Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: V/H/S/85, Mixtape Horror Anthology Improves on Its Predecessors

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: V/H/S/85, Mixtape Horror Anthology Improves on Its Predecessors

Over the last decade, six standalone entries, two unlikely spinoffs, and even a limited series, the V/H/S anthology series has functioned as an efficient delivery system for period-specific horror, extra-gnarly, gory kills, and nightmare-inducing imagery.

The series has also served as a welcome opportunity for up-and-coming or established genre filmmakers to showcase their talents, skills, and more importantly, explore their deas with genre fans on the other side of the digital screen, all with the unqualified support of do-anything-for-the-thrill production crew on the other.

As with any anthology series, though, quality has varied wildly, sometimes among and between segments or individual entries, but there’s no denying the commitment of filmmakers and cast involved with each entry. While for some that can be a frustrating experience, the latest entry, V/H/S/85, rarely dips quality-wise.

It’s filled with the usual, though never unwelcome mix, of gods, monsters (some, if not all, wearing human masks), and ordinary, soon-to-expire characters who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. The result isn’t just a uniformly positive experience for horror fans, but proof that the premise which animated the series itself, while not quite inexhaustible, hasn’t run completely dry.

By tradition, if not necessarily definition, horror anthologies, including the V/H/S series, usually contain a wraparound segment, an anchoring story that opens and closes each entry in the series. Here, however, V/H/S/85 skips the traditional wraparound altogether, instead focusing on a slightly different conceit, individual segments overlaid at periodic intervals over a faux-documentary, “Total Copy,” presumably taped from a local over-the-air-transmission.

Helmed by David Bruckner (the Hellraiser remake, The Night House, The Ritual), “Total Copy” involves a group of well-meaning scientists (aren’t they all?) who, finding a new, potentially dangerous, humanoid life-form, decide to study it under supposedly controlled conditions in a secret lab. At least initially, the life-form, dubbed “Rory” by the scientists, resembles a preteen covered in a thick gelatinous substance. It remains silent, failing to communicate with the scientists in a meaningful way, watching the same TV shows over and over again without pause.

That the experiment goes bloodily awry falls into the non-surprise vs. surprise side of the divide, but what “Total Copy” more than makes up for its inherent predictability via a creeping sense of dread, several particularly satisfying, gore-drenched moments, and a blackly humorous denouement for the scientists venturing into an area, not to mention an unknown subject, who should have been best left alone or handled under much stricter circumstances. Like practically every segment in V/H/S/85 and the decade-old series itself, the faux-TV documentary also functions as an old-school cautionary tale/morality play of the 'scientists shouldn’t play god or mess with things they don’t understand' kind.

One of the early segments, Mike P. Nelson’s (the 2021 Wrong Turn reboot) superlative “No Wake,” involves hormonal twenty-somethings ignoring a 'No Trespassing' sign to go swimming and jet-skiing on an abandoned lake. Except, of course, they're not alone. The segment takes a clever, unpredictable turn that won't be spoiled here, but it's easily one of the most memorable such turns across the decade-old series. Also directed by Nelson, the pitch-black “Ambrosia” centers on a high schooler celebrating a unique rite of passage with her extended family.

In the third segment, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s (Bingo Hell, ABCs of Death 2 1/2) more conventional, disaster genre-themed, “God of Death,” Mexican rescue workers discover something not of this earth in the newly accessible tunnels of a TV studio after an earthquake. In Natasha Kermani’s (Lucky, Imitation Girl) cosmic horror-tinged “TKNOGD,” a self-absorbed, borderline pretentious performance artist decries the end of old gods and old religions before inadvertently inviting the techno-god of the title into our world from a crudely virtual one.

In “Dreamkill,” a standout conversation starter directed by veteran director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose), from a script co-written with longtime partner C. Robert Cargill, two plainsclothes detectives receive V/H/S tapes from party or parties unknown. The tapes contain the graphic, violent depiction of several murders from the point-of-view of the killer.

Even more disturbing, the tapes show those murders days before they actually occur. An experimental, giallo-inspired cross between Michael Mann’s psychological thriller, Manhunter, and Irvin Kershner’s underappreciated The Eyes of Laura Mars, “Dreamkill” feels uncharacteristically rushed in its closing moments, a sign that it could have been easily expanded into a standalone short or even a feature-length film.

While V/H/S/85 comes full circle, concluding with “Total Copy” and final, inevitable moments of the scientists paying the price for their individual and collective hubris, the entry could have easily returned to one of the earlier ones, especially the “No Wake/Ambrosia” double segment that leaves a camper-sized opening for additional storytelling. Still. that’s a minor quibble for a bounce-back entry that delivers on its simple, straightforward promise (gore, scares, and disquieting imagery) while also doubling as a showcase for the talented filmmakers behind the commercial-grade V/H/S cameras.

V/H/S/85 enjoys its world premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. It begins streaming Friday, October 6, 2023, on Shudder.


  • David Bruckner
  • Scott Derrickson
  • Natasha Kermani
  • C. Robert Cargill
  • Zoe Cooper
  • Scott Derrickson
  • Freddy Rodríguez
  • James Ransone
  • Jordan Belfi
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C. Robert CargillDavid BrucknerFreddy RodriquezGigi Saul GuerreroJames RansoneMike P. NelsonNatasha KermaniScott DerricksonV/H/S/85Zoe CooperFreddy RodríguezJordan BelfiHorrorThriller

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