The “V/H/S” franchise was already on death’s door by the time Shudder resurrected it as an annual streaming event in 2021. So it would be inaccurate to blame the warmed-over familiarity of its sixth installment on the fact that Bloody Disgusting has to churn out another feature-length omnibus every October — especially because the freshest and most satisfying of the five shorts that make up “V/H/S/85” comes from series producer David Bruckner, who should be more burned out on the concept than anyone else at this point. Nevertheless, the “Now That’s What I Call Found Footage!”-ification of these horror anthologies has inevitably confronted them with a degree of saminess, an ironic symptom of a process that leaves precious little time for quality control. 

To a certain extent, it’s true that such unpredictability — in terms of tone, subject, and skill level alike — might be more a feature than a bug in a franchise modeled on the folkloric experience of watching a mysterious tape full of half-erased nightmare fuel no one was ever supposed to see. And while it’s the nature of anthologies that some parts will be stronger than others, such variance has never posed a particularly grave threat to the vibe-forward “V/H/S” franchise, which doesn’t rely on consistency so much as a video nasty-like sense of danger. 

The trouble is that when any of the episodes fall short of that spirit, a “V/H/S” movie can start to seem less like a low-stakes playground for elite and emerging horror directors to have some ugly fun, and more like a minimum-security prison for random filmmakers willing to shoot the first idea that went through their heads. This franchise depends on a cohesive sense of identity, even if that identity is no more complicated than “look at all this scuzzy faux-underground shit bound together by a go-for-broke wraparound story.”

In that light, the series’ latest installment should’ve been a slam-dunk, as the mid-’80s were such a distinct and formative time for genre filmmaking that horror directors have been in its thrall ever since. Truth be told, the only thing stranger than the “V/H/S” franchise waiting six movies to revisit the ’80s is how little it does with the decade when it finally goes there; aside from a handful of scattered moments and an errant joke about Beta tapes, the five shorts that factor into “V/H/S/85” — the average quality of which is higher than in either of the other Shudder-era sequels — could be set pretty much whenever.

The biggest exception to that rule is ultimately Bruckner’s wraparound story, a Panos Cosmatos-coded mockumentary about a team of university scientists who discover a shapeshifting humanoid lifeform who first appears in the form of a little boy they name Rory and keep locked up in a lab with nothing but a TV to teach him about the ways of our world. It’s unclear whether the footage that comprises the rest of “V/H/S/85” is what the Rory creature is watching, but that’s to be expected from a series that has never been overly concerned with providing a logical explanation for its conceit.  

The rest of the shorts are interspersed between our check-ins with Rory, some of them much shorter than others. The first one, written and directed by Mike P. Nelson (2021’s “Wrong Turn”), is actually a two-parter, and also the most frustratingly abbreviated episode here. A visceral and disturbing slow-burn that proves almost too effective for its own good (insofar as its gun-based ultra-violence feels discomfitingly real before the story makes an inevitable pivot toward the supernatural), “No Wake” begins as a typical camcorder vacation to a lake somewhere before its characters are exploded by an unseen sniper. Exploded… but still alive somehow, and eager for revenge. Grounded, gory as hell, and told without a wink of irony until “V/H/S/85” doubles back for the second half of the story an hour later, “No Wake” reaffirms Nelson’s horror bonafides even as its unsatisfyingly abrupt conclusion reaffirms that this franchise is only so interested in fleshing them out.

On the flipside, “Bingo Hell” director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “God of Death” goes on far too long for a found-footage short that always feels like it’s one big idea shy of being something short. It starts when a Mexican news broadcast is interrupted by a massive earthquake, and the cameraman naturally keeps rolling — à la “Rec” — as the ground caves and rescue workers find themselves sifting through the Aztec-era catacombs hiding beneath the station. Shock of all shocks: Something else was hiding down there too, and it’s very happy to have some new victims. 

“Imitation Girl” director Natasha Kermani follows that up with the more succinct but similarly undercooked “TKNOGD,” which we can only hope is also the name of Harmony Korine’s nextmedia venture. Framed as a piece of anti-technology performance art airing on public access, Kermani’s short has more fun messing with form than anything else in “V/H/S/85.” But the playfulness of its spirit is neutralized by the simplicity of its plot: The woman onstage wears a VR helmet in order to confront and humiliate the nonexistent “god of technology,” only to find the devil of technology waiting for her instead. While the concept seems vaguely connected to computer-age cautionary tales like “Wargames,” the execution cleaves much closer to “The Lawnmower Man,” and the resultant silliness proves stultifying in the middle of a horror anthology in desperate need of some good scares.

“The Black Phone” director Scott Derrickson, probably the most high-profile of the filmmakers who contributed to this project, does what he can to inject some dread back into the mix. Humorless, gnarly, and full of hardcore butcherings that don’t feel the least bit cartoonish until the short’s dying minutes, “Dreamkill” assumes the form of an Aurora, Colorado police investigation into a series of tapes anonymously mailed to the sheriff’s office, all containing footage of murders yet to happen. The tapes are treated like a hoax until, of course, the murders take place exactly as they were depicted onscreen. I don’t want spoil anything more about a short that tries to smuggle two hours’ worth of story into its 20-minute running time (give or take), so let’s just say that “Dreamkill” gets too bogged down by cop drama to sustain its amusingly clever look at home video technology’s impact on our relationship to recorded images. It’s the only short in “V/H/S/85” that feels like it should’ve been a feature. 

This brings us back to our good pal Rory, and a wraparound story that — much like its star — knows exactly what form it should take, and reveals its true intentions with a sinister patience befitting its ultimate punchline. Thanks to some exquisitely larval effects work (think: fleshy, gooey, full-body sacs), we’re already skeptical of Rory by the time he starts transforming into one of the scientists studying him, which doesn’t seem to be a “Thing”-like preview of how it plans to take over the world so much as an alien trolling one of its captors into an existential crisis. If Rory’s true form turns out to be far more frightening than human mimicry, what the creature does after becoming itself only reconfirms the underlying cheekiness of Bruckner’s concept. 

As much as I might wish that “V/H/S/85” found a way back to the go-for-broke freakouts that once defined its franchise (“Safe Haven” from “V/H/S/2” remains an obvious standout, but the original film’s climactic “10/31/98” best epitomizes how these anthologies can snowball into something bigger than the sum of their parts), it’s satisfying enough that Bruckner’s piece so perfectly understands the role it plays in this sequel, and — like Rory — forms itself accordingly. If only the rest of the shorts here were so eager to assume an identity of their own. 

Grade: C

“V/H/S/85” is now available to stream on Shudder.

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