The continuing success of the V/H/S franchise is due not only to its anthology format and found-footage conceit but, just as crucially, to its raggedy analog shaky-cam visuals, which allow the films to hide their ghastly sights slightly out of view, to shock audiences with terrifying reveals, and to create anxiety and suspense through helter-skelter movement. Factor in audio-video distortion, tracking-related fuzziness, and action that’s suddenly interrupted and replaced by underlying recordings, and the series proves a work of carefully controlled aesthetic chaos, all scuzzy static, rewinding-and-fast-forwarding reverb, and jarring surprises emerging—figuratively and literally—from below. Stylistically speaking, it peddles warped, disorienting insanity tailor-made for tales of the macabre.
While V/H/S/99 doesn’t boast a unifying framing device like its predecessors, in most other respects it’s cut from the same magnetic tape. That’s true when it comes to its tattered visions of the unholy and undead, as well as with regard to its all-over-the-place quality. There’s yet to be a V/H/S venture that’s solid from top to bottom, which would be a more damning indictment if the same couldn’t also be said about similar horror collections. The good news is that this fourth go-round—premiering in the Midnight Madness section of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival—boasts two amusingly wacko efforts that shrewdly blend the sinister and the surreal. They may not generate much in the way of screams, but at their best, they elicit laughs of an astonished, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening variety.
Rife with shout-outs to the turn-of-the-century culture in which it purportedly takes place, V/H/S/99 references everything from Hot Pockets and Limp Bizkit to Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. The last of those is featured in one of the film’s standout chapters, “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Nickelodeon kids game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. Director Flying Lotus’ segment begins as a straightforward riff, with a group of kids wearing bright shirts, helmets and goggles while going head-to-head in juvenile games on a television set decorated with Styrofoam props and lots of goo. The show’s host (Steven Ogg) is a smarmy jerk with a bushy mustache and a thin microphone, and he hams it up in semi-mean fashion as he prods contestant Donna to become the first contestant to make it through a final obstacle course whose prize is having the mythical Ozzy grant her a wish. As far as cheesy recreations go, it’s a solid one, and peaks with Donna suffering a brutal leg injury before completing the challenge.
The initial phase of “Ozzy’s Dungeon” is merely a retro goof. However, it takes a turn for the demented when it cuts to a basement where the show’s host, wearing only his underwear, has been locked inside a dog cage by Donna’s mom (Sonya Eddy), who intends to get revenge against the showbiz personality for her daughter’s injury by forcing him to endure her own version of the show’s obstacle course under threat of being burned with acid. With the obese, maniacal Donna orchestrating this lunacy in a bra and sweatpants, this plays out like some sort of psychotic fever dream, and somehow, Flying Lotus manages to further up the ante by ultimately having Donna, her mom and the host take a trip to the show’s original set, where the mysterious Ozzy apparently still resides. Deliriously incomprehensible bedlam ensues.
There’s no lucid rhyme or reason to “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” just a desire to escalate things to the point of jaw-dropping, laugh-inducing hysteria. On that count, it succeeds admirably, and so too does the film’s closer, “To Hell and Back,” whose protagonists Troy (Joseph Winter) and Nate (Archelaus Crisanto) attempt to document a coven of witches performing a Y2K ceremony to summon a demon into a human body and wind up being accidentally pulled into the underworld by a wayward spirit. Rightly freaked out, they manage to befriend a mischievous, raspy-voiced resident named Mabel (Melanie Stone) who guides them through this rocky, red lightning-illuminated realm in an effort to help them return to the land of the living. A charmingly excitable and menacing imp with spiky short hair and an outfit made out of bandages, Mabel is unquestionably the star of this feature-length show, and directors Joseph and Vanessa Winter shrewdly place a premium on dreadful absurdity, keeping things light and bizarre up until their amusingly bleak conclusion.
“If there’s nothing particularly scary about those two episodes, at least their giddy love of gore and mayhem is infectious.”
If there’s nothing particularly scary about those two episodes, at least their giddy love of gore and mayhem is infectious. When it loses its sense of humor, though, V/H/S/99 becomes a drag. “Shredding” is a dreary tale about a grating Sum 41-style pop-punk foursome that visits an abandoned music club where, years earlier, a fire led to the death of a popular up-and-coming band; unsurprisingly, the deceased are still haunting the joint. “The Gawkers” is a limp saga about horndog teen boys who spy on their new blonde sexpot neighbor and, for their Peeping Tom behavior, suffer hair-raising consequences. At least “Suicide Bid,” the story of a college student (Ally Ioannides) who falls victim to a cruel hazing prank gone awry that leaves her at the mercy of a hungry ghoul, sharply skewers the monstrousness of Greek life rituals and those who perpetuate them. Unfortunately, it can’t drum up the claustrophobic thrills it seeks, and worse, it perpetrates a frequent found-footage sin: handheld camerawork orchestrated not by one of the characters but, instead, by an (unseen) director.
V/H/S/99 tethers together its unrelated vignettes with schizoid snippets of TV commercials and a recurring stop-motion home movie involving little green army men, which don’t do much for the overall package except to provide a vague nod to V/H/S/94’s memorable sewer god Raatma. Nothing here approaches the franchise’s finest moments, such as the original V/H/S’ “Amateur Night,” V/H/S/2’s “Safe Haven” or V/H/S: Viral’s “Parallel Monsters,” all of which were superior examples of short form nightmarishness. Yet the film nonetheless boasts enough diversity and unpredictability to keep one engaged, if not quite on the edge of their seat. Its look and sound may be ramshackle, but on the basis of this latest entry, the series’ quality isn’t degrading nearly as fast as the material on which it’s (supposedly) made.