There’s some dispute over whether Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust” is the first found-footage film or Orson Welles’s “The Other Side of the Wind” because the latter predates the former by a decade. That said, there’s no argument about the fact that 1999’s “The Blair Witch Project” paved the way for the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, “REC,” “Cloverfield,” “Chronicle,” and more. However, as this subgenre of horror got mainstream, the production value became too polished, and the overall quality waned. That led to the general consensus that found-footage cinema died in the late 2000s. But great entries do exist in the form of “The Incantation,” “The Medium,” “Trollhunter,” “The Visit,” “Project Almanac,” “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” “Afflicted,” “As Above So Below,” “Host,” “Spree,” “Deadstream,” “Unfriended,” “Searching,” the “Creep” duology, and “Dashcam.” Now, irrespective of the state of the subgenre, the one franchise that has consistently delivered interesting stories is “V/H/S.” And its latest entry, “V/H/S/99,” is no different.
Sticking to the storytelling style established in the 2012 film, “V/H/S/99” tells five disconnected narratives set in 1999. But there’s a little difference. While the previous “V/H/S” films did have an overarching narrative, this one doesn’t. Instead, parts from one of the short films serve as interludes. So, I’ll be going through each segment to explain what each of these stories mean and the significance of its post-credit scene and the interludes (since they tie in to the post-credits).
Written and directed by Maggie Levin, the first anthology short film follows a punk rock group named RACK, which comprises of Rachel (Jesse LaTourett), Chris (Dashiell Derrickson), Ankur (Keanush Tafreshi), and Kaleb (Jackson Kelly). They want to record their new music video in a venue that has been shut down because of its tragic history. As per Chris, one night when the band Bitch Cat – which was made of RC (Tybee Diskin), Charissa (Aminah Nieves), Jessie (Kellye Missal), and Dierdre (Verona Blue) – was performing, the place went up in flames. Everyone attending the concert survived, but RC, Charissa, Jessie, and Dierdre perished there. The worst part was that they died in the stampede caused by their own fans and were then burnt by the scorching flames. Ankur is the only one who thinks going back in there for a music video is a desecration of the deceased band members’ memories. But he’s bullied into going along with the rest of them.
Despite knowing full well that Ankur isn’t comfortable being in the venue, Rachel, Chris, and Kaleb keep messing around with him (while also throwing some racist “jokes” at him). When the three pretend that they’ve been possessed, Ankur calls it quits. Unfazed by his departure, the remaining three proceed to recreate the stampede by filling dolls with red jello and trampling over them. And that’s when Kaleb gets pulled up by something and then gets dismembered. Shocked out of their minds, Rachel and Chris make a run for it. But they are outmatched by the undead versions of RC, Charissa, Jessie, and Dierdre and are eventually torn into pieces. Ankur, who apparently hasn’t made it out of the building, tries to hold them back with his homemade spices. But when the zombie-fied Bitch Cat puppeteers RACK (they literally re-attach the limbs to their dead bodies and puppeteer them) to complete their music video, it becomes clear that Ankur’s spices didn’t quite do the trick.
With “Shredding,” Maggie Levin aptly captures that period of the late ’90s when edgy behavior (spilling into cringe-worthy territory) and internet fame were starting to collide to make something truly despicable. It’s not like that happens now. We still have cringe, abusive, and exploitative content on the internet. However, there’s enough good stuff (or commentators to call out problematic behavior) to balance things out. Back then, it was just teenagers or adults acting like teenagers, crossing all kinds of ethical and moral boundaries to become “internet famous.” The undead Bitch Cat tearing RACK apart can be interpreted as the past – that these kids are gleefully desecrating – giving the present their comeuppance. It’s unrealistic, but it’s cathartic. The puppeteering bit (which features some of the best and most macabre practical and visual effects I’ve seen) serves as a reminder that if we don’t respect the past, eventually, someone else is going to dance on our graves. Or worse, we’ll be forgotten, not because we didn’t do anything substantial. But because we didn’t do the bare minimum by being respectful.
‘Suicide Bid’ Explained
Written and directed by Johannes Roberts, this short sees Lily (Ally Ioannides), who is trying to enter the titular sorority even though her roommate Hannah (Logan Riley) advises against it. After a brief time-jump, a drunk Lily finds herself in the company of four sorority sisters: Annie (Isabelle Hahn), Helen (Breana Raquel), Imogene (Caitlin Serros), and Lucy (Brittany Gandy). They challenge Annie to spend one night in a coffin at the local cemetery. If she succeeds, she’ll get to enter the Suicide Bid. If she doesn’t, she will have to spend her college life as a loner because that’s the only sorority she has applied for. After getting buried, she can get out by ringing the bell, which is linked to the coffin. For some motivation, Imogene gives her a box that she should open only when she’s on the brink of ringing the bell. And on that note, they lower Lily six feet into the ground and bury her alive.
So, why do the girls choose this form of hazing? Well, according to legend, a girl called Giltine (Chris Page) was buried alive. After a week, when her coffin was dug up, there was nobody inside it. Rumor has it that she was taken to the underworld. That’s why Annie tells Lucy that, while underground, if she hears a knock on her coffin, she mustn’t let that person in because it’s probably Giltine. That said, Annie holds her own for quite a while. But she loses her composure when she opens the box that Imogene gave her, and it turns out to be full of spiders. The girls make it worse by knocking on the coffin, pretending to be Giltine. But then things go from being fun to dangerous as it starts to rain and a couple of police officers force the girls to run away, thereby leaving Lily in that grave, which gets filled to the brim with water.
The following day, when the girls do return to the grave, just like the lore, they don’t find Lily’s body in the submerged coffin. That’s because she has made a deal with Giltine where she’ll be allowed to live (albeit in an undead state, evidently) if she keeps peddling sorority sisters to Giltine. This is revealed when the four girls find themselves in coffins of their own so that they can be dragged into Hell by Giltine. It’s a pretty cool but expected subversion of the lore that seems unrealistic. And it furthers the theme of comeuppance established by the first short by giving Annie, Helen, Imogene, and Lucy what they deserve. Is it a bit harsh? I don’t think so. Because this kind of hazing can lead to death or traumatize the person for life. Ragging or bullying is never “fun.” It can never be. Anyone who partakes in and normalizes such abusive behavior does deserve a spot in Hell (if there’s one).
Even though the Johannes Roberts directorial isn’t high on scares, “Suicide Bid” accurately emulates the look and feel of teenage dramas from the late ’90s and early 2000s. Everything from the casting to the costume and make-up design is pitch-perfect. Once Lily goes into the coffin, the sense of claustrophobia is palpable. And the practical and visual effects used to bring Giltine and the underworld she emerges from is undoubtedly awesome. There’s something about the grainy camcorder look (which is consistent throughout “V/H/S/99”) that gives off the feeling that we shouldn’t be watching this. At the same time, we can’t take our eyes off it because of the brutal mixture of pity and revenge. I think a lot of films have tried to replicate the “snuff film” effect. But “V/H/S/99” is clearly the one that has perfected it.
‘Ozzy’s Dungeon’ Explained
Directed and co-written by Flying Lotus, along with co-writer Zoe Cooper, in this short, we follow the titular game show where kids seek to complete the tasks thrown at them (sometimes literally) by the Host (Steven Ogg). Whoever wins will get a chance to ask for anything they wish for, and it will be fulfilled. But the show is apparently canceled after one of the contestants, Donna (Amelia Ann), gets horribly injured, which leads to public outrage by her mother, Debra (Sonya Eddy). The scene then shifts to Debra’s basement, where the Host is being held captive by her and her family. In order to make it out of there alive, the Host has to complete a replica of “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” which is equipped with actual feces and obstacles that will cause him bodily harm. The Host obviously doesn’t succeed, and Debra proceeds to kill him by injecting some kind of acid into his veins.
In an attempt to save himself from death, the Host says that he can still grant Donna’s wish. Debra accepts this offer on Donna’s behalf, and the Host leads both of them—along with the father and the brother, Marcus (Jerry Boyd) and Brandon (Charles Lott Jr.), respectively—into a cave located behind the stage on which “Ozzy’s Dungeon” used to take place. After traversing through its dark corridors, the five of them arrive in a room where a plus-sized woman – who is Ozzy (Stephanie Ray) herself – is lying on a table and is surrounded by cultists. The Host urges Donna to tell the woman what she wants. Soon after, the woman starts howling. Her belly opens up, and out of it emerges a massive tentacled monster that burns everyone’s faces off, including Donna’s whole family. Debra (who specifically told Donna to ask for riches and a new car) keeps asking Donna what she asked for while she leers at the camera.
First and foremost, the tidal wave of nostalgia that hit me while watching “Ozzy’s Dungeon” was surprising. I don’t know the precise game show that Flying Lotus, Zoe Cooper, and the rest of the team were looking to reproduce. But it really reminded me of “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” which aired between 1993 and 1995, and I used to watch it religiously. Although I was just a kid back then, looking back at it now, I can address the racist undertones in every element of that show. If you go to your Google search or Twitter and simply type in “Legends of the Hidden Temple racist,” you’ll find more than a couple of stories on that topic. “Ozzy’s Dungeon” harkens back to that era of TV by literally showing the Host rooting for the White participant while expressing disappointment upon seeing Donna, who is African-American, take the lead. Her experience maims her physically, which is similar to the permanent mental or physical scarring of her real-life counterparts.
All that said, “Ozzy’s Dungeon” doesn’t take the easy path of saying that the Host and the organizers are to blame for the contestant’s horrors. The parents are responsible too for sending their kid to be ridiculed in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and for what? The chance of earning some money and fame? So, although Debra torturing the Host seems like an extension of the anthology film’s revenge theme, the actual revenge is Donna getting back at her parents as well as the Host for ruining her life. In addition to that, since “Legends of the Hidden Temple” was often compared to “Indiana Jones,” the alien/monster melting the faces of the people in the dungeon seems like a reference to the face-melting of the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” And it’s not a cheap reference. The practical effects, the visual effects, the gore, the lighting, the camerawork, the sound design, everything is on point. So, major props for that to Flying Lotus and his team.
‘The Gawkers’ Explained
Directed and co-written by Tyler MacIntyre, along with co-writer Chris Lee Hill, this short about stalking follows Dylan (Luke Mullen) and his friends Kurt (Tyler Lofton), Boner (Duncan Anderson), and Mark (Cree Kawa) as they snoop on their “hot” neighbor Sandra (Emily Sweet). They notice that Dylan’s brother Brady (Ethan Pogue) is familiar with her and learn that she has even asked him to install her webcam. Hence, they get a hold of him and request him to install spyware on that webcam so that they can essentially watch her disrobe. Brady appears hesitant at first. But when Dylan dangles the offer of becoming a part of the group, he installs the spyware. What they get to see is something that they cannot unsee, quite literally.
So, in the opening moments of the short, the boys notice that there are a bunch of stone heads. However, they don’t make too much of it. When Sandra begins to take her clothes and her wig off, the guys still continue to enjoy it and don’t connect the dots. But when they see that her hair is made of snakes (live ones, yes), it becomes clear that she is a modern version of Medusa, i.e., the Greek legend who is known for turning people into stone if they make direct eye contact with her. As the boys start to freak out, Sandra invades Dylan and Brady’s home and attacks Mark first, killing him. Then she turns the rest of the guys into stone. It’s unclear what happens to Kurt after he attacks her with a hammer. I think he gets bitten by one of the snakes on Sandra’s head and dies of poisoning.
If it isn’t clear already, “The Gawkers” is supposed to be a horror-version of adult comedies from the ’90s and early 2000s, where the sexualization and harassment of women via upskirt videos and home videos of their private affairs was rampant. And due to the virality and anonymity of the internet, it ruined the lives of girls and prevented boys from being held accountable. “The Gawkers” is essentially “American Pie,” but instead of that scene with Nadia (Shannon Elizabeth) and Jim (Jason Biggs), you have Medusa tearing everyone apart. I’m pretty sure some people are going to look at it and say that these guys are teenagers, and they were just having some fun. And that they are going to grow up and be responsible. I’m sorry, but that’s not a good enough excuse. There’s no place for such people in a civil society. Yes, not even someone like Brady, because silent spectators who appear trustworthy are as bad as the perpetrators of such crimes.
This interpretation of Medusa is also very relevant. During the #MeToo movement, Argentine-Italian artist Luciano Garbati’s re-imagining of the Greek Gorgon – where she’s standing naked with a sword in one hand and a man’s head (probably Perseus’s) in the other – went viral since it captured the anger women feel for being used by men. In the original myth, Medusa is violated by Poseidon and then turned into a “monster.” Later, she is killed by Perseus, and her severed head is used by him to turn his enemies into stone. But just like in Garbati’s re-imagining, where Medusa is giving it back to the men who treat her as a monster, Sandra goes after the guys who objectify her on a daily basis and plans to put her video on an adult website. The guys even namedrop Britney Spears, who has been vilified and torn apart by the media and the general populace for generations. So, you know that they are the worst of the worst, and they deserve Sandra’s rage.
‘To Hell And Back’ Explained
Written and directed by Vanessa and Joseph Winter, this short film takes place on the eve of Y2K, where a pair of videographers, Nate (Archelaus Crisanto) and Troy (Joseph Winter), document a summoning ritual. Right when it begins, Troy spots a demon who has crossed through the barrier between Hell and Earth. And when the cultists try to deal with it, the spell that was meant to invite the demon or devil Ukoban (Dustin Watts) into his Earthly vessel backfires, thereby sending both Troy and Nate to Hell. In that post-apocalyptic landscape, they are hounded by weird creatures as well as a massive, winged demon until Mabel (Melanie Stone) shows up to help them. Together, they come up with the plan to reach Ukoban, hold onto him, and travel back to their reality as the cultists try to bring him into his vessel a second time. And they’ve got to do this all before midnight because that’s when the window for their escape closes.
Although much isn’t known about Mabel, for the most part, she appears to be the Gollum (Andy Serkis) to Nate and Troy’s Sam (Sean Astin) and Frodo (Elijah Wood), leading to what’s the Mount Doom equivalent of this short, i.e., Ukoban’s lair. They even go through a tunnel that’s covered with spider webs, just like Shelob’s den. But unlike Gollum, Mabel doesn’t betray Nate and Troy, and she does take him to Ukoban. When Nate and Troy try to make a run for it, Ukoban’s minions viciously attack them. Nate and Troy barely managed to defeat them. That’s when Nate has this epiphany and asks Mabel to come with him. Unfortunately, she is butchered by one of the demons. With their time running out, Troy and Nate leave Mabel and dive into Ukoban, returning to Earth. However, Troy doesn’t return to his body but to the body of the vessel, i.e., Kirsten (Tori Pence). The cultists panic and kill both of them. During his dying moments, Troy writes Mabel’s name in the book of spells and incantations.
As far as I can say, the “deeper meaning” of this short is literally in the title. It’s about two guys going to Hell and returning to Earth. It’s “V/H/S/99”, Vanessa and Joseph Winter’s magnum opus. It’s “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” (which is a masterpiece in its own right, FYI) meets “Mad Max: Fury Road” but gorier, funnier, more action-packed, and shorter. The work by DOP Jared Cook (who’s also one of the producers), production designer Meg Cabell, editors Vanessa and Joseph, costume designer Anna Hayes, monster designer Troy Larson, special FX make-up artist Mikaela Kester, VFX artist Justin Martinez, and everyone who has worked on this short film is mindblowing. I want to see what they can do with a bigger budget for a feature film. They are so smart about what they want to show and what they want to hide. The way they give Troy and Nate’s friendship a wholesome arc is awesome. And in addition to all that, they send a pretty important message about not tinkering with things you don’t understand. What more can you ask for?
‘V/H/S/99’ Post-Credits And Interludes Explained: Is Mabel Going To Return From Hell? What Does Brady’s Stop-Motion Animation Story Mean?
If you stick around all the way to the end of the credits, you get to see two things (well, one’s just an audio clip). Firstly, you hear the cultists from “To Hell and Back” calling Mabel’s name. That means they’ve seen Troy’s writing in the book, and they probably think that she’s some kind of God. But does that mean she’s going to make a comeback? Well, as per the rules and circumstances, yes and no. Mabel has technically been killed in Hell. If she’s partially alive, maybe she can return, but she’ll be injured. If the cultists have prepared another vessel and if Mabel is partially alive, maybe her soul can return while her body stays in Hell. And, worst case scenario, the demon holding onto her soul and body is going to be pulled into the Earth, and it’s going to wreak all kinds of havoc. Since “V/H/S/99” has an ongoing theme of comeuppance, maybe that demon will kill all the cultists and inadvertently deliver justice for killing Troy and Nate.
Secondly, we see the final chapter of Brady’s stop-motion animation, where the tank is operated by Johnson and runs over the Commanding Officer. Yes, instead of an overarching story, we get these snippets from Brady’s work as interludes. The story starts with the Commanding Officer having an argument with the laziest officer on his team, i.e., Johnson, who then proceeds to manhandle a tank and trample four of his team members. Since that bit precedes “Shredding,” which is about two bands with four members each getting killed, it clearly alludes to that aspect of the plot. Before “Suicide Bid,” we see another section of Brady’s stop-motion animated story where a paratrooper lands on the ground and walks over a red piece of paper. While he’s looking at the enemy, the red paper turns into a pterodactyl and eats the paratrooper. That can be a reference to the abrupt death of Lily, with the pterodactyl representing the sorority sisters or Giltine. In the third short, we see Brady’s soldiers going up against two giant monsters. Out of them, a guy named Johnson gets his legs separated from his body. Since the damage to Donna’s leg is an integral part of “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” it can be a reference to that occurrence. Also, one of the soldiers probably calls the creature who kills Johnson a “rat monster,” which can be a callback to Raatma from “V/H/S/94.” And the final short is of a soldier looking at two soldiers kissing. As that’s followed by “The Gawkers,” it clearly hints at the voyeurism of that story. Going by that logic, Johnson running over the Commanding Officer is just the film’s way of tying up that loose end and bringing “V/H/S/99” to a close.