❉ Jonathan Sisson rewinds to ’99 with this bonkers horror anthology that’s more hit than miss.
V/H/S/99 (2022) is the latest in the long running horror anthology franchise. It’s already hit Shudder and is doing pretty well BUT is it worth it? Well, as someone who, nine times out of ten, wants to throw a brick at the screen when presented with the anthology format, I was trepidatious, so let’s dive in by taking each story as it comes…
Shredding, written and directed by Maggie Levin is, narratively, a mind-numbingly predictable effort but is stylistically flawless, creating an atmosphere of obnoxious ‘90s MTV-ism that could almost pass for a nightmarishly analogue Portlandia sketch and clearly displays Levin‘s “rock n roll roots.“ Whilst aesthetically impressive, the tale, which involves a band named R.A.C.K. after its members Rachel, Ankur, Chris, Kaleb — a wonderful detail because that’s exactly the sort of thing radical, eXtreme dudes in the 90s would name a band — breaking into an abandoned subterranean music venue for an episode of… well, something; the film never makes it clear; the Wikipedia article on the movie claims it’s for a webseries but no; not in 1999, so we’ll headcanon it to their crap local public access TV show.
Why are they doing this? Because in 1995 the girl band Bitch Cat met their untimely deaths at the hands, or rather, feet, of their own fans as they trampled over them to escape a fire and reach the exits. This had me questioning the logistics and layout of the venue more than actually being scared, and of course it all ends exactly as you’d expect but it did provide one rather neat jump scare, and it is at least stylish, which is about the minimum you’d expect from this director. It just left me wishing Levin had made a full-length mockumentary about the ‘90s punk scene instead because ironically, if this hadn’t been part of a horror anthology, it could have been amazing…
Suicide Bid satirises that most American of institutions, the sorority, which is ironic since it comes from British writer-director Johannes Roberts. This one was actually hard to sit through in the best way possible. It’s the old hazing-prank-goes-wrong shtick, but it escalates in a genuinely nightmarish way; Lily (Alexia Ioannides) is so desperate to get into her sorority of choice she elects to apply for only one sorority house on her enrolment form. The “suicide bid“ works, but in order to be accepted, she has to take part in the obligatory stupidly dangerous stunt; in this case, it’s getting buried alive, or at least, being tricked into believing she has, only the untimely arrival of the cops combined with the onset of a sudden rainstorm… well, you can see where this is going, but Jesus, I don’t have claustrophobia and this whole shebang got me having a panic attack.
Roberts does an impeccable job of keeping the tension simmering and while the twist is bloody obvious (a problem with the short film structure in general, really), he doesn’t fall into the trap of using it as the actual pay-off;rather, it’s a fun horror trope used to relieve the tension and send the audience away satisfied, because the mid 10 minutes of this story is the most nerve-shredding cinematic experience I’ve had all year.
Flying Lotus’ Ozzy’s Dungeon (co-written by Zoe Cooper) begins as a Black Mirror–esque affair involving a tacky children’s game show (the VHS tape we’re watching in this instance is a recording we’re watching like some SCP Foundation-style cursed object from the archives) hosted by a wonderfully hammy Steven Ogg, in which the various contestants must complete a series of definitely-not-up-to-code challenges, which results in young Donna (Amelia Ann) suffering an horrific injury—a real “WOOOOWAAAAAHHHH” moment we’re forced to watch and rewatch several times. Eventually, things go a bit Saw…
To be honest, I actually found myself having to consciously suspend my disbelief the most during this episode (a problem I coincidentally have with Black Mirror), except I didn’t mind so much since I was willing to allow myself to get punched in the face because, you know, I’ve made a conscious decision to watch a horror movie, but the whole plot relies upon you accepting the concept that a network game show involving children wouldn’t have any proper health and safety measures, nor trained first aiders, nor the necessary insurance to cover injuries (waiver or not) to make a point about class, race and family so as long as you sit back and accept this as the sort of angry, over-the-top-and-not-meant-to-be-taken-literally savage satire that characterises Black Mirror andThe Boys you’ll have a nice, upsetting time... But then things go fucking Lovecraftian. I’m not going to spoil it anymore, other than to say it’s bonkers.
Tyler MacIntyre’s The Gawkers, whilst not being bad, is probably the tale that least fulfils its potential (so SPOILER WARNING whilst I explain why). Jumping off from the weird little stop motion interludes that separate each short, we learn that these are the work of Brady, a teenager whose older brother and his friends initially treat as an outcast but who earns their respect after planting spyware on their hot neighbour’s new computer so they can hack into her webcam. Whilst initially interesting (given its portrayal of the friends as toxic masculine teenage males who indulge in voyeurism and upskirting), it rather wastes its potential with the reveal that the object of their stalking, Sandra (Emily Sweet) is a gorgon.
The narrative possibilities of the Motif of Harmful Sensation when applied to video, surveillance and voyeurism combined with a being that must not be looked at are infinite, and while it makes for a descent twist (one that’s at least hinted at by the boys discovering an unusually large snakeskin about the neighbourhood and Sandra having a collection of weird statues in her garden (“Maybe she’s a sculptor…”), it never really explores this other than by having the boys’ transgressions punished by a gorgon going on the rampage. Perhaps I’m being harsh, because it is a neat idea and given the limited timeframe it’s well done for what it is, but it effectively just boils down to being (an admittedly improved) variation on Robert Bloch’s short story Hungarian Rhapsody with a vampire being replaced by a much more suitable monster.
To Hell and Back, on the other hand, more than lives up to its potential. Written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter, it stars Archelaus Crisanto and Joseph Winter as Nate and Troy, two constantly bickering documentarian friends who attempt to film a ritual performed by a coven of suburban witches on the eve of the new millennium, only for things to go south quickly (and literally) resulting in them not only winding up in Hell but having to race against time to escape it. Along the way, they are aided by the demented Mabel “The Skull Biter,” who elicits from them the promise that they will write her name in the book of witches upon their return (word of advice: stay through the end credits).
Now, aside from realising a simultaneously claustrophobic and absolutely epic vision of Hell on a shoestring budget, let’s just take a moment to appreciate not only this segment’s, but the entire film’s strongest asset; Melanie Stone as Mabel a performance that make the whole thing worth the price of admission. Hammy, charismatic, mad as a box of frogs, Stone is clearly having an absolute ball here (the majority of her previous film roles being somewhat conventional), delivering her Olde Worlde dialogue with the kind of scenery chewing gusto worthy of Lady Macbeth or a particularly demonic version of Ariel on the stage at old Stratford. People of Shudder, if you’re reading this; please give this woman more horror roles because this right here is gold. Gory, bonkers and occasionally displaying a vintage Sam Raimi sensibility, To Hell and Back was by far the best way to round things off and by God it was a lot of fun.
So, like most anthologies, V/H/S/99 in an uneven affair, but, as someone who usually despises the anthology format (with rare exceptions) this proves a welcome surprise, with even the worst story in the bag being at least watchable.
❉ A SHUDDER Original, ‘V/H/S/99’ (2022) was released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on 27 March 2023, courtesy of Acorn Media International.
❉ Jonathan Sisson is an actor, film maker, internationally exhibited photographer and film critic. He is currently working on his first feature film.
❉ Instagram: J_D_Sisson
❉ Website: jonathansisson.com/
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