In many ways, the horror anthology film series V/H/S has had some of the most perceptive insights about Generation X and Millennials, and the obsessions with self and technology that ultimately led to our current digital era. Frequently focusing on the nihilism, anger, sarcasm, and angst of Gen X and Millennials, the V/H/S films document the kind of people who would have such success filming themselves hurt or scare other people (prank shows like Jackass and Punk’d come to mind), or sit and watch people like themselves sit around and do nothing in The Real World.
Following the massive success of V/H/S/94 in 2021, which broke viewership records for Shudder, the horror streaming service jumped to make a follow-up. Within barely one year, V/H/S/99 has now come to our screens, and V/H/S/85 will premiere next September. If this seems rushed, consider that the first three films in the franchise were released in consecutive years beginning in 2012, and that run still produced two great entries (with the original and especially its sequel). Then again, it burnt out with the dismal V/H/S: Viral in 2014, ending any new ideas for seven years.
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V/H/S/99 is neither as brilliant as V/H/S/94 nor as terrible as V/H/S: Viral, but instead a well-edited but inconsistent omnibus where no segment is an outright failure, but only one is a debatable masterpiece. Unlike most hit-and-miss anthologies, the hits in V/H/S/99 contain misses and the misses contain hits; weak segments still have some good jump scares, great set design, and morbid practical effects, and strong segments still sometimes suffer from pacing issues and poor acting. The result is a slightly above-average movie that should please fans of the franchise (though should by no means be an introduction to it), and one that is often more interesting for its cultural commentary than for its scares.
V/H/S/99 – RACK
Unlike other V/H/S films, there is no real framing device to V/H/S/99, save for a few funny little skits of someone repeatedly playing with toy soldiers and action figures, like a proto-Robot Chicken. Instead, the film leans heavily into the distortion, white noise, and warped feedback of analog technology, skittering about between segments. The makers of the V/H/S films know that there’s something inherently creepy about old, damaged videotapes, and milk every morsel of disturbance they can from that in the editing of V/H/S/99.
The first real film is called RACK, which follows the titular band, a kind of lame pop-punk group of skaters and sarcastic pranksters. Like most of the filmmakers here, writer/director Maggie Levin really nails the attitude and aesthetics of the late ’90s, where anti-conformity became corporatized into a new kind of conformity. Kids bought oxymoronic T-shirts emblazoned with Che Guevara’s face and Hot Topic catered to the ‘rebels’ all while trading stocks on the NASDAQ.
The obnoxious brats who make up RACK film themselves skating, pranking, and playing music that makes Blink-182 sound intelligent. They decide to venture into an abandoned structure where a riot grrrl band used to play live shows before dying horrible deaths. It’s completely obvious what’s going to happen next, and not very fun, but the set design, editing, and make-up is enjoyable enough.
RACK is a generally weak start to V/H/S/99, but does signal that the film is dedicated to authentically depicting 1999 and the movements in western culture which led to the present day, in which something (a concert, a vacation, a meal) must be photographed or filmed in order to feel real.
V/H/S/99 – Suicide Bid
The next installment continues the form and content, not just with its grimy visuals but the equally dirty feeling of watching really awful, spoiled young people do terrible things. Suicide Bid gets literally dirty as a woman is buried alive as part of a bogus college hazing ritual for the kind of sorority that should only exist in slasher movies. With her cross and thankful, kind demeanor, college freshman Lily just wants to be popular, and will literally risk her life to do so. Unfortunately, in the late ’90s (as in most eras), the cool kids are usually scumbags.
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The older college girls bury Lily alive, but not before telling her about the horrible fate of one victim of the same sorority rush ritual who was left in a coffin to die; her ghost haunts the cemetery, according to the giggling gaggle of heartless sorority members. What transpires is a claustrophobic film segment with some surprisingly excellent jump scares and a generally doom-laden atmosphere. It’s not the most logical or well-acted segment, but it’s effectively morbid and well-executed. Viewers may need a cold shower to wash off how it makes them feel, though.
V/H/S/99 – Ozzy’s Dungeon
The great musician Flying Lotus directs what may be the best installment in the film with Ozzy’s Dungeon, though that will surely be debated. Flying Lotus (or Steven Ellison) is the kind of visionary the world deserves, having made perhaps the most disgusting film in history with the nightmarish head trip Kuso; his style is part Tim and Eric, part Cannibal Holocaust. Initially spoofing those awkward competition shows on Nickelodeon in the ’90s like Legends of the Hidden Temple and Guts, FlyLo’s segment follows a game show where kids compete to make their wishes come true.
It’s surreal and not a little menacing, with creepy innuendos and references that suggest a dark fate for the children, made all the more unsettling by an applauding studio audience and the loquaciously annoying game show host who is somehow nefarious and ridiculous simultaneously. What’s so brilliant about Ozzy’s Dungeon, beyond its pitch-perfect direction, is how it harnesses the power of suggestion, revealing enough to create a coherent narrative but concealing enough to make it deeply unsettling.
Things get violent, ghastly, sickening, and very weird throughout this fever dream of a film, which works on nearly all levels. The visual aesthetic is perfect, even when it switches gears twice; the acting is great and surreal (especially a phenomenal, unforgettable Sonya Eddy as one contestant’s mother); the tone is diabolically twisted with a sick sense of humor; the ending is mysterious, haunting, and apocalyptic without being too depressing. Though some will obviously disagree, Ozzy’s Dungeon is the nasty little masterpiece at the heart of V/H/S/99, a meaty bit of perfection in the middle of a horror sandwich.
V/H/S/99 – The Gawkers
The extremely loose framing device of toy soldiers and action figures gets interrupted here, revealing that a young computer whiz was having fun with his brother’s camcorder. That brother snatches it back for the next segment, The Gawkers, so that he and his bored buddies can use it to film themselves and spy on women. They become fixated on a new neighbor across the street from their house, a woman living on her own who has a tendency to suggestively wash her car on a seemingly daily basis.
That’s essentially the whole plot of The Gawkers, which is undoubtedly the least frightening and most uninteresting segment in the entire omnibus. The approximately 80 seconds of horror at the end feels obvious and has embarrassing weak CGI, which proves why the practical effects so often used in V/H/S are vastly superior (and almost always are, at least in the absence of multiple millions of dollars).
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The Gawkers isn’t necessarily a failure, though. Director Taylor MacIntyre continues to display the talent she has with actors and her knack for exploring darkly comic but emotionally complicated psychologies, which were used to great effect in The Tragedy Girls and Patchwork. The ensemble cast of teenage boys are wonderfully naturalistic and often fun here, as dumb and single-minded as the characters may be. They nostalgically reflect an important moment in the late ’90s, with its premonitions of internet culture, and stand on the cusp of the dying days of a ‘normal’ coming-of-age.
Soon into the new millennium, easily accessible pornography would forever change the childhoods and adolescence of boys; instead of going out into the world, huddling together to catch a glimpse at some skin, kids would soon be isolated in front of their individual computers, able to watch whatever they’d like. As such, there’s a kind of reminiscent joy to The Gawkers, but also, with its talk of webcams and Y2K, a prophetic sensibility that points toward the digitalization of sex (and everything else). It’s a testament to even the weakest segment in V/H/S/99, there’s still some fun to be had and a thoughtful conversation to engage with.
V/H/S/99 – To Hell and Back
Completely dropping any thin pretense of a framing device after The Gawkers, the film moves straight into the final segment, To Hell and Back, an enthusiastically stupid but entertaining closer. In it, two videographers are hired to chronicle a Satanic ritual by a coven of suburban witches who are attempting to summon a demon at the turn of the 21st century on New Year’s Eve. The bumbling pair of amateur filmmakers accidentally get dragged down to hell during the ritual, having to scurry around the netherworld in search of escape while there’s still time.
Self-aware and silly while still containing some imaginatively gruesome makeup and effects, To Hell and Back has a lot of fun with its two oafish protagonists and the demon who helps them escape (a delightful Melanie Stone, who also killed it in another recent found footage film, Deadstream, also directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter). The denizens of hell are inventively designed, and the set is gorgeous, like some ancient catacombs littered with twisting stalagmites (and bear traps). While there’s little logic here, and the conclusion is a bit unnecessary and mean-spirited, it’s a fun trip.
V/H/S/99 Captures the Interludes of ’90s Youth
Ultimately, V/H/S/99 isn’t in the top two or three films of this franchise, but it’s certainly not the worst. It has a few great jump scares and excellent practical effects scattered throughout, and Ozzy’s Dungeon is golden. The whole film capitalizes on cultural currency, giving a peek into the amoral, cynical, and self-obsessed generations which would lead to today’s Zoomers and Doomers. It glimpses the wasted days of disaffected youth in an era where rebelling against everything, even happiness itself, seemed cool.
Douglas Coupland, the poet of Generation X, wrote in Life After God, “When you’re young, you always feel that life hasn’t yet begun — that ‘life’ is always scheduled to begin next week, next month, next year, after the holidays — whenever. But then suddenly you’re old, and the scheduled life didn’t arrive. You find yourself asking, ‘Well then, exactly what was it I was having — that interlude — the scrambly madness — all that time I had before?” V/H/S/99 is good, not great, though it’s excellent at depicting the interlude.
Produced by Bloody Disgusting, Cinepocalypse Productions, Radio Silence Productions, and Studio71, V/H/S/99 will be streaming on Shudder beginning on October 20, 2022.