‘VHS 99’ review: Dir. Misc [Shudder Saturday]

Over the last decade the V/H/S anthology series has become a staple of horror viewing. The first film, released in 2012, wowed genre audiences. David Bruckner’s segment ‘Amateur Night’ even earned itself a spin-off feature-length movie Siren, released in 2016. The first sequel, V/H/S/2, arrived a year after the first in 2013 and was equally positively received. Then in 2014 came V/H/S: Viral, the first in the series to garner a somewhat lacklustre response. Its reception saw the series shelved. Some thought the anthology giant was dead in the water, but then last year it was resurrected. V/H/S/94 proved that there was still life in the franchise and now its follow-up, V/H/S/99, has arrived.  

Something that has always made the V/H/S movies an exciting prospect is that they are a great way to uncover new film-making talent. Since the first film, David Bruckner has gone on to direct The Ritual, The Night House, and the most recent incarnation of Hellraiser. Similarly, Viral offered an early introduction to Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson. V/H/S/99 is no exception. The bulk of the directors involved are relatively early in their careers and they have some brilliantly warped ideas of entertainment. Sitting in the director’s chairs this time around are Maggie Levin, Johannes Roberts, Flying Lotus, Tyler MacIntyre, and the duo of Vanessa and Joseph Winter.

Most anthologies, especially within the V/H/S series, have a ‘wraparound’ story, one that links all the other segments together. This time the wraparound is present, but it doesn’t fully envelop the piece. V/H/S/99 begins with an opening clip of Tyler MacIntyre’s ‘The Gawkers’. It’s a stop-motion slice of insanity, telling the bloody plight of little green army men. It elicits an immediate WTF response, but just before it can get going, the tape cuts out, static interferes and our first proper segment, ‘Shredding’, begins. 

Written and directed by Maggie Levin, ‘Shredding’ joins a group of wannabe video stars as they set out to investigate an underground nightclub that claimed the lives of riot grrrl band, Bitch Cat. Structurally, ‘Shredding’ follows a familiar found-footage horror formula, presenting a comfortable entry point into V/H/S/99. All kinds of dangers are waiting for the group in the basement club and their terror begins V/H/S/99 with a bang. 

Next, after some more army men mayhem, comes Johannes Roberts ‘Suicide Bid’. Of  V/H/S/99’s directors, Roberts is perhaps the most well known. He is the director responsible for both 47 Metres Down movies, as well as last year’s Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Roberts’ experience comes into play and ‘Suicide Bid’ is one the standouts of V/H/S/99. The story tells of an intense sorority hazing stunt during which a pledge has to spend a night buried alive, mirroring a challenge from years before that ended in tragedy. 

From its fast set-up it quickly becomes clear that history might be about to repeat itself. Just how things go awry are nail-bitingly intense. ‘Suicide Bid’ is horribly oppressive with its sense of dread. A claustrophobe and arachnaphobe’s nightmares are just two fear factors played with here. The spider work is especially uncomfortable as Roberts nails their scariest trait – how fast they can move. An anxiety inducing segment, many will struggle to breathe normally during ‘Suicide Bid’ and further exploration of this idea would be welcomed. 

After ‘Suicide Bid’ comes a tonal shift with Flying Lotus’ ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’. The longest of the stories in V/H/S/99, ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ has two distinct parts to its story. It begins on the set of a zanny nineties kids game show – think Fun House on crack and you get a general idea of the mayhem that’s in store. Hosted by a name (Steven Ogg) the climax of the competition sees two contestants battle one another and the clock in a near impossible obstacle course. The victor will win the opportunity to have their greatest wish come true. 

The second side of ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ moves away from the game show and analyses the aftermath of events from the episode we saw. Hereon in ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ gets gory and gross. There’s a lot of story crammed within the segment and the impact of certain plot beats gets diluted in places. The shifting tone, from comedy to borderline torture porn, to a character reveal to rival V/H/S/94’s Raatma, ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ has a lot to digest. 

Once ‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ has arrived at its dark conclusion, Tyler MacInytre’s ‘The Gawkers’ finally begins. The mental South Park style war story that has been punctuating the previous segments comes to an abrupt end as the camera is taken for another task. As the title would suggest, ‘The Gawkers’ is a voyeuristic tale involving a group of teenage boys that start to spy on their hot neighbour across the street. It’s a short and to-the-point segment and one that calls back to ‘Amateur Night’, though not in a direct way. The story does lack the spark of MacIntyre’s amazing Tragedy Girls, but there are enough ideas here to keep the viewer going. 

With no more wraparound left, the tape distorts until the finale segment ‘To Hell and Back’ reveals itself. The saying goes ‘save the best till last’, and that’s exactly what V/H/S/99 might have done here. Fresh off of the success of Deadstream, ‘To Hell and Back’ is written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter. Those that enjoyed Deadstream will be chomping at the bit to see what the pair have cooked up next and ‘To Hell and Back’ does not disappoint.  

As one would expect, the final story of V/H/S/99 is set on New Year’s Eve. The plot sees two video documentarians transported to Hell. Can they make it back before midnight? ‘To Hell and Back’ is fun, frantic, and hilarious. Joseph Winter once more steps in front of as well as behind the camera. The setting is everything in this final segment and the rendering of this directing duo’s Hellscape is incredible. Weird creatures populate and lurk everywhere; the vistas are straight out of a late eighties / early nineties metal album artwork. It’s incredibly complex to the point that multiple viewings are vital to explore the rich tapestry on screen. The star of the piece though, is Mabel. Played by Deadstream’s Melanie Stone, Mabel is a heightened version of Legend’s Blix; Stone’s voice is uncannily similar. As Mabel, Stone is clearly having a ball and her excitement and energy is infectious. 

Exactly the way to end a V/H/S movie, with ‘To Hell and Back’ V/H/S/99 goes out on a crowd-pleasing high. Whereas V/H/S/94 proved there was still a market for the anthology series, V/H/S/99 ensures that the audience will stick around. With a new chapter, V/H/S/85, already announced, it seems this series is back for good.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

VHS 99 is available on Shudder now.

This review was first published on THN.