You don’t have to be a jaded Hollywood cynic to understand why the “V/H/S” franchise isn’t going anywhere. As any studio executive worth their salt would be quick to point out, a recognizable horror brand built around deliberately cheap production value with enough elasticity to accommodate new trends is a terrible thing to waste. That, combined with a direct-to-streaming release strategy that frees it from box office expectations, gives the long-running horror anthology series little incentive to improve.
You’re gonna get a new “V/H/S” movie just about every Halloween until the end of time, and you’re gonna like it. Then again, there are worse fates in life.
While “V/H/S/99” is a far cry from the original, it still manages to be far more fun than it has any right to be. By connecting its horror vignettes with trippy stop-motion sketches instead of a unifying plot device, it crafts a viewing experience that essentially amounts to an Adult Swim programming block for horror fans. Which is not a terrible thing to be! The five segments are very hit-or-miss (an extremely generous count would say that three of them might scare you), but even the misses provide enough ’90s nostalgia to make for mildly entertaining late night viewing.
Such is the case with “Shredding,” Maggie Levin’s punk rock-influenced short that gets things started. It tells the story of three scene kids who remain obsessed with Bitch Cat, an old punk act that took on deity-like status after being trampled to death at an underground show. Hoping to build a similar level of street cred for their band, they venture into the cavern where the fatal show took place. Needless to say, it ends up being an ill-advised choice. “Shredding” is probably the film’s weakest segment from a horror perspective, but the fake documentary about Bitch Cat should entertain both those who miss watching music videos on MTV and those who wish they were born early enough to do so.
Next up is “Suicide Bid,” Johannes Roberts’ tale of Greek life gone wrong. Lily (Ally Ioannides) is a college freshman who desperately wants to join one of the top sororities on campus. In fact, she’s so determined to join this particular group of mean girls that she submits a “suicide bid” by refusing to apply to any other sorority. If she gets rejected, she can kiss her social life goodbye. She ends up being accepted on one condition: she has to spend a night buried in a coffin before she can join. The plot is so simple that offering any more information would constitute a spoiler, but you’ll walk away thinking that those anti-hazing activists might have a point.
If “Suicide Bid” finds horror in the peer pressure that young women face, “Gawkers” does the same thing from a male perspective. The Tyler MacIntyre-directed short follows a young computer whiz who ignores his better judgement by helping his brother install hidden cameras to spy on the girl next door. Though he quickly regrets his decision to aid the Peeping Tom operation, it ends up being too late. The boys may have just been hoping to see a bit of nudity, but they end up being exposed to horrors beyond their wildest nightmares
And of course, you couldn’t make a “V/H/S” film set in 1999 without some kind of homage to the Y2K fiasco. That’s where “To Hell and Back” comes in. The short film from Vanessa and Joseph Winter begins with some occult-loving conspiracy theorists rounding up volunteers to offer their bodies as “vessels” for a powerful new deity who was planning to come to Earth at the start of the new millenium. Naturally, it ends in Hell. While the practical effects are excellent in every segment, this one earns particularly high marks for its gory demons.
Those four segments are relatively equal in terms of quality, and each viewer’s ranking will be skewed by personal preferences. But the undeniable highlight of the film is “Ozzy’s Dungeon.” Directed by the Grammy-winning record producer known as Flying Lotus, the segment begins with a strange game show that features contestants racing through an obstacle course modeled after the human digestive system. But after an injury occurs on set, the contestant’s family sets their sights on revenge. They kidnap the sleazy host (played brilliantly by Steven Ogg), and the story devolves into a fucked up basement torture sequence featuring a bubbling bottle of acid.
“Ozzy’s Dungeon” is good enough to justify the existence of the entire film, and should be held up as a model of everything a “V/H/S” segment should aspire to be. Unapologetically weird, legitimately scary, and perfectly self-contained. The fake production fully commits to its absurd premise and meticulously recreates the feel of ’90s Nickelodeon shows, creating something as captivating as the best Adult Swim parody sketches. And when it’s time to get bloody, Flying Lotus doesn’t hold back.
It also serves as a reminder of what remains the franchise’s biggest selling point: giving new horror filmmakers a platform to get weird and take risks. Occasionally you’re going to discover a bold new talent, which seems like reason enough for horror fans to keep streaming these things.
“V/H/S/99” starts streaming on Shudder on Thursday, October 20.