Despite clear talent being present, the uneven V/H/S/99 delves into schlock and cheap, loud scares far too often, fighting against its own found footage nature.
The V/H/S series is a film franchise that I’ve yet to have any experience with until now, but I’ve had my eye on it for a while. It’s a series of found footage anthology films, with each movie consisting of several shorts in that format. The franchise has had an overall positive reputation, and it’s even featured the short films of successful directors like Adam Wingard, Ti West, and Gareth Evans. Though I still need to catch up on the previous entries, I decided to see this one because I absolutely love this idea. It’s a perfect opportunity to get low-cost thrills, allow for smaller stories in a convenient package, and bring more attention to promising talent. The latest installment, V/H/S/99, brings a new collection of five stories all taking place in the year 1999, when punk rock was on its way out, DVDs were on the rise, and the looming possible threat of Y2K loomed in the minds of millions.
So, what did I think of my first V/H/S film? …I’m still not entirely sure, to be honest. Throughout this movie, my reactions were constantly flip-flopping between being genuinely impressed, really irritated, a little bewildered, and guiltily enjoying myself. These reactions changed not only in between the different shorts, but within some of them as well. Sometimes I thought V/H/S/99 was trying to be taken deadly seriously, sometimes I thought it wanted us to just have a dumb, schlocky good time, and sometimes I had no idea what it was going for. It clearly has a lot of effort and even talent thrown into it, but many of its decisions don’t seem to have a matching level of thought. The setups range from being really clever to dead on arrival, and their payoffs range from wonky yet enjoyable to frustratingly excessive. The found footage format works to their advantage sometimes but seems pointless in other times. It’s really hard to pin down a lot of what V/H/S/99 has to offer as a whole, so I’ll just go through each short and give my thoughts on how it fares on its own, as well as how it exemplifies the strengths and weakness of the whole film.
The first short is easily the worst of the bunch, to a point where I grew very, very concerned that V/H/S/99 would be one of the worst horror films I would have ever seen. It’s about a group of insanely annoying kids who explore the site of an urban legend that seemingly claimed the souls of one of their favorite punk rock bands. Not only does everything you’d expect to happen end up happening, but it’s done in the most overblown, obnoxiously in-your-face manner imaginable. I’m not sure if this short is trying to be legitimately scary in any way, but the campiness and annoyance aggressively shoot those prospects down. On the other hand, if this short is trying to be pure funhouse madness, then the found footage format impedes its ability to go all the way with that approach too. I was also immensely displeasured to hear a prominent score eventually being played… in a found footage story, where the whole point is to imagine you’re seeing raw, unaltered footage of something. Every short sadly features a score at some point, and it’s a colossal mistake that again undercuts the strengths of this subgenre.
Thankfully, V/H/S/99 never comes close to being as bad as that first short. Maybe that was the plan all along, to start off on such a bad note that everything else would look amazing in comparison. Whatever the case, the second story is my favorite for being the only one that genuinely scared me. A college girl is desperate to join a sorority, to a point where she’ll perform the supposed ritual of being temporarily buried alive, filming herself in the process. This setup is perfect for the found footage approach. The claustrophobia and up-close fear of this girl are captured perfectly, the acting is fantastic, and it’s a simplistic yet memorable cautionary tale about trying to fit in where you not only don’t belong, but shouldn’t want to belong. Unfortunately, just when the short should have ended, it keeps going and falls back into over-the-top territory, with unconvincing effects and (possibly) unintended corniness that go against the more grounded, character-driven horror that was featured until that point. Still, I remember everything else about this segment so fondly that it was all worth it for me.
The third story is the only one that I’m 100% confident was intentionally funny. It starts out with a wacky kids’ game show where one of the contestants suffers a major injury, which motivates her family to get revenge on the host. It’s a funny idea that catches you off-guard in the buildup, every actor’s comedic delivery is on-point, and the progression and escalation keep the laughs coming. But it could have leaned more heavily into the exploitation possibilities, as the torture inflicted on the host isn’t nearly as severe as your imagination would probably come up with. The short also, once again, goes overboard with a big, hokey ending, trying to veer into actual terror but coming across as silly. Credit where credit’s due, however: the practical effects used are excellent, which admittedly helped me somewhat enjoy the ending purely as a guilty pleasure. This segment is just alright as a whole. It’s a decent setup with an execution that manages to squeeze out a bit of fun.
Story #4, on paper, should be as insufferable as the first one. But while it’s again not good, it has its few moments. A group of boys have the hots for their neighbor across the street, and one of them gets their brother to set up a spycam in her room. From there … things don’t go as planned, I’ll just say that. The kids are, as you’d imagine by that description, really unlikeable, but the actors’ deliveries of their material manage to get some laughs. The payoff, while very simple and schlocky, is the first one that actually feels appropriate and warranted, even if it features by far the worst CGI effects of V/H/S/99 altogether. This segment also, again, fails to understand how to take advantage of the found footage format. The most effective scares and entertainment come from smaller, sometimes subtler elements that feel like they could be real. Going too big and too loud is almost always a death knell that defeats that whole purpose, which this fourth short is as guilty of as the rest. This includes over-relying on CGI, since bad effects in found footage are far more damaging than bad effects in any other genre.
The fifth and final short is the most baffling of them all. I’m honestly not sure I even understand the premise. It has something to do with some demons in a house that a group of people try to get rid of via a ritual. But apparently a few of them get sucked down to hell with the demons, leading to an extended sequence of them trying to find their way back and survive the monsters that chase them. Though the setting of this hellish landscape is mostly barren, it at least truly feels like another realm. I’m actually kind of impressed with how vast it looks and how much of it is traversed without any cutting. The practical effects and makeup are also the best of the entire movie, which even helps the lesser digital effects not stand out as much. I feel weird saying that V/H/S/99 has better special effects than a lot of big-budget movies I’ve seen lately, but I guess that’s just where we are. They at least look like real monsters that are actually in front of the camera. There’s also a bit of a character arc in play, but it’s really nothing special, only serving to give this story the tiniest bit of substance.
In between these segments are some random commercials and clips, presumably meant to be from 1999, that don’t really add anything to the atmosphere. The transitions also feature a stop-motion movie that one of the kids in Story #4 is working on, which gets a decent number of laughs. As for how the whole package fares, V/H/S/99 is definitely not good. Every story has at least one detrimental problem, whether that be a lack of a confident identity, a failure to utilize the medium at play, inconsistent effects, or conclusions that don’t fit what the rest of the story is doing. Outside of the bulk of the second story, V/H/S/99 at its best is a goofy bit of disposable camp. At its worst, it’s something that would make horror fans cringe in disgust for all the wrong reasons.
And yet, despite all of that, I find myself having somewhat fond feelings towards V/H/S/99. Maybe I could appreciate the effort that clearly went into a lot of it, especially the performances and in-camera effects. Maybe the first segment set such a low bar that the other ones cleared. Maybe I was just in the right mood for something dumb and mindless because I saw this later at night in a smaller auditorium, or maybe I have some sentiment towards the movie since it’s the last TIFF film I’m properly reviewing this year. Whatever the case, I had some fun with the movie. Not enough to say it legitimately works, far from it. But enough to perhaps consider V/H/S/99, or at least this one time seeing it, a slight guilty pleasure.
V/H/S/99 premiered at TIFF on September 16, 2022, and is now available to watch on Shudder in the US and other countries. In the UK, the film will be released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on March 27, 2023.