Just a decade ago, few trends were as popular in the horror world than found-footage films, due in large part to both how effective and profitable the original Paranormal Activity became. In the years following its release, countless imitators flooded the market, while the minds behind the original V/H/S both honored that format while also breathing new life into it. While the second installment improved on the formula of the original, the third installment felt as tired as fans had grown with found footage in general. Debuting on Shudder later this week is the fifth entry, V/H/S/99, which brings the series back to those ambitious and boundary-pushing ways of yesteryear, delivering a variety of unsettling stories that wouldn't be possible in any other series and leans into the unique nature of first-person perspectives.
A key component of each film in the franchise is that they all bring together various filmmakers, with this installment featuring segments from Johannes Roberts, Vanessa & Joseph Winter, Maggie Levin, Tyler MacIntyre, and Flying Lotus. One of the ways in which it departs from previous entries, though, is that the various segments instead appear as though they were recorded piecemeal from various sources onto one videotape as opposed to being framed with a wraparound story. Purists might be disappointed with this decision, as it was the in-world discovery of tapes in previous films that set the series apart from its peers, but the overall experience doesn't suffer any loss in quality from this decision.
As with any anthology, especially those that enlist multiple different filmmakers, the overall experience is often defined by both its highs and its lows, as the successes and failures are what stay in the minds of audiences. Luckily, V/H/S/99 doesn't have a sour note, thanks in large part to the diversity of the narratives being explored. That being said, there's still a nuance to the structure and momentum of the complete picture, with one of the film's only setbacks, albeit a minor one, being its slow start.
The segment "Shredding" from Levin sees a group of punk rockers investigating underground tunnels where a legendary band was said to have made their demise. The structure of this story is redundant early on, as the characters are all just Jackass wannabes, yet that structure does lead to some interesting places, especially for those fans who have a soft spot for "heavy metal horror" like Black Roses or Trick or Treat. The next segment, "Suicide Bid" from Roberts, similarly starts with a familiar premise in that a student must go through an initiation to be accepted into a sorority, only for things to take a dark turn. Even if this premise is relatively rote, the intimate nature of a girl allowing herself to be placed in a coffin does evoke claustrophobia and, despite whatever we might expect to happen in this scenario, Roberts throws us a number of curveballs, entirely circumventing our expectations with scares that are both supernatural and much more grounded in reality.
Flying Lotus' "Ozzy's Dungeon" is where the film really takes the concept to new heights, with its various twists and turns and overall ambition feeling reminiscent of V/H/S/2's "Safe Haven," one of the best segments of any horror story in the subgenre's history. Audiences first see VHS footage of a children's game show that's replicating the concept of Double Dare or Legends of the Hidden Temple, only for an unexpected tragedy to occur. As if this event isn't shocking enough, this is only the catalyst for the terrors to really unfold, delivering both disturbing humor and horror. From there, things are heightened to an even more absurd and extreme degree, yet still falls in line with the tone of the sequence, marking for an entirely satisfying experience from start to finish.
Starting to lean more heavily into the timeline of its title, MacIntyre's "The Gawkers" starts with a premise similar to that of teen-sex comedies of the era, as a group of teens take their crush on their neighbor a bit too far as they use deceptive measures to violate her privacy. As one can imagine, things don't go entirely as planned, and while the outcome might not be entirely surprising, we're reminded of the original V/H/S's "Amateur Night" segment in how it embraces unlikely mythology to cross the finish line. Closing out the film is the segment most closely tied to the title's timeline, with the Winters' "To Hell and Back" focusing on a ritual being performed by a doomsday cult on the eve of Y2K. Despite the ritual not going quite as planned, we're still treated to a demonic adventure that still has us scratching our heads over how the team pulled off such an effectively immersive storyline on what we assume is a shoestring budget.
Over the past decade, the V/H/S series has delivered all manner of horrors, but what makes V/H/S/99 such a standout is that, no matter how many times you might think you know where a story is headed, the filmmakers buck those expectations and deliver something far more fresh and satisfying. Although the film isn't without its lulls, the heights more than make up for those small setbacks and reminds us of how this franchise has become the breeding ground for a new generation of filmmakers. By cutting their teeth on these narratives that have cinematic and production limitations, they get far more creative both narratively and from a production standpoint, with subsequent projects then offering more opportunities to really shine. It's impressive that such an unassuming franchise has developed filmmakers who would go on to deliver Godzilla vs. Kong, Moon Knight, X, Scream, Hellraiser, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Raid, and Blair Witch, just to name a few accomplishments.
V/H/S/99 helps cement the franchise as one of the most ambitious and inventive storytelling avenues out there for genre filmmakers, and while every segment might not be a home run, it's a sequel that's a roller coaster ride through Hell that you'll want to strap yourself into.
Rating: 4 out of 5
V/H/S/99 lands on Shudder on October 20th.