder. 

 

 

Rocco T. Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer, critic, film journalist, and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous. He penned the cover story for Rue Morgue's landmark July/Aug 2019 "Queer Fear" Special Issue, and is a regular contributor to Screen Rant, Slant Magazine, and other cinema-centric publications.