In fact, I worked in home video rental for a short time, helping to manage a small series of rental stores in suburban Illinois. For those who also survived those dark days, it seemed like everyone who worked in such outlets had to be a bit of a film nut to begin with: customers would come in expecting these learned clerks to pony up a wealth of entertainment options, especially when the major new release titles were all out on rental. So you had to know more than a little bit about your store’s inventory in order to be successful at it, and that’s how many of us truly started on the path that brings us to where we are (respectively) today.
As you can imagine, I had to watch a ton of flicks. Something was always playing on monitors in the store, and I spent more than a few nights absorbing some of the most curious titles that our regional inventory manager selected for our rental catalogue. Practically everything on the shelves had some income potential – at least, that’s how we were trained to look at them – and we simply had to find out how to best market and/or suggest them whenever an opportunity presented itself.
Back in those days, there weren’t all that many ‘found footage films,’ but there was an awful lot of schlock … and that’s why I think it’s grand that some filmmakers joined hands and assembled V/H/S/99, a ‘found footage’ homage to those days of yesteryear. While it’s probably not going to interest every consumer of product today, I think it’s definitely something folks of that era can heartily appreciate.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com citation:
“Witness a hellish vision of 1999, as social isolation, analog technology and disturbing home videos fuse into a nightmare of found footage savagery.”
Folks, I’m going to admit right up front that I – as your faithful genre movie critic – am probably not going to be the least impartial reviewer for this particular feature. That doesn’t mean I won’t be brutally honest in my assessment of it; rather, it’s that I’ll be as forthright as I can … because (A) I do tend to be a fan of ‘found footage films’; and (B) I do tend to be a fan of theatrical anthologies. What V/H/S/99 has done here has combined two of my personal favorites, so you can imagine exactly how happy am I to have discovered it this morning.
Simply put, I’m in cinematic bliss.
Now setting aside that single qualification, I think that I can still safely conclude that – as ‘found footage’ goes – just about all of VHS has the usual strengths and weaknesses others have long ascribed to this unique subgenre of Horror. Yes, it’s filled with the obligatory shakycam action. Of course, it’s occasionally a bit of a struggle to perfectly follow all of the captured recording. It goes without saying that viewers should pause the cognitive part of the brain which forces us to overthink a premise. Though some of the screenplays here are a bit brighter than others, I still think the end result is a solid testament to what storytellers can accomplish when they set their mind to it … and a bit out of the norm.
VHS features five separate stories, each told at roughly the same 20-minute-ish length. The film also features some modest connective segments – some goofy stop motion style animation stuff and other bits – that kinda/sorta help serve to set the tone for what the broader VHS phenomenon meant to home audiences as well as budding homegrown filmmakers. It’s all rendered with the imperfections of re-used and re-played videotapes … so buckle up for a modest dissection on each tale.
As can happen with any anthology project, there are going to be pluses and minuses. Shredding is neither a great first installment nor that good of a Horror story to begin with, mostly because it’s the kind of thing that’s probably going to be seen and forgotten, especially given the improvements that follow in other stories. Such is the nature of competition, and yet I still think it’s a worthy competitor.
Four teenagers who’ve set out to become their own successful punk/grunge garage band continue to seek out and explore other antics with which to demonstrate their ‘cool factor.’ They’ve taken to capturing all of their adolescent shtick on video and are likely sharing it with friends. When they hear the local legend about another four-person band who died onstage after being trampled by their fans, they (of course) decide that it’s time for that possibly haunted locale to serve as their new private stomping grounds. But as kids will be kids, they rather quickly offend the spirits of the dead, and nothing can save them from the impending dismemberment.
Shredding is an adequate story that plays out rather predictably. It’s little more than a cautionary tale with a serviceable amount of blood, guts, and zombies thrown in for good measure. It suffers from a wealth of plot holes – why would these undead rockers want to use video cameras to capture the bloodshed from their own perspective, mainly – but still manages to effectively get from start-to-finish, though little else.
Let it be known that sorority ladies can be the worst kind of ‘mean girls’ of record, and you’ll get the gist of Suicide Bid right away. Fundamentally, a “suicide bid” is when one college coed decides to put all of her eggs in one basket, meaning that she’ll only accept an invite from one particular Greek organization or be damned to social obscurity. However, when the ladies of one group hear that Lily has indeed opted for such a bid, they decide to fool her into a dark challenge: spend the night in a sealed coffin (with a video camera inside to capture the experience), and you can be one of them.
As you might imagine, this is little more than a prank … but the script from writer/director Johannes Roberts goes a step further by giving the event a bit of local folklore: a girl is rumored to have died in a similar sorority prank, and her spirit has been known to pay an unwelcome visit to the ladies who attempt it again. The way things happen in Horror films, the hazing goes horribly awry. Before the night is over, every one of these women will come to regret their part in the cemetery.
Alas, Bid’s weakness is that the technology to craft all of this together as a ‘found footage’ project is impossible. Multiple recording sources would have to be edited together – instead of one continuous take, as is the custom for the genre – so this one doesn’t feel nearly as authentic as it could. Its scares are good, true … it just isn’t quite as ‘found’ as it is ‘edited.’
Surely, the 1990’s had their fair share of kid-centric programming that put the youngsters through a bit of prankish escapades, sometimes with the hope of great reward. What happened more often than not was that these contestants ended up looking foolish – while audiences watched – and they likely became punchlines in the private lives that they led once the cameras were turned away. What Ozzy’s Dungeon imagines is a bit of demented Horror/Porn twist where a physically maimed competitor exacts a bit of revenge (ultimately) on the ones who put her through these gory paces.
If you survived the game and made it to Ozzy’s Dungeon, then you were granted one wish by the mysterious ‘Ozzy,’ a nebulous figure never shown on television. (Don’t worry: we get to see Ozzy.) As you can guess, the promise of making a family’s dream come true is what compelled folks to risk their reputation. But the price ultimately extracted from an accident gone wrong doesn’t stop with the show’s cancellation; when a Detroit family opts to get its retribution on the show’s lurid host, they’ll not only meet Ozzy face-to-face but also suffer the wrath of their angriest young daughter.
Like Suicide Bid, Dungeon isn’t so much a ‘found footage’ film as it is a Horror feature that utilizes the good, bad, and ugly of ‘found footage’ trickery to weave its bloody spell. Also, it suffers from the all-too-common shortcoming of ‘why would a person stand there videotaping these events if they truly took place in real time?’ Dare I say no one would. They’d likely be running for their lives. (I know I would.) Performances are good, its zany obstacles courses are a bit gross and brutal, but its finale felt a bit abrupt for me – almost rushed – leaving me with a few questions I couldn’t quite answer.
Thankfully, The Gawkers – as conceived by Chris Lee Hill and Tyler MacIntyre (who also directed) – starts to put VHS on the right track to legitimate ‘found footage’ glory: a group of teenage boys take to using the family camcorder to both document their wayward existence as well as a means to spy on the beautiful girl-next-door. When the truth of just what and who she is comes to life, they realize – all too late – that they’re in for the scare of their suddenly short lives. This is Horror, after all, and this tale most decidedly delivers.
Proving that boys will be boys, Gawkers is faithfully grounded in the adolescent exploits of young men. (I can say this as I, too, was once a young man.) The script goes to good lengths to show them in their various shenanigans – some mildly dangerous, some just plain stupid. After circling those events well enough to define its players, Hill and MacIntyre then home in on their attempts to ogle the new neighbor beauty. Those paying close attention will likely spot the warning signs of just what terror awaits the irresponsible – definitely readers of Greek mythology should – but everyone is amply rewarded for their patience in the final moments.
This is what ‘found footage’ as a format can do exceedingly well: it can both comment on our society at large (i.e. the failed judgement calls some of us make in our most private moments) while pushing the audience closer and closer to the precariousness of how fragile life can be. In truth, who’s the bigger ‘gawker’ – these gregarious young perverts or those of us watching from the other side of the television or movie screen? It’s a small point but one hit so very well in a slim running time.
VHS concludes with a rather spectacular, somewhat dizzying, yet affectionate ‘found footage’ flick: videographers Nate and Troy are spending their night on local assignment, taping the summoning ritual for some secret coven of witches. Fate (and Satan, it would seem) has other plans in store for them, however, as the cast spell misfires somewhat, instead sending them into the Underworld with only eight minutes remaining until midnight for them to find a way back or risk being trapped there forever!
Simply put, I found To Hell And Back an idea good enough that, quite frankly, it could be a stand alone feature. The writing/directing team of Vanessa & Joseph Winter (of Shudder’s recent entry Deadstream) are no stranger to ‘found footage,’ and their mastery of the concept should be the stuff of their own local legend. They cram just the right amount of story into this lean and mean frightening machine that it works gloriously, pitting Nate and Troy against one horrific demon after another in their quest to find any way out rather than risk eternity in the darkness. Still, I’d love to see more – maybe even more of a conventional motion picture utilizing the ‘found footage’ aspect in the sillier moments – and I think the potential is definitely there.
Yes, yes, and yes: Hell has a few quibbles here and there. The truth is – like cited in examples above – it’s hard to believe anyone would have the presence of mind to maintain videotaping these trials and tribulations when experienced in reality. But that’s the beauty of most of this: it isn’t meant to be taken seriously. It’s meant to be a carnival attraction – taken on only by those bravest enough to endure its whips and turns – and Hell succeeds in 20 minutes where many who’ve had far longer have failed.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: ‘found footage’ is not for everyone. But for those of us who love this sort of thing, then V/H/S/99 (2022) has just the right amount of jumps and giggles that everyone should find something to love in here.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Shudder provided me with complimentary screening access to V/H/S/99 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.