Can something be called a time-capsule if it was made 20 years after the time it’s meant to capture? Probably not, but V/H/S 99 gets really, really close. More akin to a time-machine maybe. Either way, all 99 minutes genuinely feel like you’ve stumbled upon a dusty, old handheld, and these stories are finally coming to the light after 2 decades of abandonment. Very ‘why i stopped thrift shopping’ or ‘vhs99.exe’ – some real creepypasta vibes. The fucked-up home videos of the unlucky few trapped in the Twilight Zone. Simply put: V/H/S 99 really captures a moment.
The 90s saw the rise– and arguably the peak– of youth culture. An explosion of teenage and young-adult counterculture that ultimately, paradoxically, became the mainstream culture. A rebellious, fervorous zeitgeist that was somehow incredibly captured by the filmmakers involved in this awesome fifth installment of the V/H/S series.
Out of the five stories featured in the anthology, none starkly stand-out against the rest; nor do any fall especially below the waist line. Though I’ve got my own personal ranking of the five (check those out at the end!), each of them sit comfortably in the creepy & rewarding, cool & wicked category. There is something for everyone in this grab-bag of culture: skaters and punks; demons and witches; ghost stories and mythology– 99 really delivers. But these goodies are more than just sweet on the outside, for there is a rich and rewarding core at the center of each one if you take your time with them.
Part I:Punk’d and Prejudice
99 opens a wormhole. And for the first stop on the culture trip, writer/director Maggie Levin takes us to the (literal) underground punk scene with her short titled Shredding., for an episode of everyone’s favorite show, “RACK Fucks Shit Up”. Right off the bat we’re introduced to RACK, or Rachel, Ankur, Chris, and Kaleb– a punk band made up of shitty jerkoffs with a taste for shock factor and the agitational. Their plan is indeed to fuck shit up, as they plan to break into the Underground Colony, an art collective that burnt to a crisp three years prior, killing a punk band named Bitchcat.
Right off the bat, these guys are kinda hateable. Oozing with an obnoxious, nasty sense of humor and skewed idea of friendship. Maybe it’s just the way I was raised, but these “friends” really suck. Specifically, I want to point out the teaming up of the consonants of RACK against the only vowel: Ankur; or, notably, the three white kids against the one poc.
Going into the abandoned collective, Ankur is the only one with genuine concern and fear. As the rest of RACK teases him– calling him “spice boy” (which, interestingly, also has sort of a racial connotation to it), and “pussy boy” – and pulling pretty mean-spirited pranks, Ankur is ultimately proven right as they each get shredded, torn limb from limb by the killer spirits of the fallen Bitchcat members. The fate that befalls the members of rack invokes that popular idea/saying about horror, where certain situations (or even entire films) would have never occurred, had the characters just been people of color. It’s a broad, but often accurate statement that a lot of horr comes from white people doing white people shit, and Levin’s short subtly nods to that long-standing pattern. I am unsure of whether this was intentional or not, but it’s hard to miss.
All this amounts to some pretty satisfying kills. The tearing of flesh, and the bloody mess left behind from those who fucked shit up (and found out) makes for some gruesome visuals and sound design. I’d also be amiss to mention the queer aspects of the short, as Bitchcat is made up of four very punk, very queer, radical women. This is one example of a type of queer representation in horror that I think is often overlooked. No, not the extreme sub-niche of killer-zombie-punk-band-queers; but simply just the acknowledgement that queers exist in all spaces, and always have. The seemingly small detail of Bitchat’s queerness (especially women’s queerness) by Levin is so significant when you consider that a subculture like punk/art/underground would be absolutely helmed by queer people, and people of color.
Overall, Maggie Levin’s Shredding makes for an absolutely radical introduction to the unfolding stories in V/H/S 99. But, we really are just starting, afterall.
Part II. Hey, Soul Sister
Following Levin’s killer-show, is Johannes Roberts’ Suicide Bid takes us from the rebellious to the duplicitous. College freshman Lily is just dying to be accepted into Beta Sigma Eta, and after making a suicide bid (only applying to one sorority), she ends up doing exactly that. Completely and dangerously wasted, Lily is dragged by some of the sorority girls to a graveyard, where she must spend the night buried inside a coffin as part of a hazing ritual. Desperate to get in, she reluctantly goes along with it; and absolutely nothing bad happens at all… because why would it? No. Of course it goes completely wrong! What were you thinking girl?
Only absolute desperation, mixed with an absurdly high BAC, would lead someone to make a decision this ill-advised– lucky for Lily she’s got both. The absolute stupidity of this decision mixed with an(other) oddly, racially-motivated attitude, basically makes it impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for her. Don’t get me wrong though, the snickety bitches who put her in the ground are despicable. Everyone in this scenario deserves what inevitably comes for them.
As mentioned before, Lily makes some questionable comments towards her roomate Helen, which can be easily interpreted as “slyly supremacist”. With phrases like “I’m not like you. I’m like them”; and making sure to distinguish herself from Helen when she responds to her warnings with “No, not us.” Whether an intentional or accidental commentary on anti-blackness/biases towards darker-skin women in Greek life, Lily’s attitude towards her roommate only makes karma sweeter.
What you lack in sympathy for the characters, the short makes up for in anxiety. As a panicky, worst-case scenario thinker, Roberts’ short was definitely the most difficult to watch for me. It goes without saying that if you’re claustrophobic, you’ll probably have a much harder time watching this without a bodily reaction. Bonus points if you’re arachnophobic, or both! Of all the films, this is the most “realistic”, at least in the sense that of all the crazy shit to hit the fan in the film, being buried alive is somehow the most likely. There is not one person that can truthfully claim to be okay with the thought of that.
As if being confined to a wooden box filled with spiders, under immoveable amounts of dirt, wasn’t enough, Lily gets even more company when she’s paid a visit from Guiltine, another victim of the sorority’s graveyard hazing. In a really cool display of the short’s sfx makeup, the ending of Suicide Bid shows Guiltine’s haunting image, and as she screams into the camera, a creepin-crawlin eight-legged body makes its way out of her gaping mouth.
Part III: Dungeons and Dan(gers)
Ozzy’s Dungeon, directed by Flying Lotus and co-written by Zoe Cooper, feels like a genuine piece of lost media. Riffing on kids’ game shows like Legends of the Hidden Temple and Guts that ran on Nickelodeon, Ozzy’s Dungeon pits kids against each other in physical challenges for a chance to be granted one wish. With a grim focus on the gross underbelly of kid’s television, the first half of the film plays out like a genuine piece of lost media. If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake the short as buried, long-forgotten footage, with just a touch of the absurd. That being said, the second half of the short takes that pinch of absurdity and ramps it up to 100; with the latter half playing out as twisted, filthy revenge smut.
Ozzy’s Dungeon is unmistakably drawing from the golden age of Nickelodeon, which begs the question: just how much did writer/director Steven Ellison, known by his stage name Flying Lotus, and writer Zoe Cooper use as inspiration for their film? With recent news about certain producers at Nickelodeon studios coming to light in the form of personal experiences from former child stars, it makes a lot of the dialogue from the footage of the show itself have a very different meaning.
To bluntly list just a few: a game where kids must catch meat thrown at them in their mouths, followed by “open that piehole!”; referring to the dungeon as “the Big D”; and making kids crawl through “Ozzy’s orifices.”
Of course, this could be an extremely close read of something completely unintentional, but with its proximity to the Nickelodeon network, it’s not a far-reach comparison.
If you subscribe to the idea that these were in fact intentional, and maybe used to signal something more sinister going on, then the films shift to revenge-flick is really all the more satisfying.
Sentenced to torture at the hands of a particularly (and rightfully) vindictive mother, the former host of Ozzy’s Dungeon is subjected to a rickety, makeshift obstacle course similar to the one that permanently injured her daughter. Debra, the mother, is disturbed in the absolutely best way, and is hilarious while being so. A particular line about the Sahara desert really solidified her place as an icon. But even after all the acid and the raw chicken, Ozzy’s isn’t finished quite yet.
In an ending that showcases some really cool costumes and completely catches you off guard, the short truly goes out with some flair (and a really creepy final shot). If balls were not in contact with walls yet, they certainly are at the end of this unhinged gone-wrong tale.
Part IV: Peeping Toms
Up next is Tyler Macintyre and Chris Lee Hill’s short The Gawkers. Karma does what she does best in all of these films, but this one might be the most gratifying. This group of jackasses might just win the teenage dirtbag trend, since they make it their mission to spy on the women across the street. As if filming her as she floats in the pool, through her window before she showers, and even while she washes her car outside her own house wasn’t enough, this group of teenage boys really crank it up a notch when they send one of theirs younger brother to install spyware on the neighbor’s computer while he helps her set up her brand new Macintosh (it’s so bulky and blue, it’s beautiful).
And let me be clear, this is one of those boys will be boys instances where what that actually means is this abhorrent behavior is normalized and therefore okay. These kids aren’t “messing around” or being “stupid”, they are voyeuristic dickbags that are sexually harassing a woman. But the 90s aren’t exactly known for respecting women.
It seems as though Macintyre and Hill were very aware of this while writing the film, as one of the boys cite Sarah Michelle Gellar and Britney Spears (along with the neighbor, Sandra) as his “top three in the sperm bank.” It’s no secret that the first two were the it girls of the decade, and well into the new one; and the industry/society’s treatment of Britney Spears is not an unknown one. At just barely 18 years old at the end of 1999, Britney Spears had at that point been sexualized for years.
With all this considered, the boys’ fates (which they made themselves) are close to cathartic— their faces forever frozen in fear, with eyes eternally watching. The choice to make the neighbor a Medusa-like woman— with only the tiniest of subtle clues to allude to her reveal— is a potent one. And although we may feel a sense of justice-served against these boys, the irony here is that we as an audience aren’t free of transgression either. The only difference is we aren’t punished, protected behind the screen that was not enough to save them.
Whether you like it or not, we are all scopophiles. If you love film, you are a scopophile; but if you love horror film, you are a scopophile x1000. Scopophilia, or the love of looking, is inherent to film. And hand in hand with that love of looking is how exactly we are looking, which unfortunately tends to align with a little something called the male gaze. The Gawkers exemplifies this in the purest of forms— and while scopophilia doesn’t have to be explicitly sexual, here it is: horny teenage boys filming a woman as something to be looked at for the purpose of pleasure; through fences, through windows, through layers of video (webcam); and in all cases, invading her privacy.
At the end, when Sandra glares directly at us through the camera, we’re reminded that while we shook our heads and wagged our fingers at the boys, we were right there along with them all the while.
Part V: Destination Demon
The Craft. Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Hocus Pocus. The Blair Witch Project. The 90s loved witches. So writer/director duo Vanessa and Joseph Winter makes sure we don’t miss them here, with the final film of the night, To Hell and Back. To be completely honest, I’m not sure how much there is to read into here— maybe I missed something— but regardless, the Winter duo created an absolute banger of a closer!
Videographers and best friends Nate and Troy have somehow landed a job documenting a ritual performed by a coven of witches. As the witches begin— trying to summon the demon Ukabon at the stroke of midnight— a different demon comes through the now opened portal and drags the two friends to Hell. Now, they have until exactly midnight to escape, when the witches plan on bringing Ukabon into the Earth realm.
To Hell and Back displays some of the most unique set and creature design in recent memory. Though simple, the rocky, red landscape of Hell truly looks alien— with funky, perhaps improbably rock formations, lit up only for seconds at a time by the occasional lightning in a never-ending storm. Catching just a short glimpse of a demon on a rock, you see (and hear) its fleshy wings sprout from its body. A woman cries out for help, and as you reach to help her, the ‘woman’ reveals herself as the grotesque love-bastard of a centipede and a human (not to be confused with the anatomical bastard that is the human-centipede).
Visually, the film is incredible— from its set, to its lighting, to its creatures— but its ‘protagonists’, Nate and Troy, don’t really do too much for us as an audience. Similar to the rest of the films, these two also meet a frightening end, but besides being mildly annoying, they don’t completely deserve it. That being said, the real star of Hell is actually a more friendly demon they meet along the way named Mabel. Played by Melanie Stone, Mabel is badass, creepy, and hilarious— she’s someone I want to party with. It’s likely that Mabel is going to probably be one of, if not, the biggest ‘takeaway’ from 99 all together; likely along with the band Bitchcat from Shredding.
And as promised, my personal ranking of the five films + my favorite thing about them!
To Hell and Back — Mabel & the demon designs
Ozzy’s Dungeon — Debra’s Sahara Desert line
Suicide Bid — The spiders and the contagious discomfort
The Gawkers — Karma working her magic
Shredding — Five Nights at Freddy’s-esque final performance