If you experienced any of the latter half of the 20th century, a significant portion of your memory inevitably includes analog video tape cassettes. Injected into the public psyche of that time by VHS technology were images of fizzing static, punctuations of sharp technicolor lines, muted colors, battery bars and timestamps. These idiosyncrasies have now become permanent emblems of collective nostalgia. The filmmakers involved in V/H/S/94, which exhibits a series of unrelated snuff-style short films uncovered in an FBI bust, are well aware of our societal connection to the tape cassette. The ambitious, thoughtful film emphasizes the personal nature of the medium to investigate just how close a camera can get to the experience of human consciousness.
V/H/S/94, the fourth installment in the beloved found footage anthology franchise, is the first in the series to really use its medium as its message. Part of what makes found footage such a popular filmmaking vehicle in the horror genre (Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Cloverfield just scratch the surface), is the fact that it’s usually presented as subjective, and therefore asks you to believe there is a real person behind the lens. This illusion manipulates the viewer into the belief that the horror being captured is somehow closer to them, whereas in a standard horror film the images feel more manufactured and there is a higher degree of separation between the grueling entity and the viewer. In a found footage film, we are also asked to believe that the camera cannot lie. The images in front of us are totally raw. This makes suspension of disbelief a considerably simpler task.
V/H/S/94 infiltrates our consciousness even further than most found footage horror films. In fact, it attempts to become consciousness. This inventive approach is employed, in particular, in the film’s third segment: “The Subject.” Directed by Timo Tjahjanto, the section is told via three cameras. One is manned by a retired-prosthetist-turned-mad-scientist (Budi Ross) as he documents his quest to successfully meld human and machine. Another is operated by a member of the SWAT team that eventually busts the scientist. But the most important is controlled by one of his medical subjects. However, she’s more than just a cameraperson. She is a literal camera-person: The apparatus replaces the top half of her head. Her new eyes are the lens; the camera microphone, her new ears.
In this case, the camera entirely becomes the subject. It overwhelms the senses: Her moans and attempts to cry out for help translate to the confused buzzing of a tape reel inside of a cassette. When the SWAT team breaks in and starts shooting at her, the battery bar runs lower with every blow. Her perspective also plays on a TV in the room, which reminds the audience that our role in a found footage horror movie is not unlike the scientist’s victim. We are asked to be both a viewer and an active participant, because this subgenre totally relies on our fear and our unique closeness to the subjects via the personal filmmaking style. But perhaps the most terrifying aspect of “The Subject” is that, because the camera is our protagonist, we discover the horrors of her new self alongside her in real time. When she enters a room and approaches a mirror, we hold our breath and brace ourselves for what she’s about to see. Suddenly, it is almost as if we are looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves as a grotesque human-robot hybrid.
Would this have been as effective if Tjahjanto’s segment had been shot to look like he had used a modern digital camera? Unlikely. There’s something distinctly personal about the VHS format. It remains one of the last mementos of physical media, and a reminder of a past milestone of accessible filmmaking. And that’s a large part of what makes the V/H/S franchise so uniquely terrifying—watching the short films feels as though you’ve come across some kind of uncovered secret, unlike an easily shareable online file. The image itself adds to this effect. Every blip, every glitch, every barcode, every mysterious scratching sound reminds us of the cassette’s imperfections, and thereby further makes the viewing experience a personal one. Modern, clean-looking film technology often inherently puts a barrier between its creator and its consumer. When an image runs effortlessly smoothly, it’s easy to forget that there was ever a real human being behind it. This isn’t the case with video cassettes. Every malfunction, every rupture in the frame reminds us that this is a beautifully flawed human invention.
Indeed, V/H/S/94 isn’t the first film to implement a first-person viewing experience. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, Ilya Naishuller’s Hardcore Henry and, of course, the best parts of Being John Malkovich implement this particular style to put their viewers in a character’s headspace, but the difference between those films and V/H/S/94 is that they intend to be as immersive as possible, whereas the latter draws attention to the fact that a device—that camcorder style—is being used. And, permeated with nostalgia and singularity, it makes for a more personal viewing experience.
While “The Subject” takes the integration of tape and human furthest, it isn’t the only segment of V/H/S/94 to experiment with human-machine composites. The film is bookended by segments of the FBI unearthing the tapes within the film, which belong to a mysterious cult. Although the earlier films in the franchise use a similar kind of framing device, V/H/S/94 is the only one to achieve the desired effect of placing the audience within the film. By showing us the old television sets playing cassettes with all of their static and idiosyncrasies, the film makes us aware of our own roles as viewers and places us within the film, just as the scientist’s subject steps in as the creator of her own horrifying film.
What purpose does this blend of the mind and the screen ultimately serve? For one thing, it reminds us that horror is a genre rooted in empathy. The more integrated you are into the story, the more scared you’ll be, and the more successful the film. Removing the buffer of a cameraman essentially erases our hope of comfort from the equation. When a horror movie is over, you can turn the lights on and remind yourself that it was only a film. When it transplants itself in your brain and makes you the protagonist, though—well that’s just another story altogether.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.