Five supernatural tales, all taking place in 1999, are told through found-footage videotape.
The fifth V/H/S movie, released almost exactly 10 years after the original, follows much the same structure as its predecessors. It’s an anthology of short horror tales supposedly found on VHS tapes, but here it lacks a linking premise to explain why these particular tapes have been found together.
Instead, between segments we’re treated to short interludes in which Brady (a character from the fourth story “The Gawkers”, played by Ethan Pogue) manipulates a collection of cheap plastic toy soldiers for the camera, reenacting war movie clichés and consigning several of them to grisly fates. These are witty and imaginative, and quite possibly the best bits of V/H/S/99, a film that’ll just about satisfy franchise fans looking for more of the same but disappoint or bore anyone seeking true horror or originality.
Its problems are twofold and boil down to the ways in which the franchise’s requirements imprison the filmmakers. First, the narratives are too similar and over-reliant on the same kind of horror. Every one of them begins with a more or less realistic vignette from late 1990s life (although “Ozzy’s Dungeon” is less grounded in reality than the others); every one of them eventually introduces one or more ghosts, monsters, or demons; and they all start to fall away in quality and interest from precisely that point, where the sometimes sharp observation and smart writing of the non-supernatural scenes are abandoned in favour of unscary scares.
The second problem is stylistic. Though the found footage concept is central to the V/H/S franchise, there’s no reason for most of these stories to be told in that format at all (except as an excuse for low production values, perhaps), especially in the absence of an overarching premise. Its stylistic hallmarks—incoherence, camera wobbles, intermittent flickers, key developments only glimpsed—are now so familiar they add little value, to the point that if the narrative is inherently interesting they tend to be frustrating rather than intriguing.
And one can almost feel the directors pushing against it here. In several cases, the notion that a V/H/S/99 story consists of edited-together tape filmed by the participants isn’t entirely credible (who exactly is filming the last scenes of “Suicide Bid”, for example?). Only in “The Gawkers” is the act of filming fundamental to what happens, as others could just as effectively be presented in conventional fashion and might have benefitted from it.
‘Not bad until the ridiculous monster‘, I wrote in my notebook as one of the five stories ended, and that pretty much sums up the entire movie. It might be heresy to V/H/S aficionados, but it’s difficult to escape the suspicion that V/H/S/99 would have been a better film if it wasn’t so pointlessly bound to the found footage style and repetitive plot formula. Of course, it wouldn’t have been a V/H/S movie then, but the undoubtedly talented directors and writers here deserve a more flexible showcase.
A group of young punk musicians decides to make a recording at an abandoned nightclub, where the members of another band died in a fire a few years earlier…
Maggie Levin (Second Unit Director on 2021’s The Black Phone) kicks off V/H/S/99 with plenty of energy, outlines her four young musician characters well—Ankur (Keanush Tafreshi) is especially good as the butt of the others’ tricks—and builds atmospheric dread in the darkness of the burned-out club. An unexplained shrine, an annotated book, and cuts to the demo tape of the dead band all heighten suspense, and there is one amusingly ghoulish moment. It may work to the story’s advantage that it’s too dark to see much, given the cheesy appearance of the rockers from beyond the grave who inevitably show up, but “Shredding” is much stronger while the horrors are merely hinted at.
A girl desperate to join a college sorority accepts their hazing challenge: spending a night in a coffin…
Johannes Roberts is the closest thing to a “name” director for V/H/S/99, with Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (2021), the surprisingly excellent The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), and the workmanlike 47 Meters Down (2017) among his credits. Unsurprisingly, then, “Suicide Bid” is one of the more polished entries in V/H/S/99, with a well-defined storyline where the stakes and risks at any given point are clear. Ally Ioannides as Lily—the entombed sorority wannabe, and the only character of individual importance—illustrates well the conflict between her fear and her determination to complete the test, and there are a couple of well-judged surprises. Again, though, the full-on horror of the conclusion works against the earlier psychological horror, rather than heightening it.
The host of a children’s game show is kidnapped by a contestant’s family…
“Ozzy’s Dungeon” pays less attention to realism than any of the other sections. The titular game show (with its climactic race through a giant human digestive system), its heartlessly leering host (Steven Ogg in fine form), and an unfortunate participant’s mother (Sonya Eddy, seemingly straight from a John Waters movie) are all far too grotesque to be true. As a result, the final gross-out fits more persuasively with the rest of the story than in some of V/H/S/99’s segments, but even so, the real horror here comes first from the game show itself and then from the ghastly reenactment of it by the family. “Ozzy’s Dungeon” also boasts the single best line in the film (“you L.A. showbiz motherfuckers make my goddamn pussy drier than the Sahary desert!”), and though wildly OTT, this segment has more truly discomfiting moments than the rest of the movie put together.
A group of adolescent boys start spying on their beautiful neighbour, and find out more about her than they’d bargained for…
You’ll see the twist in “The Gawkers” miles off, but this segment is easy to like, not least for its convincingly sniggering, bickering, goofing-off teenagers, its period detail (remember the lurid colours of Apple’s desktop computers?), and the sheer cheekiness of dragging a monster from classical mythology into contemporary suburbia. It’s also “The Gawkers” alone among V/H/S/99’s segments that tie in with the toy soldier interludes, although they don’t seem to have any more meaningful relevance than acting as fillers.
On the eve of Y2K, a middle-class coven’s ritual works all too well in opening the door to Hell…
“To Hell and Back” starts wonderfully, fusing mundane chitchat with preparations for the summoning of a demon to very funny effect. It’s credible in found-footage terms too (a couple of videographers have been hired to record the ritual), it makes more of the specific year 1999 than any of the other segments, and once the action reaches the underworld, the appealing sense of humour is maintained—“To Hell and Back” is certainly aware of its own absurdity.
It does perhaps spend too long in Hades and not long enough on this mortal plane, although the old-fashioned language of the infernal denizen Mabel (Melanie Stone)—presumably a woman sent to Hell long ago—makes her one of the most memorable characters from a movie which, as a whole, offers little that’s special enough to remember.
USA | 2022 | 109 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
directors: “Shredding”: Maggie Levin. “Suicide Bid”: Johannes Roberts. “Ozzy’s Dungeon”: Steven ‘Flying Lotus’ Ellison. “The Gawkers”: Tyler MacIntyre. “To Hell and Back”: Joseph Winter & Vanessa Winter.
writers: “Shredding”: Maggie Levin. “Suicide Bid”: Johannes Roberts. “Ozzy’s Dungeon”: Zoe Cooper & Flying Lotus. “The Gawkers”: Chris Lee Hill & Tyler MacIntyre. “To Hell and Back”: Joseph Winter & Vanessa Winter.
starring: “Shredding”: Jesse LaTourette, Keanush Tafreshi, Dashiell Derrickson & Jackson Kelly. “Suicide Bid”: Ally Ioannides. “Ozzy’s Dungeon”: Steven Ogg, Sonya Eddy & Amelia Ann. “The Gawkers”: Luke Mullen, Ethan Pogue, Cree Kawa, Tyler Lofton & Duncan Anderson. “To Hell and Back”: Archelaus Crisanto, Joseph Winter & Melanie Stone.