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V/H/S/99 Review: Millennium Madness

  • All five stories really work
  • There's a solid thematic thread running through the whole film
  • The gore and creature effects are very effective
  • It's genuinely scary
  • Some stories are clearly weaker than others

If you were around in the faraway year of 1999, you may remember a sense of the world standing on the brink. Not just because of the "Y2K" phenomenon and its resulting fears, though that was certainly a part of the tension in the air, but because of a larger cultural sense of something major beginning to shift. Yes, we all know that 2001 is the "real" start of the new millennium, but the nature of the way human beings process time means that all of us were looking at that moment a 19 would become a 20 and feeling... something. It was just in the air, buzzing in the rising frequencies of an increasingly digital age. It felt like there was no going back, like crossing a threshold that might lift us up to the light or might pull us down into darkness.

It's no wonder, then, that the long-running "V/H/S" series of found footage horror films wanted to revisit this especially strange, particularly tense era of pop culture and technology. It was, after all, an age when we saw the death throes of the VHS format, as DVDs and digital technology began to usurp the hold those chunky black cassettes had on our lives as viewers. That transition, and all the other cultural transitions inherent in the year 1999, provides plenty of fodder for "V/H/S/99" filmmakers to play with form, to experiment with the hazy veil between one era of technology and another. Within that veil, it also gives them plenty of opportunities to scare the heck out of us, delivering yet another memorable installment in what's arguably the greatest found footage franchise in the subgenre.

Five stories, one strange era

Like previous installments in the franchise, "V/H/S/99" delivers a handful of stories from a group of the world's finest genre filmmakers, and like the previous entry, "V/H/S/94," each segment focuses on a particular trope from the chosen era. In the opener, Maggie Levin ("My Valentine") turns to focus on an aspiring riot grrrl band that delves into the haunted history of an abandoned local club for what could be a career-making promo shoot. Then, Johannes Roberts ("47 Meters Down") delivers a millennial riff on the classic Scary Sorority Initiation subgenre of horror stories, Flying Lotus riffs on the dark underbelly of 1990s game shows like "Double Dare," and Tyler MacIntyre ("Tragedy Girls") takes the same teenage Peeping Tom idea that made "American Pie" infamous and turns it on its terrifying head. It all wraps up with a segment from "Deadstream" filmmakers Vanessa and Joseph Winter in which the franchise heads to Hell — literally.

As with the segments in "94," each of the new "99" stories suggests an exploration of something deeper, whether it's a surface-level comparison or an emotional exploration of intense depth. Levin's segment leans into the camcorder DIY era that eventually birthed things like "Jackass," exploring what happens when a camera is used as a license to trespass for the sake of creation. The Winters' story explores millennial sensationalism, while Flying Lotus takes on game show embarrassment as a tragic spectacle, Roberts explores the far extremes of hazing videos, and MacIntyre probes the further reaches of early surveillance/creep culture and its consequences. In every case, there's an added sense of texture and scope, but most importantly, none of the filmmakers ever forget that they are, first and foremost, trying to scare the daylights out of you.

Party like it's 1999

Longtime fans of the "V/H/S" franchise have come to expect that these films will use the often unblinking eye of their found footage cameras to give us all-out terror in its many forms, and "99" does not disappoint on that front. From all-out creature feature terror to torture to the simple dread of feeling that something will go horribly wrong at any given moment, it all works, even if your tastes don't lock on to one segment as well as another. With the task of opening the show, Levin leaves nothing out of an all-out punk rock gorefest, while the Winters close things out with a descent into something that looks and feels unlike anything a "V/H/S" film has attempted before. The real home run, though, might just belong to MacIntyre, who does one of the things this franchise has always done best: Take a simple premise and turn it into absolute, nerve-shredding madness with a satisfying over-the-top conclusion. And as with every entry in the "V/H/S" series, the cast is wonderfully, exuberantly game for it all.

The wonderful, constantly rejuvenating root at the core of this particular franchise is that its central hook can be twisted in potentially thousands of ways, so as long as there are people alive who remember camcorders and the often-thrilling risk of popping in an unmarked VHS tape, these stories will work. But even with that anchor point in mind, it feels like there's something special about "V/H/S/99" because of its ability to capture something almost indescribable within a particular moment in time. There was an intense atmosphere of potential in 1999, but there was also intense anxiety and fear, a sense that if we made it through December 31 in one piece, we might somehow never be the same anyway. That entire year was a jack in the box still coiled under its lid, waiting to spring something on us, even if we didn't know what it was. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it can often feel like the box that opened was Pandora's, a capsule of existential dread and mortal horrors that we could not have imagined before the clock rolled over to midnight. Even when it's not dealing with that feeling directly (and there are times when it does), "V/H/S/99" works as a rollicking exploration of that particular anxiety, and even if you're not willing to follow it to that place, you'll still get plenty of good old-fashioned scares.

"V/H/S/99" premieres on Thursday, October 20 on Shudder.