V/H/S 99 – Review
Witness a hellish vision of 1999, as social isolation, analog technology and disturbing home videos fuse into a nightmare of found footage savagery.
We are taking a slight break from our ongoing Fall Themed Horror feature to bring you a review of a newer movie that is getting a bit of hype. VHS 99 (stylised as V/H/S 99) is the most recent iteration in the VHS series of found footage anthology horror movies.
The VHS series has pretty much replaced the Paranormal Activity and Saw movies as the new annual horror release. I am, sort of, okay with that as I really enjoy anthology horror. We had the release of VHS 94 around this time last year and VHS 85 is due sometime next year. It’s worth remembering, however, that many of the VHS movies have been less than stellar. I have yet to review most of them but I will get around to it. I reviewed the first VHS as part of our K-O-Ween 31 Days of Halloween feature and gave it a pretty favourable rating. The decline in the series was very apparent as the years rolled on, however.
VHS 99 was something of a surprise release given the fact that the VHS 85 name was leaked sometime last year. People were expecting that to be the next movie in the series but that wasn’t to be the case. Comprising five stories from five different directors, VHS 99 represents something of a return to the quality of the first movie. With that being said, let’s take a look. As always, I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown of the movie which you can skip if you like.
VHS 99 – Shredding
Written and directed by Maggie Levin, Shredding follows Punk rock band R.A.C.K (it’s an acronym for the band member’s names – Rachel, Ankur, Chris and Kaleb). The four members spend much of their time taking part in pranks and filming themselves ala Jackass. The band decide to take a trip to Colony Underground, a music venue that was the scene of a fatal fire some time ago. A “punk” band (a clip of them playing suggests they were about as punk as Paramore) called Bitch Cat were performing at the venue when the fire started. The crowd, in a mad rush, managed to trample the band killing all four members.
Rachel, Kaleb, and Chris are enthusiastic about visiting the spot where the band were killed but Ankur is worried. He informs the band about the Bhuta and how they possess the bodies of anyone who defiles the resting spot of the dead. Ignoring his warnings, the band proceed to check the location out.
VHS 99 – Suicide Bid
Written and directed by Johannes Roberts, Suicide Bid follows the story of Lily, played by Ally Ioannides, as she attempts to join the prestigious sorority Beta Sigma Eta. Desperate to join, Lily doesn’t apply to any other sororities making this a so-called suicide bid. Despite the risk, Lily receives a reply and is given a chance by a group of girls from the sorority. Ecstatic at the opportunity, Lily is invited on a night out with the sisters. The group ply Lily with alcohol and then take her to a nearby cemetery. There, they tell her of the legend of Giltine that took place 20 years earlier.
Giltine was, similarly, a hopeful Beta Sigma Eta applicant. She was offered the opportunity to join if she could spend an entire night in a coffin. The group performing the haze forgot about her, however, and she was left for a week underground. When the girls returned, they found the coffin empty and it was assumed Giltine crawled to the underworld. Lily now has to complete the same task as Giltine and spend the night in a coffin. There is a bell she can ring if she wants to leave and the girls give her a box to open when she is most afraid. Reluctant, Lily agrees and gets in the coffin to be buried.
VHS 99 – Ozzy’s Dungeon
Written and directed by Flying Lotus, Ozzy’s Dungeon is a kids game show presented by a smarmy host played by Steven Ogg. The aim of the show is to play through a series of physical challenges before taking part in a gruelling obstacle course. The winner of the show gets to meet Ozzy who will grant them their greatest wish.
Contestant Donna, played by Amelia Ann, is undefeated on the show. Her wish is to help her family escape the poverty stricken life they lead in Detroit. Her entire family is there to support her and she easily makes it to the final. During the obstacle course, Donna traps her leg tearing it in half at the knee. Unwilling to stop the show so that she could get help, the host dooms Donna to a life of permanent disablement. Donna’s mother Debra, played by Sonya Eddy, dismayed at what has happened, will not settle until she has revenge.
VHS 99 – The Gawkers
Directed by Tyler MacIntyre, The Gawkers takes place, in part, between the previous three segments before culminating in a full story. Brady is using his brother’s camcorder to film stop motion videos of his toy soldiers. His brother, Dylan, bursts into the room to take his camera back. Dylan uses the camera to film himself posing before taking it to the skatepark to record him and his friends performing tricks. Later on, the boys try to use the camera to film up a girl’s skirt.
The boys are watching out of Dylan’s bedroom window one day when they notice the neighbour across the street cleaning her car. She is a blonde haired woman and the boys are immediately captivated. They attempt to film the woman through the window as she undresses for a shower but are foiled when she closes the curtains. The next day, again filming the woman out of the window, the group notice Dylan’s brother Brady skating outside her house. She invites him in and the boys are stunned. They ask Brady, when he gets back, how he knows her. He tells them he is going to install a webcam for her later. The group encourage Brady to install spyware on the computer so that they can watch her undress on webcam. When the camera switches on, however, the group get more than they bargained for.
VHS 99 – To Hell and Back
Written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter, To Hell and Back follows the story of Nate and Troy as they film a group of people on New Year’s Eve 1999. It becomes apparent that the group are actually a coven of witches. They are attempting to use their friend as a vessel for the demon Ukabon. The pair are instructed to begin filming despite the witches not actually planning to summon the demon until the stroke of midnight when the veil between earth and hell is at its weakest.
As the ritual begins, a demon called Ferkus disrupts the ceremony. Apparently this has happened before and the group are prepared. They send Ferkus back to hell but, on his way back, he grabs on to Troy and Nate and takes them with him. The pair, seemingly aware of what has happened, realise they are in hell and that they only have a small amount of time to get back to earth. They plan to hitch a ride on Ukabon as he is summoned in so have eight minutes to find him.
VHS 99 is, as most of you probably know, an anthology horror movie featuring five distinctly different styles. Whereas the first VHS had a couple of stories that were slightly similar in theme, the subsequent movies have all seemed to feature stories that are fairly unique. The frat boy style stuff has been pushed to the back to widen the scope of the shorts and there is more variety. VHS 99 keeps this trend up while removing the needless joining story from previous iterations.
I think it is fair to say that the bridging story was, often, the weakest of the bunch. They rarely feel as though they have much point and they almost never tie into the other stories. This typically leads to a sense of disconnection and redundancy. Getting rid of the connecting story is, in my opinion, a big improvement. That doesn’t, however, mean that one story leads into another with no break in the way some other anthology horror movies do. In between the first three shorts we see clips from the stop motion movie Brady is making in the fourth. They are short, comical, and never interrupt the flow. It’s an interesting way of doing things and fairly enjoyable.
An Overriding Theme
Many horror anthologies feature a common theme. ABC’s of Death, for example, focuses on different ways to die. Holidays is centred around holiday events etc etc. Given that anthology movies are basically presenting us with a collection of shorts, it can help to have some cohesion. It doesn’t matter if each of the segments is completely different as long as they all follow something of a basic outline.
The only common theme with the VHS movies is the fact that they are presented as if filmed or recorded on VHS tapes. VHS 99 actually features a few scenes that are far better quality than what a VHS tape could provide. These are mainly isolated to the first segment but are fairly jarring. It also features a couple of parts that are designed to look like a TV show much like Noroi: The Curse did. It feels as though the camcorder theme is taking something of a back seat though I imagine it will be back in VHS 85.
Always a Mixed Bag
This is pretty much exactly what the VHS movies do and always have done. They have a few bad segments and some half decent ones. Naturally you expect some variation in quality. A big part of the problem with the VHS series, however, is that most of the segments are below average. VHS 99, in my opinion, manages to balance things up a little better than some of the other movies. In fact, I would say it is probably more positive than negative. That doesn’t mean that the movie is incredible, however. Positive here means they are more of a 6 out of 10 than a 4. With this in mind, however, a 6 out of 10 is pretty good for VHS.
One of the segments is absolutely awful. Unfortunately, it is the segment that the movie starts off with and had me rolling my eyes pretty hard. I was not filled with hope for the rest of the movie but, luckily, it picked up almost straight away. There are a couple of segments that will likely divide people a bit. They are a little slow paced and a bit less interesting. There are at least two segments that I would consider to be decent, however, so that is a win.
The fact that the segments don’t actually last that long is part of what makes movies like VHS 99 palatable. With a runtime of 109 minutes, segments last around 25 minutes. This means that even if a segment is bad you only have to wait a short while to get onto the next one. So which are good, which are average and which are bad? Let’s get the bad ones out of the way first.
The Bad and The Average
Kicking things off, Shredding is fucking awful. Directed by Maggie Levin who has assistant director credits on The Black Phone, this is a toe curling, awkward mess. Poorly paced and lampooning “90’s stuff” like Jackass with a group of extremely poorly acted and totally unlikeable characters. This misses on every shot. Unfunny and completely lacking the feeling of 90’s style media, the bands feel unauthentic. It doesn’t help that the two characters with the most screen time, Chris and Rachel, are also the worst actors in the entire film.
Scenes featuring the band Bitch Cat are absolutely terrible. My fiancée remarked that it is like someone made a segment purely to promote their crappy pop punk band and I totally agree. Things only get worse when we get to the “scares” and the awful practical effects take over. This was probably my least favourite segment in the entire series.
Suicide Bid is a fairly average segment. The story is somewhat interesting and I enjoy the use of being buried alive as a horror theme. The coffin doesn’t really feel quite claustrophobic enough and the practical effects are complete dog shit. If someone told me there was the use of a cheap Halloween mask involved I would have believed them.
Ozzy’s Dungeon is pretty decent. It really made me laugh and did a good job of capturing the almost sadistic nature of 90s kids game shows. Acting is great throughout and Brenda is particularly fun. I imagine this segment will divide a few people as it is a little strange. Much of the story is played for laughs and it feels a bit out of place. It is a lot of fun, however, and goes to some weird places.
The Gawkers was a real throwback to the sort of frat boy stuff of the original VHS. Featuring a bunch of horny teens, this segment was both funny and had a nice twist. On the contrary to Shredding, the cast here is actually likeable and the 90’s feel is captured perfectly. It’s a fun piece of comedy horror that is easily digestible.
To Hell and Back might be the best segment in the movie. Featuring fantastic chemistry between Archelaus Crisanto and Joseph Winter as Nate and Troy, it’s funny, interesting, has a nice ending twist and offers up a horribly grim, fairly unique, depiction of hell that stands out for how bleak it is.
A Rushed Production
The VHS movies have been premiering on the horror streaming platform Shudder for the past few years. I don’t know about the US but in the UK Shudder is, frankly, pretty garbage. Yes the, honestly quite suspicious, reddit threads raving about some of the terrible movies on there may have you believe otherwise. In reality, however, any discerning horror fan has seen most of what Shudder has to offer many times over and the catalogue has very few hidden gems. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the VHS movies grab a fair few views when they release. There is fuck all else to watch on there so what else can you do?
After the success of VHS 94, which was okay I suppose, the producers got straight to work on VHS 99. This film was knocked out in only 5 months and it shows. There is a distinct lack of big name segments and none stand out for their potential to become full movies. It’s all a bit half baked and noteworthy for how rushed it feels. Although previous VHS movies had similar segment lengths, the majority felt like short movies. VHS 99’s segments would feel low budget even for the Tales From the Crypt TV series.
A Much Smaller Scale
Everything here feels like it is on a much smaller scale. There are no big stories featuring a large number of actors, varied sets, and tons of props. These shorts all seem as though they have been filmed in the director’s house and thrown out with the remaining props the crews had lying around. The locations are, generally, uninteresting and everything feels as though it has been put out in a hurry. The only segment that stands out for being a bit more fleshed out is To Hell and Back which features an interesting set and some decent makeup.
The Gawkers despite the simplicity of the setting, is fine taking place in a suburban neighbourhood, given the theme. Shredding’s set is dull and uninspired, The Suicide Bid feels like they rented 20 square feet of a cemetery and filmed the rest in a box. Even Ozzy’s Dungeon is somewhat let down by its small, cramped, set and lack of extras to play audience members. This feels like VHS lite. I can only imagine time demands are second only to money constraints as these movies are no longer likely to make a significant profit.
VHS 99 has had a bit of a funny response. Critically, many view it as a return to form for the series. I have to question this as I am not sure the VHS series ever had anything resembling form in the past. They are okay but certainly not great. User reviews on IMDB, however, are absolutely panning the movie. Many are regarding it as one of the worst in the series. I definitely don’t agree with that sentiment.
I can, however, see where people are coming from. VHS 99 doesn’t feel as big or significant as previous VHS movies. It feels cheaper and the segments are just not that well developed. I think one thing VHS 99 does right, however, that other VHS movies don’t is in capturing that feeling of a small group of people making a horror short. It feels like the directors didn’t have a ton to work with and they needed to be innovative. It feels very DIY and that is what these movies are supposed to be about. I really like that and it deserves mention. With regards to review scores, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Is it a Knockout?
V/H/S 99 is, like many horror anthologies, a bit of a mixed bag. The first story is terrible but the subsequent segments pick up culminating in a couple of pretty decent shorts that are fun and enjoyable. Acting throughout is generally mixed ranging from decent to awful. Camera work doesn't manage to maintain the consistent theme of late 90s media but it does the job for the most part.
Obviously rushed out with only a 5 month production time, the lack of time invested shows. VHS 99 feels much smaller in scale than any previous VHS movie. Segments have a distinctly low budget feeling to them with sets and locations being less impressive compared to previous iterations. Still, the short segments are easily digestible and the movie is still quite fun. A decent watch that doesn't demand too much from a viewer. In return, don't go into it expecting too much.