The arrival of the latest film in the V/H/S series was an event for Shudder fans recently, and I had the privilege of meeting with four of the filmmakers involved just a few days prior to its release. I sat down with Chloe Okuno, writer and director of the “Storm Drain” segment; Simon Barrett, director of “The Empty Wake” segment and co-writer with David Bruckner; Ryan Prows, writer and director of the “Terror” segment; and Jennifer Reeder, writer and director of the “Holy Hell” wraparound piece.
I asked the panel whether continuing a series like this came with a particular pressure for them. Jennifer answered, “For me it did, and I also came in late in the process. David Bruckner was meant to direct the wraparound, so part of this kind of machine of V/H/S/94 was like a train had left the station, and I had to kind of run and jump on it. So there was some pressure to deal with some content that already existed, the shorts that had already been shot. So normally, the thing that I’m doing has to fit in with my DNA, but this time it was kind of the reverse, which was an interesting challenge.”
Ryan added, “Just being new to the series and there being some great filmmakers and great shorts ahead of us too, it felt important to step up and be part of that great series.”
Considering this is the fourth film in the series, I was interested to know whether there was an expectation to follow any similar vein from previous films. Chloe said, “Just by virtue of the fact that we’re following in the footsteps of three other V/H/S movies with some incredible filmmakers and incredible segments, that puts a little bit of pressure to at least meet those expectations. But I don’t feel there was any particular pressure. No one sat me down and said, ‘You must do it this way.’ The beauty of these movies, for me and I assume a lot of filmmakers, is that they really let you take the reins creatively. And I think one of the reasons these movies are so special and so successful is that you have this sort of unfiltered voice of these filmmakers to do whatever insanity that they are able to conceive of.”
Simon, V/H/S alumnus, came in here: “One of the reasons I was excited to work on this project, other than being offered money, was that I actually get tons of messages from random fans asking if we were ever going to do another V/H/S film. So to a certain extent, I think that provides you with the opposite of the stress of following something up—you know going into it that there’s an appetite for this. Maybe not a huge one, but I know at least a handful of very passionate people want this film and want it to be good. And that, as a filmmaker, is really rewarding and reassuring, knowing that this thing had an audience. And Ryan made a great point about how wonderful the previous segments were, especially the ones that I worked on (he didn’t specify that, but you could tell he meant to).”
“It was in my eye,” confirmed Ryan.
“But like, regardless of that challenge,” Simon continued, “I mean there have also been some sh*tty ones, maybe my name was on some of those—it’s hard to say. It’s also just knowing that you have an audience who is willing to sit down and watch what you’re going to create. That’s maybe why people make sequels.”
I’ve met with the creator of another anthology film before, and I had a feeling that this one went through a different process. So I asked the panel how the anthology was put together: did Brad Miska and David Bruckner commission certain segments? Did the filmmakers approach them? Did the wraparound get added afterward? “In this case, the wraparound did kind of come in last,” Simon explained. “That’s unusual, at least in the case of the last two V/H/S films. For the first one, we filmed the wraparound first, before we shot anything else, and even filmed a short extra piece when we weren’t sure how many segments there would be. There’s a little clip of Kentucker Audley putting a tape in a VCR machine and then shrugging and sighing and looking at his feet, kind of in case there was another segment. So Jennifer can definitely speak to that. In the case of the first few films, it was a case of just reaching out to filmmakers we knew, and it seems that was kind of the same way. I got asked by Brad a couple of years ago, if they did another one, would I come back and do a stand-alone segment, and I said, ‘of course.’”
“For me, I got involved quite a few years ago,” said Chloe, “when David Bruckner and Brad were looking for filmmakers. I went in, pitched a few ideas, we had some meetings, and they brought me on. I think it was just that I was on it for so long that they couldn’t kick me off after that.”
So the brief from them is minimal then? “Yeah,” said Chloe. “They just said ‘V/H/S, 1994, tell us what you’ve got.’”
“Yeah, there’s no guidance in terms of subject matter or anything like that,” confirmed Simon.
But I was going to stick with Chloe for the next question. She, who brings us the remarkable (if horrible) rat-man: where on Earth did that come from? “It was honestly a few different inspirations,” she said, modestly. “It was a pretty notorious news clip that went around YouTube a few years ago about residents of Mobile, Alabama who thought they’d seen a leprechaun, which I thought was very funny. There was an urban legend I’d heard in some podcast, about a guy called the Catman of Greenock, a supposedly Russian sailor who went insane, and people spotted him on the ground, eating rats and covered in black filth. I don’t know if it’s real, but it’s one of a variety of urban legends that kind of coalesced.”
This led me on to the creature designs; as well as Chloe’s rat-man, there was another in Ryan’s piece. I asked whether they had to brief the effects teams or work from their ideas. “For me, it was very much a collaboration,” said Chloe. “I worked with a concept artist named Keith Thompson, and he came up with the concept of Raatma, the rat-man creature. Then Patrick Magee was the one who brought it to life. So, of course, I’m working with experts in their field, and the reason it’s good is that they’re involved, and they are incredible at what they do, and it was a real collaboration.”
“For my creature, I worked exclusively with Patrick Magee, and he fabricated Chloe’s, made mine as well, and designed mine,” offered Ryan. “It was really just leaning on him: what have you not done? —or what have you been excited to try out or bring? And he took that challenge and ran with it on our creature to figure out how to do it practically and as minimally as possible, while still [making] it fresh, look like something you haven’t seen before.”
Ryan had a kind of backwoods cult scenario in his segment. Surely that wasn’t going on in the ’90s? “Yeah, it was,” he grinned. “A lot of that Michigan militia stuff started in the ’80s, then ’90s. But it’s been going on for a while. I was coming up with that concept and the script in the soup and the swirl of everything that’s going on now, and obviously being set in ’94 but still reflective today. The same old story is still going, and it was interesting to me to bring that to the forefront. A lot of, like, domestic terror attacks, plans, and misplans from the ’90s onwards, a lot of those were routed in small scale militia groups or extreme-right groups.”
When I did my homework for this call, I saw V/H/S Viral described on IMDb as the “final film in the V/H/S trilogy.” I asked Simon whether he thought there would be more after this latest one. “They certainly seem reluctant to admit when the well’s run dry,” Simon said. “I suspect Brad and Josh [Goldbloom] will beat this golden goose until it squawks blood.”
Maybe just pick a different decade to write about? “I wouldn’t put anything past them and their creative bankruptcy,” said Simon.
Turning to Jennifer, I commented that this is the first V/H/S film where we have seen women contributing, and I asked whether she felt it had made a difference. “I think it’s an indication that—not just in the past several years but even prior to that—women have authored some of the most terrifying stories,” said Jennifer. “I’m always pointing out that a teenage girl created our most beloved monster. Mary Shelley was a teenager, you know, when Frankenstein was released into the world. There is a sense that horror, maybe even the V/H/S kind of horror where there’s lots of gore, isn’t the place that female writers and directors are interested in flexing, but I just don’t think that’s the case. Not only in literature, where I think women have contributed really robustly to the horror genre, but I think there have been lots of films even prior to Jennifer’s Body, which is often cited as this kind of moment that pulled lots of other women into horror. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but it did happen prior to that, too. And I do think that—and I’ve said this to the producers before, so it’s not something they don’t know—the kind of earlier V/H/S films, it’s not just who’s behind the camera, but there’s a lot of guys in front of the camera, too…it felt like a sort of bro’y world. For both of our sections, they were not just led by women behind [the camera], but we had women firmly in front of the camera too, kind of—no, very much—as final girls. I can’t speak for Chloe, but I tried to do that very consciously in the wraparound that felt like—dare I say?—feminist horror, which is the space I like to exist in. But if there is another V/H/S, don’t discount women doing dreadful things in cinema.”
Indeed! There are plenty of them out there.
A question for each of the panelists, then: do they have a favourite segment from any of the previous three films? Chloe answered first: “I feel bad because this one gets a lot of love, and deserves a lot of love, but I have to say ‘Safe Haven.’ It blew my mind when it came out. There are a lot of segments that I think are incredible, like Bruckner’s from the first one, like Radio Silence’s one. There are so many great ones, but yeah, ‘Safe Haven’ is my pick, and I feel Timo [Tjahjanto] really outdoes himself.”
Simon next: “I’ve done enough of these, so I know my answer. I’d say David Bruckner’s ‘Amateur Night,’ Radio Silence’s ‘10/31/98,’ and Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s ‘Safe Haven’: they’re pretty much the acknowledged classics. I’m going to give a shout-out to Jason Eisener’s ‘Slumber Party Alien Abduction,’ with the go-pro on the back of the dog, and the dog’s tragic arc. I think that’s extraordinary. Also, I can’t remember the name of Nacho Vigalondo’s V/H/S Viral segment, but I’m going to give it a shout-out: ‘Parallel Worlds’ [it was ‘Parallel Monsters’] was a great intro into a sci-fi horror V/H/S segment. He did sci-fi horror in a really legitimate way.”
“In V/H/S Viral, I liked Benson and Moorhead’s ‘Bonestorm,’” Ryan said, “about the skater kids; that one was fun. Maybe because Simon’s here, but I liked that one with the eye—I can never remember the title.”
“’Phase I Clinical Trials,’” Simon helped out. “We did have intentionally annoying titles for a while, but we stopped with this one.”
“I thought that one was more of an introduction to sci-fi horror for V/H/S, wasn’t it?” asked Ryan.
“You could sort of say that Joe Swanberg’s segment ‘The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger’ (which I wrote)”, said Simon, “because we were supposed to be trying to do an alien, but nobody ever understood that.”
It sounds like they all had lots of fun making these films, am I right?
“No!” answered Simon (with lots of laughter all ’round). “I really have not had any fun making these films. When we did the first one, and we were breaking into buildings, that was fun. But it’s also, like, not the kind of thing you should be doing. I’d frown upon it if anyone else was doing it. Like most things.”
“I had a good time,” said Ryan. “It was difficult but fun.”
“You were miserable, stressed out the whole time!” said Simon.
“That’s just filmmaking,” replied Ryan.
“True, that could be what I’m identifying,” acknowledged Simon.
“I had fun,” said Chloe. “We were all stressed out and miserable, but that’s the baseline, of course. I really loved my two actors: Anna Hopkins who played Holly and Christian Potenza who played our cameraman. They were both great; they were troopers, and they were hysterical. I think when your actors are really talented and incredible at this game, it just makes the process a lot of fun.”
Closing with a question about the found footage style used throughout the V/H/S series (the only anthology I know of that uses it), I asked whether my guests intend to use found footage in other films, too. “Emphatic no,” said Ryan.
“Good question. But obviously not for me,” said Simon. “Blair Witch would definitely have cured me of any desire to do anything like that again. But that’s a good question, and I want to know if anyone here wants to do found footage outside of this series ever again, too!”
“No,” again from Ryan. Chloe nearly falls off her chair, and Jennifer comes in:
“I have done something leading up to this,” she said, “maybe where a character had a camera when at some point we would see their footage. I don’t think I’d do an entire feature film with found footage, but I’d continue to incorporate it.”
V/H/S/94 is now available to stream on Shudder.