Directed by Maggie Levin, Johannes Roberts, Flying Lotus, Tyler MacIntyre, Joseph Winter, & Vanessa Winter
Screenplay by Zoe Cooper, Flying Lotus, Chris Lee Hill, Maggie Levin, Tyler MacIntyre, Johannes Roberts, Joseph Winter, & Vanessa Winter
Starring Jesse LaTourette, Keanush Tafreshi, Dashiell Derrickson, Jackson Kelly, Tybee Diskin, Verona Blue, Aminah Nieves, Kelley Missal, Melissa Macedo, Ally Ioannides, Isabelle Hahn, Breana Raquel, Caitlin Serros, Brittany Gandy, & more.
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
As expected from the V/H/S franchise label, all the V/H/S films inherently evoke a sense of nostalgia for those of us who lived through the era of the VHS tape, as well as the beginning of the digital era of home filmmaking, though, more often than not, the V/H/S films also typically touch upon various issues from the 1980s, the 1990s, even the 2000s and beyond. V/H/S/99 may have the most perfect setting, putting itself at the end of the millennium right before the Year 2000 when many folks were feeling a genuine sense of terror due to everything we were being told by the media about Y2K’s potential technological breakdown.
Similar to what V/H/S/94 did with the mid-1990s, what V/H/S/99 does so well is capture a little slice of so many things happening around 1999: from a fear of Y2K, to racial inequality in media, to the emergence of CKY and Jackass—as well as the first urban exploration tapes, before YouTube would make them much more popular—to the cruelty of sorority/frat culture, to the way digital filmmaking has enabled the male gaze to wander off the screen and into women’s personal lives. V/H/S/99 is one of the best V/H/S films precisely because it captures so much of the zeitgeist at the tail end of the ’90s, processing it through a fitting lens of horror.
One of the immediate influences noticeable in V/H/S/99 is that of Jackass and CKY in the first tape, “Shredding,” which we also see again later briefly in the beginning of “The Gawkers” briefly. In “Shredding,” we even have a title featured in the video that makes it feel that much more influenced by CKY: “R.A.C.K. Fucks Shit Up.” Yet “The Gawkers” definitely goes further with its Jackass/CKY-inspired tomfoolery, as we watch the young guys in that tape skateboarding and filming pranks on others/themselves before the real action starts.
What’s most noticeable as “Shredding” wears on is the casual misogyny and racism bleeding through, showing how much more common it was back in the 1990s—not that it’s disappeared since, but even when we watch media from 20-25 years ago, whether it’s home tapes or actual television/films, it’s easy to see how much has changed. When one band member, obviously of Indian heritage, mentions “bhoots” he winds up ridiculed by his white friends who call him “spice boy.” Then there’s the way the boys from the band talk about the women from the band who died at the old venue they’re searching, one of whom yells “Die, bitch!” And even the one girl member of the band plays into, too, showing that misogyny is just as much internalised by women as it is externalised from the mouths of men. Not only is the first tape a creepy, fun little short, it starts V/H/S/99 off steeped in a number of issues and aesthetics that ring true of the late ’90s.
Both “Suicide Bid” and “Ozzy’s Dungeon” also feel very ’90s, each touching on various forms of cruelty in society through widely different perspectives. “Suicide Bid” shines a horrifying light on the cruelty of sorority/frat culture, which was big in the 1990s throughout media, whether on the news or in fiction. Hazing deaths in frats and sororities have been happening since the 1800s, but the media really latched onto them in the ’90s as news coverage was changing, becoming much more spectacle-oriented and focused on tragic stories to exploit. There were at least 13 hazing deaths on a number of college campuses across America in the ’90s, most of which involved excessive consumption of alcohol, though some of them involved the brutal results of pranks, just as one girl experiences in “Suicide Bid” until the supernatural takes over.
Flying Lotus’s wild short “Ozzy’s Dungeon” looks at the cruelty of the inherent racism in media—something people are still fighting against in 2022—expressed through a twisted, satirical take on game shows with Ozzy’s Dungeon. The game show itself is a Jimmy Savile-esque television program offering big wishes to kids, but in exchange for kids doing disgusting, occasionally unnervingly semi-sexual things on a horrific game show set. The show’s host (Steven Ogg) makes the kids “Catch that meat!” and escape through “Ozzy‘s orifices” such as “The Poop Chute Escape Route.” One Black girl named Donna (Amelia Ann) winds up being permanently crippled after the host lets another young contestant run wild. Years later when the game show gets cancelled, Donna’s mother Debra (Sonya Eddy) takes the game show host hostage, putting him through her own hideous show dubbed Donna’s Dungeon. It all ends in spectacularly strange fashion, yet Flying Lotus and Zoe Cooper’s screenplay really gets into how Black people were routinely treated on TV during the ’90s before things spin into fantastic, nightmarish chaos.
“But I’m not like you,
I’m like them.”
My personal favourite short from V/H/S/99 is “The Gawkers” because of how it adapts the tale of Medusa and the male gaze to the dawn of digital filmmaking at home. We begin with the boys filming their pranks and fooling around, but quickly move to more sketchy business, such as the boys attempting to upskirt film some girls like creeps. Then the boys get around to spying on a young woman in the pool across the street, keeping an eye on her anytime she’s washing the car or otherwise half naked. They also notice “weird statues” around the woman’s house. They’re quickly wrapped up in trying to get sexy footage of the woman without her consent; everything goes to shit after they infiltrate her house courtesy of one character’s little brother. “The Gakwers” creates a unique take on the male gaze in the internet age, as the woman being spied on turns out to be the mythological figure Medusa, and she delivers an ancient form of violent retribution to the boys for their digital transgressions.
V/H/S films often feel like the recordings of urban legends in the digital age, and it makes sense especially for the entries set in the 1990s like this one because the internet began a new age of urban legends with a new way to disseminate information (or, all too often, misinformation). V/H/S/99 touches on the idea of digital urban legends perhaps the most of any V/H/S film with the opening band tape’s legends of the “Colony Underground,” the updated myth of Medusa to the late-20th century in another tape, as well as the sorority sisters and their “suicide bid.” The idea of urban legends in V/H/S/99 feels like the first wave of internet folklore just prior to the emergence of creepypastas and other forms of internet storytelling.