I’ve talked a lot on this site about found-footage horror films. It’s probably my favorite subgenre of horror. I’ve also been equally vocal about my love of anthology horror films, serving up bite-sized, easily digestible chunks of spooky goodness without running the risk of boring the audience with unnecessary narrative beats.
And luckily, these two flavors of horror mix together wonderfully, working in tandem to give us, among other things, the V/H/S franchise. V/H/S is pretty much the undisputed king of the anthology, found-footage horror film, producing more regular and consistently-great content than any of its contemporaries. The first two films are modern classics, filled to the brim with oodles of creepy, gory, and gritty horror vignettes from filmmakers like Adam Wingard, Ti West, and Radio Silence who would go on to solidify themselves as bona fide industry icons. And while the third film, Viral, is easily the weakest of the original trilogy, it still has enough interesting ideas to make it worth a watch.
Last year, we looked at V/H/S 94, a quasi-reboot of the series since Viral’s release in 2014. You can read my review here, but to sum up my feelings on the collection: I wasn’t impressed. Too silly and satirical for a series that, in prior years, had mostly been horror played straight, 94 was overall too middling to come near the quality of the franchise’s first two installments, and made me slightly uneasy about the future of V/H/S.
Well, a year later, we have yet another addition to the series with V/H/S 99. Is it any better than its predecessor, and does it live up to the legacy of the films that started this seasonal mainstay?
I’d say so.
99 is, thankfully, a marked improvement over it’s two predecessors. While not every segment is a winner, the sum total of the anthology flick is a solid horror experience that reals back the zaniness of 94 and settles into a slightly more palatable buffet of spooky goodness. Set during the eve of the new millennium, V/H/S 99 takes us back to the twilight days of the 90s, and all of the questionable fashion choices that come with it. Jnco pants, flannel shirts, and dirty Converse abound in this love-letter to the edgy, grimy days of grunge and nu-metal that’ll have some of you younger millennials feeling nostalgic for days that you probably barely remember.
Our segments in this year’s installment are as follows:
- “Shredding,” written and directed by Maggie Levin, follows a group of Jackass-like teen daredevils/bandmates as they break into a supposedly haunted underground nightclub were a punk-rock group died years earlier in a grizzly fire.
- “Suicide Bid,” written and directed by Johannes Roberts, which shows the terrifying lengths some college girls are willing to go through to join a sorority.
- “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” by film collective Flying Lotus, harkens back to the days of Nickelodeon gameshows like Hidden Temple and points out just how exploitative and abusive the whole ordeal seems in hindsight.
- “The Gawkers,” by Chris Lee Hill and Tyler MacIntyre, taps into the “horny teen” era of late 90s comedy films like American Pie and delves into the consequences of what can happen when the girl being spied on isn’t quite what she seems.
- And finally “To Hell and Back,” by husband and wife duo Vanessa & Joseph Winter, captures a New Year’s summoning ritual gone horribly (and hilariously) wrong.
As is always the case with V/H/S, the individual vignettes on display are somewhat of a mixed bag in terms of quality, but for the most part, the overall vibe of the film is full of fun and some genuinely unnerving scares and gross-out moments. In a new move for the series, gone is the wrap-around frame story that intercuts in between each segment, a welcome change after the inconsequential and immersion-breaking cuts in 94 and Viral. Instead, we’re treated to a macabre little stop-motion mini-movie, almost as a palate cleanser after each short, that eventually ties directly into one of the later stories in the anthology. Overall, the lack of a framing device lends itself much more to the overall narrative of the franchise – that of mysterious, forbidden videotapes containing supernatural events captured on film – than any of the previous films in the series, as it makes the viewer finally feel as though they themselves are watching one of these dangerous home movies.
Like the films that have come before it, V/H/S 99 starts off with it’s more middling tales of terror before ramping up to the good stuff, which makes up the meat of the anthology and lingers long after the first few segments have already been long forgotten in your mind. “Shredding,” the first installment on display, is definitely the most amateurish, with sub-par acting and some admittedly cheesy effects. It’s also got perhaps the most obnoxious characters to ever feature in one of these short segments, a trend that sadly continues as a through-line in quite a few of this year’s offerings. The musical influences are interesting, and the pop-punk aesthetic certainly gives it a unique look and feel, but the narrative itself is nothing you haven’t seen before.
“Suicide Bid” is similarly as straight-forward. We’ve all seen the “sorority/fraternity hazing gone wrong” plot told before, as both horror stories as well as terrible Law & Order episodes. But what sets this particular rendition apart is its authentic sense of hopelessness and claustrophobia. If you have a fear of being buried alive, you better buckle up for this one. The ending is a bit anticlimactic, and once again the makeup effects leave something to be desired, but it’s a solid entry that certainly ramps up the tension and terror of the previous segment.
“Ozzy’s Dungeon” is perhaps my favorite of the bunch. It’s whacky and tongue-in-cheek, with clever satire on full display of the bizarre, questionable gameshow content we subjected children to in the 90s, but then veers sharply into a dark, nauseating tale of revenge and torture. All of that would be a lot to cram into a short-film format, but “Ozzy’s Dungeon” then goes a step further, by taking a sharp left turn into the insane, otherworldly subject matter that V/H/S does so well. One part Squid Game, one part Saw, and one part Wishmaster, this story might just be one of the most unique things the series has ever done, which is really saying something. Plus, you get a wonderfully sleazy performance from Steven Ogg, which is always a treat.
“The Gawkers” is an odd one. The story itself is fine, and it definitely nails the tone that it was aiming for, feeling very much like a found-footage American Pie movie for the majority of its runtime. But I can’t help but to feel that it feels completely derivative of another V/H/S segment, “Amateur Night,” that was featured all the way back in the inaugural film that launched the franchise. The two shorts have almost the exact same plot and premise, that of a couple of sex-crazed jerks using a hidden camera to spy on women who turn out to be monsters from the Greek pantheon. And “Amateur Night” is perhaps the most well-known short in the entire collection, even spawning its own feature-length spinoff, so ignorance of its existence certainly isn’t a viable excuse. I liked it well enough on its own merits, but “The Gawkers” is certainly held back by its well-worn and predictable “been there, done that” plot.
The final segment, “To Hell and Back,” is certainly the most fun short in this year’s collection. The Winters are having a fantastic month on Shudder this October, with their feature-length debut Deadstream premiering earlier to glowing reception. It’s a hilarious, gross Evil Dead send-up that mocks modern-day vlogger personalities in a clever satire of internet culture and obnoxious online egos, and all of that manic, gross-out energy likewise returns in this short. The star here, much like in Deadstream, is actress Melanie Stone, who is quickly establishing herself as Joseph Winter’s go-to weird girl. The marketing for V/H/S 99 promised this year, we’d be taking a trip to hell itself, and this is the segment that delivers. And with it, the year 1999 goes out with a suitable, gory bang.
All in all, I legitimately enjoyed V/H/S 99 throughout the entire ride. Without the tacked-on detours caused by the frame story, each individual segment really gets to shine on its own, a choice that I hope continues in future installments. The host of new and up-and-coming horror filmmakers in this year’s selection pool show real promise, and I can’t wait to see where their career’s go next. If these shorts are any indication, they all have bright futures ahead of them. And while it may not be able to achieve the same heights as the first two V/H/S films (and at this point, I’m doubting any can), 99 is enough of an improvement over the franchise’s worst that I consider it to be a worthy addition to the seemingly unkillable series, and a solid inclusion to your Halloween watchlists this year.
Any fans of V/H/S out there? What did you think of 99? Let me know in the comments!
And, as always, Happy Halloween!