Last year’s V/H/S/94 was an unexpected and welcome return for the horror genre’s premier found footage anthology series—not that it exactly has a lot of franchise competitors—which had not seen an entry since 2014’s disappointing V/H/S: Viral seemingly killed off the concept. That film was unbalanced even by anthology standards, but the lopsidedness was clearly intentional: V/H/S/94 primarily functions as a delivery device for the astoundingly creative, gory and bonkers short “The Subject” by director Timo Tjahjanto, which dominates the entire center of the film. The overall effect was like an experiment in using an anthology as something more akin to a progressive dinner, with Tjahjanto’s entry as the obvious entrée, surrounded by a platter of smaller amuse-bouches.
Shudder’s follow-up V/H/S/99, on the other hand, is a far more conventional spin on the horror anthology formula, relatively evenly weighted with a variety of stories from the usual assembly of up-and-coming horror filmmakers. So too is the visual language and quality level of its segments more consistent. The only problem? All of those segments feel on the staid side, with none coming anywhere close the heights of past V/H/S entries, and several simultaneously feel conceptually indebted to prior installments. The feeling is one of depletion, as V/H/S/99 begins robbing past hits in a grim effort to keep itself mobile and vital.
Which is to say, it all feels on the tired and lifeless side—there’s no segment here that contains half of the audacious visual stylings of “The Subject,” or even the pure creepiness of the setting in a segment like Chloe Okuno’s “Storm Drain.” Too many of these concepts feel instantly familiar, and the segments as a whole lack even the most basic connective tissue to tie them together in a broader thematic sense, other than the obvious year at the end of the title. This is largely due to the overall absence of a framing device/overarching storyline, as was seen in previous V/H/S installments. These framing device sequences are rarely series highlights, but when employed well (as in the abandoned house setting of the original V/H/S) they can add to the creep factor of what otherwise feels like disembodied pieces of footage. In the original V/H/S, we felt like we were looking in on forbidden pieces of apocrypha, collected by a sick mind. Here, it’s more like we’re channel surfing through student film submissions.
The highlight here, at least to most viewers, is likely to be Flying Lotus’ “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” positioned in the middle of the feature as its anchor. In its opening moments, it’s immediately clear the kind of mid-’90s parody we’re engaging in here, on the set of a kids’ game show in the style of Legends of the Hidden Temple or Guts. The execution is fine, and Steven Ogg gives it his all as the obnoxious host, indifferent to the suffering of the child contestants, but it’s difficult to square the comedic nostalgia grab—better executed in something like Netflix’s underseen Saturday Morning All Star Hits!—with the second portion of the segment, which sees the kid’s family enacting grisly revenge on Ogg’s host with their own obstacle course of horrors. This gross, misanthropic turn just feels like wallowing in misery for its own sake, replete with characters constantly hacking, coughing, sputtering and phlegmy, as if a concerted effort is being made to render the story as aesthetically grimy as possible. But still, “Ozzy’s Dungeon” isn’t done, as it takes yet another stylistic turn in an over-the-top supernatural conclusion that turns into a literal facemelter, albeit one rendered so shakily that it’s hard to have anything beyond a basic idea of what is going on. Still, among the V/H/S/99 segments, this is the one taking the biggest risks, but that’s mostly by virtue of the others playing things very conventionally indeed.
Which brings us to the issue of recycled themes and gimmicks, a problem that particularly afflicts Maggie Levin’s “Shredding” and Tyler MacIntyre’s “The Gawkers.” In the former, a band of ‘90s pop-punk skater bros sneaks into the ruins of a former underground music club where a previous band died a terrible death, only to be confronted by the undead revenants of those femme rockers. At one point, the handheld camera transitions to a new source—one of the ghouls, giving us a zombie’s perspective on the subsequent killings. That’s all well and good, except for the fact that we saw something quite similar in 2013’s V/H/S/2, which attached a GoPro to the head of a cyclist-turned zombie and let us share in those undead misadventures. So it goes as well in “The Gawkers,” which to its credit very realistically captures the cadence of a bunch of horny, late ‘90s male teen idiots, as if we’re about to take a brief sojourn into the era of American Pie. But when they begin to obsess over the hot neighbor woman, anyone who has seen the original V/H/S has no choice but to wonder if another rendition of David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” might be in the offing, and … yep, it pretty much is. That segment already got a feature-length adaptation as 2016’s Siren, and it certainly didn’t need to be rendered here again—and particularly not with garishly cheap-looking CGI.
The other segments come off a little better, and are quite a bit different from one another. “Suicide Bid” is a well-executed and conventional little thriller about a sorority pledge tricked into undergoing an extreme hazing ritual, ultimately delivering the fully justified revenge the viewer will no doubt want to see. “To Hell And Back,” meanwhile, is the kookiest segment of V/H/S/99, revolving around a pair of cameramen documenting a demon summoning, who are inadvertently thrust into hell and attempt to find their way back. The concept is played as full-on horror comedy, a bit out of place among other shorts that are largely playing things straight, and its most alluring feature is the expansive sets and myriad creature effects … held back only by the fact that most of them flash by the audience’s face in a low-lit instant, never allowing the viewer to fully appreciate them.
I wondered, when V/H/S/99 was announced, whether this entry would signify the grand finale of the horror anthology franchise. The year 1999 was, after all, the close of the millennium and a good demarcation point for the end of the VHS tape era. Within a couple years, DVD sales would surpass VHS, and the format would trudge off toward obsolescence. Having covered the mid-’90s and end of the VHS era in these two entries, the series producers seemed to be calling attention to this entry as an obvious end point for the series. And these sadly uninspired results seem to suggest the potential wisdom of letting V/H/S go on its way.
But there’s money to be made, folks. Prior to the release of V/H/S/99, Shudder has already confirmed that the series will continue with … V/H/S/85, which I have to say feels rather like restarting a loop that may never really end. On the plus side, already announced directors for this next installment include the likes of Scott Derrickson and a returning David Bruckner, so perhaps the franchise can be refreshed once again by one of the creatives who first set it on its way. And hell, if someone is going to remake “Amateur Night” again, it might as well be its original director, right?
Directors: Maggie Levin, Johannes Roberts, Flying Lotus, Tyler MacIntyre, Vanessa & Joseph Winter
Starring: Verona Blue, Steven Ogg, Ally Ioannides, Sonya Eddy, Emily Sweet, Melanie Stone
Release Date: October 20, 2022 (Shudder)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.