Roberts, Winter, Levin, MacIntyre & Flying Lotus: V/H/S/99 (2022)
In many ways, V/H/S/94 was the most paradoxical film in the entire V/H/S franchise. On the one hand, it rebooted the V/H/S brand after a hiatus of seven years, and restored some critical favour after the lukewarm response to V/H/S: Viral, the third release in the original run. Yet it did so by streamlining the franchise too, expelling much of the glitch, static and fuzz that made it so eerie to begin with – and that had made Viral such a remarkable film, in its own way. Nowhere was that clearer than in V/H/S/94’s framing device, which differentiated itself more from the individual episodes more than ever before, in stark contrast to the original films, which bled frame and stories into the same inchoate video murk. Given the critical acclaim that V/H/S/94 received, it seemed inevitable that future releases would follow in its footsteps, so it’s quite remarkable to see how thoroughly V/H/S/99 pairs the new look of the franchise with the chaos of the earlier films. For 99 goes in the opposite direction, removing the framing device entirely, and presenting us with a series of shorts that seem to be recorded over whatever old VHS tape the directors had to hand – a tape so frazzled and fractured in its palimpsest of images that it seems like it’s been recorded over and over for the entire 1990s.
Whereas 94 was the first film in the franchise that didn’t feel like a found object, 99 conjures up a memory I’d all but forgotten – of the random few video tapes that most people had lying around, in case they needed to record something at short notice. These tapes could become layered histories of months, years and even decades of viewing habits, nested period pieces in and of themselves, which is perhaps why 99 resonates so much more evocatively than 94 as a period piece as well. In lieu of the loose framing devices of the earlier films, the directors here all tap into two structures of feeling that were particularly prominent at the turn of the millennium. Unexpectedly, one of those feelings is millennial anxiety itself, and the sense of some apocalyptic singularity on the horizon. 99 is rife with references to millennium parties, Y2K, and a general sense of the turning of things, a feeling that some new way of thinking and feeling is around the corner, which brings us to the second resonant period effect of the film.
In the late 90s, it was becoming harder to make films that were scary, or to imagine what might be the next threshold of horror. The slasher genre, and traditional suspense, had been all but exhausted – first, by the classic cycle; then, by their limper serial continuations in the early 90s; and finally, by the self-referential releases of the late 90s. So thoroughly had the slasher been contained that there was a widespread sense that mere suspense wasn’t enough to stimulate audiences anymore. Instead, directors searched for a more direct bodily intervention, a more violent assault upon the eye, that gradually flourished into two new horror subgenres: found footage and torture horror. Blair Witch induced nausea by hurling more chaotic images at the eye than any horror film before it, and Hostel arranged its torture scenes more literally around the iconic “eyegasm,” and in that sense both films, and genres, represented equally pointed ways of restoring the primal relation between cinema and the eye. 99 takes place at the precise moment when traditional suspense is starting to migrate into these new approaches, and video is beginning to bleed into found footage consciousness.
Of course, found footage and torture horror took a while to gain a foothold as recognisable genres. Before they peaked in the early to mid 00s, directors registered this shift in the horror sphere by moving away from suspense towards more abject sensations: gross, crass, cringe, nasty. This was a time when the video nasty, the province of the V/H/S franchise, was starting to morph into a new prank culture and stunt culture, epitomized both by the gonzo-style filmmaking of Jackass and Punk’d, and by the earliest viral gross-out content, from “2 Girls 1 Cup” to Rotten. For this was also a time when the viral potential of the internet hit mainstream culture, but when the web was also largely unregulated, allowing for a new flourishing of revulsion, of everything normally kept sublimated by mainstream media. In other words, it marked a shift from the mass media of the 90s to the niche media of the new millennium, while the first niches that emerged were the most extreme – those focused on “bad affect,” on material you couldn’t look away from, to the point where they almost dared you to watch it, to see what your eyes and brain were actually capable of enduring. Accordingly, most of the stories in 99 deal with a dare, or a challenge, or some other kind of brinksmanship, and opt for grossness, crassness, cringe and nastiness as much as suspense.
All five of the stories also play as incipient found footage, or torture horror, or both, rehearsing a series of late 90s horror-adjacent modes – riot grrl, urban legends, reality television, webcam horror – that finally flourish into full-blown found footage horror in the final instalment. As a result, the first film, “Shredding,” written and directed by Maggie Levin, plays as a prelude to this horror-adjacent mode, an immersion back in the peculiar feeling of the late 90s. It’s the shortest and simplest film in the anthology, and focuses upon a group of teenagers who dare each other to visit an old music venue that burned down several years before, taking an up-and-coming riot grrl band with it. From a distance, this story is quite similar to The Gallows, the 2015 found footage film which follows a group of teenagers as they revisit the site of a similar trauma. Yet “Shredding” both reflects a later and earlier stage in found footage horror, quickly eschewing suspense for a more grotesque aesthetic, as the riot grrl band return, dismember the teenagers, and perform a gruesome set that ends up feeling like it always would have been the next stage in their evolution and “look” anyway.
Rather than opting for full-blown horror, “Shredding” both captures how thoroughly horror had been domesticated by the late 90s, even by countercultural movements like riot grrl, necessitating a recourse to more abject sensations instead. This is the trajectory of Levin’s film – it promises to be scary, but turns out gross – as well as the band themselves, who could almost have set the fire themselves, upon realizing that their musical scariness wasn’t enough, and that they needed to actually torch their bodies, and dismember other bodies, to recapture the mangled visages of punk’s heyday. Most of the other stories also involve horror that has been domesticated in some way, forcing the directors to resort to either traumatically embodied cameras (found footage) or vividly decimated bodies (torture horror), starting with the next film, “Suicide Bid,” written and directed by Johannes Roberts. If “Shredding” is the prelude to 99, then “Suicide Bid” is its magnum opus, the strongest film in this anthology and arguably the most terrifying film in the entire V/H/S franchise to date.
“Suicide Bid” starts with its main character, Lily, played by Alexia Ioannides, making a “suicide bid” for a sorority. In American college terms, this means she is making a bid for one particular sorority – the most prestigious sorority – instead of being assigned to a sorority randomly. If she makes a good enough case, she’ll have social status; if she’s rejected, she’ll be a social outcast on campus. Lily makes this bid on video, part of a nascent social media universe that already thrives on self-disclosure as brinksmanship. In years to come, suicide will become the driving feature of this social media universe – specifically, the need to garner followers with levels of self-disclosure that are in themselves borderline suicidal, in order to contain and stave off the possibility of social media shame, which can amount to both metaphorical and literal suicide. If the teen horror films of the next decade have one clear message, it’s that young people fear social media shame, and suicide, more than they fear death, in the way a previous generation once feared public speaking more than death. Apotropaically fending off that prospect means rehearsing, containing and mediating suicidal affect over and over again.
This future media space evolves even further over the course of “Suicide Bid.” Upon meeting her potential sorority sisters, Lily discovers that the rite of initiation into their household involves spending the night buried in a coffin. An urban legend comes along with this ritual, that of Giltine, another freshman, who was subjected to the same fate, but left underground for a whole week, and vanished when her coffin was finally dug up. The last wave of 90s slasher films focused on urban legends and occult rituals as approximations for the incipient digital future, and so it is here, as being encased in the coffin subjects Lily to both the extremity of found footage and torture horror. On the one hand, she films the entire experience with a camcorder, like a livestream before we had the hardware to share it. On the other hand, the sheer claustrophobia of the coffin anticipates the constrictions of torture horror, especially as more and more foreign objects start to make their way into the space – a box of spiders, a torrential rainshower, and eventually the ghost of Giltine herself. The analog coordinates of suspense-driven horror give way to a new fluidity and permeability that throws the body into almost unbearable relief, and acts directly upon the viewer’s body too.
Of all the films in 99, “Suicide Bid” is the most effective at pairing this new visceral crassness with pure horror. In doing so, it also exhausts horror, leaving the next two films free to explore the abject in even more extravagant and flamboyant ways. The next film, “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” written by Zoe Cooper and Flying Lotus, and directed by Flying Lotus, is a different kind of magnum opus, and the closest that the V/H/S franchise comes to a short feature-length film. It unfolds in three distinct acts, the first of which draws on another mode in which this renewed taste for gross-out spectacle culminated at the end of the 90s – children’s television programs. In a loose adaptation of Nickelodeon Guts, we’re presented with a series called Ozzy’s Orifices, in which children have to perform a series of increasingly revolting tasks for a cash price. The last stage involves making their way through a body-maze – sliding into a green jello stomach, crawling through the large intestine, and clambering out the poop-chute escape room. Human body and the broader body politic collide and negotiate with each other in increasingly anarchic ways, culminating with one of the contestants, Donna, played by Amelia Ann, brutally dislocating her leg when another competitor barges past her in the intestines. Although Sonya’s injury is traumatic, host Ozzy, played by Steven Ogg, insists that the show must go on, and so she limps her way to the finish line, blood pouring everywhere.
This is the film’s most primal nexus between an actual human body and the broader taste for bodily abjection on the cusp of the millennium, and accordingly gives way to the most dramatic nexus between found footage and torture horror that we have seen so far as well. Seeing Sonya’s injury once would be confronting enough, but the image abruptly rewinds, plays, rewinds, and plays again, absorbing this space between body and body politic back into the grainier textures of found footage. From there, we move to a home video of Sonya’s basement, where her mother, Debby, played by Sonya Eddy, has abducted and imprisoned Ozzy inside a makeshift replica of the Ozzy’s Orifices set. Debby proceeds to torture Ozzy using the set, which she has reframed – or perhaps just clarified – as a chamber of horrors. As might be expected, the physical violence here is pretty extreme, whether it’s Debby getting her husband to charge into Ozzy’s chest with a helmet capped with steak knives, or threatening to inject hydrochloric acid directly into his eye, in another of the ocular assaults that animated so much found footage and torture horror. Yet this physical assault is quickly absorbed back into the same taste for the crass, gross and grotesque that galvanizes the other short films, as Debby rubs rotten meat in Ozzy’s face and mouth, and makes him do the same body-maze, but with actual viscera and organs lining the route this time around. More than trying to kill or maim him, she wants to make him vomit, stimulate his gag reflex – and that of the viewer.
Having extrapolated a new aesthetic of disgust from the space between body and body politic, “Ozzy’s Orifices” moves to a third act that is, in some ways, the most original part of 99. It’s also where Flying Lotus’ more extravagant tendencies as a director come into play, as Ozzy takes Debby, Sonya and her family back to the actual set of the show, and leads them into a cave inhabited by a bloated, semi-human, supernatural creature whose powers turn out to have been the sustaining force of the program all along. Ozzy tells Sonya to make a wish for the creature to grant, and while we don’t ever hear her wish, it produces a rupture in the fabric of the film and franchise as we know it. That rupture is already incipient in the way this tableau both recalls and fractures so many tropes from earlier in the series – the creature is remarkably similar to that of “Safe Haven,” the high point of V/H/S/2, while it quickly morphs into a human/camera splice more redolent of “The Subject,” the longest film in V/H/S/94. As an entity birthed from the entire franchise, it entirely shifts the visual field of the film, as images square off in the corners, fractalled layers of superimposition glitch and distort each other, and the entire mise-en-scene shimmers and quivers as if it’s about to become sentient.
In other words, grossness ushers in a new kind of simultaneity here, one closer to the language of music video, and to Flying Lotus’ own maximalist concatenations of sound. That paves the way for the fourth film, “The Gawkers,” which takes this fixation with the abject, gross and crass, and condenses it into perhaps the most late-90s of registers: cringe. Finally, we now arrive at the Jackass aesthetic, as director Tyler McIntyre introduces us to a group of suburban bros in the midst of a discussion about the best nu metal bands. No genre captured this late 90s taste for terror and disgust in equal proportion quite like nu metal, whose album covers feel like the defining image of the period’s yearning for a new kind of embodied horror. The discussion of nu metal here becomes the preface for three distinct waves of pranking, each of which takes the bro-group closer to the crass simultaneity of “Ozzy’s Orifices.” Their first pranks are fairly asexual, and involve a whole lot of different activities – flexing guns in front of a mirror, playing a trick on a delivery guy, drawing X-rated images on a sleeping friend, picking through gross stuff in a drain and, above all, capturing skateboarding bloopers, the origin of so much glitch in the V/H/S franchise. By contrast, the second wave of pranks is more focused on women, and explicitly drawn from Candid Camera – hiding a camera in a paper bag to film up a woman’s skirt, filming a woman in a pool, filming a woman washing her car.
These stages evolve pretty rapidly in “The Gawkers,” but they represent a more gradual historical evolution that would culminate with the sex tape – the privileged object of the V/H/S franchise, insofar as it forms the quilting-point between an older video nasty and a new viral-digital economy. The third stage in McIntyre’s film speaks directly to this economy, and is both more expansive and more condensed than the first two. For the bros quickly become obsessed with a woman who has moved into the house across the road from one of their own houses, at the end of a cul-de-sac. From their window, they have a clear view of this woman’s yard and bedroom window, but a real window isn’t enough – they want a virtual window. As they watch her, day by day, digital equipment is delivered to her house, from an iMac to a webcam, again recapitulating the technological development of the millennial era in miniature. Finally, the bros convince another friend to offer to help the woman set up her webcam, but to install a camera so they can all watch her remotely as well. In effect, they’re setting up a local intranet, specific to their cul-de-sac, and channelling all their crass, crude, cringey, gross-out energy into a new kind of simultaneity, watching through both windows.
Yet both this gross-out energy and simultaneity rebounds upon them, as the woman they’re watching turns out to be a Medusa, capable of a simultaneous perception and instantaneous violence they never even dreamed was possible. The moment she gazes into the webcam, she registers their presence, and is immediately in their house, where she acts upon them remotely as well, disfiguring, dismembering them, and ultimately turning them to stone, without even having to make physical contact. It’s as if the bro dream of dial-up was confronted by a wireless future, immediately emasculating and infantilizing all of the characters, and clarifying that their nu metal horror-revulsion fantasies are simply a way of containing the torture horror-found footage future, a way of keeping its true alterity at bay.
This brings us to the fifth film in 99, which is effectively the climax, since there is no real framing device to fall back upon here. No surprise, then, that “To Hell and Back,” written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter, is the film most directly focused on the millennium, and finally arrives at classical found footage horror, but with an awry twist. It focuses on a film crew who are called in to document the activities of a millennial cult, only to encounter an uninvited spirit that emerges from a television, and drags them into a full-on found footage universe, represented here as Hell. For the first time in the franchise since the original film, we’re back to a single camera, a confined perspective, much as the Winters would go on to direct Deadstream, a livestreaming horror film that restores the same sense of being trapped in a single device. As the filmmakers in the story move through this infernal space, we’re presented with an alternative version of what Blair Witch might have been – Blair Witch if it was set in a desert, rather than the woods; a hellscape that peaks with millennial expectation.
There are, however, two key differences from Blair Witch here. First, if this is indeed an alternative vision of the origin of found-footage horror, then in hindsight it’s easier to see that it also contains its double in torture horror as well. For unlike Blair Witch, there is plenty of overt viscera and gruesome violence here, as the filmmakers discover they are being pursued by demons intent on eating them. Second, there’s as much of nu metal grossness here as actual horror, to the point where “To Hell and Back” plays as a vamp on the antisocial abjection of Adam Sandler’s Little Nicky as much as an exercise in traditional suspense. As the filmmakers crawl through a landscape that looks more like a series of bodily orifices at every turn, still wearing a party hat with “2000” blazoned on the top, and eventually encounter a lurid dom blazoned with fetish gear, who turns out to be high up in the demon hierarchy, the aesthetic gravitates, once again, from horror back to gross, cringe, obscene, rotten, antisocial. And this is where 99 ends, and the new millennium begins – on the cusp between high-concept horror and a newfound taste for disgust and revulsion at its most gratingly crass.
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