God bless V/H/S.
After burning brightly for three straight years, it looked like the V/H/S franchise was dead after V/H/S: Viral.
And then a beautiful thing happened: The franchise moved to Shudder last year, and the fourth installment, V/H/S/94, became their biggest film premiere ever and hit 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, the highest mark for a V/H/S film by a wide margin. Naturally, Shudder decided to parlay this success by announcing a fifth film, V/H/S/99, for another October premiere this year—and before it even arrived, they announced a sixth film, V/H/S/85, slated for next year.
All is well in the world of V/H/S, and that’s a good thing. In an age of hit-and-miss horror anthologies, this franchise has provided some of the most hit-and-miss collections of them all—and yet, all five films have at least one or two truly entertaining segments to tide viewers over. Mileage may vary with the found-footage format, but there’s nothing else quite like this series.
More importantly, though, this franchise has been a wonderful playground for genre filmmakers who are either finding their footing or experimenting with different formats. After their segments were released, V/H/S alumni went on to make independent horror classics like The Guest, Ready or Not, The Ritual, Colossal, X, May The Devil Take You, The Endless, Séance, and Apostle as well as other franchise installments like Blair Witch, Hellraiser, and Scream.
Last year, I took up the challenge of ranking all 21 segments (including the wraparounds and one short that was cut altogether). This year, I added the five segments of V/H/S/99 to the mix, and I’m already excited about stretching the list to more than 30 next year.
Give it a read and then let us know what we got wrong (or right, if you’re feeling nice).
26. “Dante the Great” – Gregg Bishop (V/H/S: Viral)
No disrespect to Bishop, but somebody has to be last on these lists. The Southern setting is a nice touch (especially the lovely Fox Theatre in Atlanta), but this short is burdened by many things, namely the shoddy CGI, lackluster lead performances, and a talking-heads-style framing device that does it no favors. And if we’re being honest, there’s nothing scary about a murderous magician with a cloak that craves blood.
25. “Tuesday the 17th” – Glenn McQuaid (V/H/S)
There’s a nice aesthetic quality to McQuaid’s riff on the slasher flicks of his youth—as evidenced immediately by the title—but the homage gets pretty old pretty quickly, even for a short film. And not to be all “that’s not how video cameras work,” but the supernatural element meant to set this segment apart from its titular predecessor just makes it more of a head-scratcher.
24. “Vicious Circles” – Marcel Sarmiento (V/H/S: Viral)
The least successful wraparound of the franchise flies a bit too close to the sun. Sarmiento deserves credit for trying something different from the first two framework devices, but it’s too disjointed and unrestrained to tell an effective story—or even make sense most of the time. The backyard barbeque and the taxi cab hostage moments are solid, but they don’t fit into the larger story very well.
23. “The Gawkers” – Tyler MacIntyre (V/H/S/99)
MacIntyre’s segment is peppered with a blend of late 90s nostalgia both authentic (Hot Pockets, degenerate adolescent masculinity, a character named Boner) and forced (the Woodstock ’99 lineup, Y2K bunker planning, name-dropping the likes of Britney Spears and Sarah Michelle Gellar) to the point where it feels overseasoned to mask a lackluster cut of meat. And sure enough, once the limited action finally kicks in, it’s plagued by shoddy CGI and a concept far too similar to an earlier, better V/H/S short. It doesn’t help that this segment is burdened by carrying the forgettable wraparound clips.
22. “Tape 56” – Adam Wingard (V/H/S)
In the original wraparound device, Wingard and his friends play a band of scumdog losers who commit (and record) public sex crimes for money before embarking upon a more profitable excursion: stealing a special videotape from an old man’s house. It’s hard to watch at times (and hasn’t aged well in that way), but there are some solid scares and a nice atmosphere, and it sets the tone well for the franchise as a whole.
21. “Gorgeous Vortex” – Todd Lincoln (V/H/S: Viral)
If you’re scratching your head here, you might not’ve actually seen this one. Lincoln’s short was cut from the final version of the film and lives only as an extra on the physical release because, well, he didn’t really understand the assignment. It’s abstract, it’s dialogue-free, it moves like a music video, and it isn’t found footage…but it isn’t that bad either. With a brief runtime and some memorable imagery, it’s worth digging up.
20. “The Empty Wake” – Simon Barrett (V/H/S/94)
Barrett’s idea here is a good one, especially for a single location (which looks great from a production design standpoint). But the build-up is all atmosphere and phone calls, and by the time the antagonist arrives, it feels like too little too late, especially when it ends abruptly. That said, there’s something rewarding about Mother Nature being the ultimate victor at the end of a horror tale…
19. “Phase I Clinical Trials” – Adam Wingard (V/H/S/2)
Wingard got to make a proper horror short his second time around, and though it’s the least effective segment in the V/H/S/2 crop, he did have some stiff competition. He might’ve benefitted from hiring a better actor and fleshing out the narrative a bit more, but the concept of a bionic eye doubling as a camera is pretty cool, and shady medicinal ethics always provide a nice boost in this genre.
18. “Tape 49” – Simon Barrett (V/H/S/2)
An improvement upon his buddy Wingard’s original wraparound saga, Barrett’s piecemeal framework gives us a groovy “haunted tapes” scenario that follows a pair of ethically ambiguous amateur detectives (though they’re far less scummy than the “Tape 56” hooligans). There’s not much of a story to it once they get to their investigation, but these framework devices can only do so much. (Barrett bares it all in the opening minutes, though, and you have to respect that.)
17. “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” – Joe Swanberg (V/H/S)
Aesthetically speaking, this segment doesn’t exactly follow the rules, since it’s on a computer screen. But credit to Swanberg for delivering an early entry into a subgenre that would explode a couple years later with films like Unfriended. The twist is a bit flat, but the format works well here, playing up the fear of dark rooms in a fresh way and blending a few different subgenres into the mix.
16. “A Ride In The Park” – Eduardo Sánchez & Gregg Hale (V/H/S/2)
The franchise comes thematically full circle here with the co-director and producer of The Blair Witch Project. The idea of using a GoPro as the recording device is clever, and while a zombie origin event in the woods isn’t the most original premise (especially after they’d already nailed the “spooky woods” conceit), Sánchez and Hale keep the narrative tight and elevate it above mediocrity with some light humor and great effects.
15. “10/31/98” – Radio Silence (V/H/S)
The final chapter of the original anthology is a pretty standard haunted house scenario on the page: A group of young men show up for a Halloween party at an unknown location to find an empty house. (Or is it?) The special effects leave something to be desired, but the Radio Silence team knows how to execute a decent premise. It’s a fun segment and a great closing chapter, right down to the terrifying final images.
14. “Shredding” – Maggie Levin (V/H/S/99)
With only one feature under her belt, Levin is the scrappy newcomer of the fifth anthology, and she earns her spot by leaning into an essential late 90s scene—the DIY blend of punk rock, skate videos, and street stunts that was inescapable at the time. The concept of a zombie female punk band haunting the venue where they were trampled to death is a terrific one, and while it plays out mostly as expected once it gets going, the final moment is pretty nifty.
13. “Holy Hell” – Jennifer Reeder (V/H/S/94)
The directors of the wraparounds always have the biggest challenge, but Reeder’s rises above all the others thanks to a solid premise—a SWAT team raids a warehouse thinking it’s a drug bust only to stumble upon a spooky analog cult scenario—and some terrific production design. Also, points to Reeder for getting one of the best line reads of the franchise: “We don’t need more tech. We need a gravedigger!”
12. “Suicide Bid” – Johannes Roberts (V/H/S/99)
Roberts has already tackled sharks, zombies, and home intruders on a large scale, so it makes sense that he would lean on his diversified palette here. Though this segment starts with a simple enough premise—a young, lonely college girl desperate enough to do anything for a sorority bid—he expertly weaves no fewer than three distinct fears into a tight window. It doesn’t quite nail the landing, but when it’s really cooking, it’s enough to make you squirm in your seat.
11. “To Hell and Back” – Vanessa & Joseph Winter (V/H/S/99)
The final chapter of V/H/S/99 certainly lives up to the film’s tagline by sending its protagonists, well, to hell. A witchy ritual gone wrong catapults a two-man camera crew to the netherworld where they spend most of the segment’s runtime exploring the rocky wasteland and fleeing from demonic creatures. The main characters aren’t very compelling, especially when they’re bickering through their anxieties, but the effects are plentiful and great, and the twist ending is a nice finishing touch.
10. “Bonestorm” – Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead (V/H/S: Viral)
A couple of narrative decisions already feel outdated here, but Benson and Moorhead really go for it. The second V/H/S segment to employ GoPro cameras, this one works better in the context of skate punks trying to film their own trick compilation, only to find themselves in the midst of a resurrection ritual in Tijuana. Particular praise is in order for great effects and what feels like the most blood and carnage of the series.
9. “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” – Jason Eisener (V/H/S/2)
Your mileage may vary on the adolescent shenanigans and the ensuing revenge plot, but once the aliens actually show up (including a nice underwater preview), Eisener’s short becomes a different kind of party. The very last shot will trigger many viewers, but strapping a camera to a little dog was a refreshing creative choice. And if you love this segment, look for the full-length spinoff, Kids vs. Aliens, premiering on Shudder in early 2023.
8. “The Subject” – Timo Tjahjanto (V/H/S/94)
Tjahjanto is trusted with the longest, meatiest segment of V/H/S/94, and while it’s near the middle of that crop, it’s still an absolute blast. It may be more of a gory action film than a true horror short—and the quality of that video footage is far too crisp for a handheld camera in 1994—but the pacing of the setup and the reveal provide a solid foundation for all the bonkersness happening from the jump.
7. “Second Honeymoon” – Ti West (V/H/S)
West was arguably the most established horror director of the original crew, and it’s easy to see why in his lone contribution to the franchise. There’s no gimmick to be found here—and not much gore either. But this slow-burn segment following a young couple on the road, acted well by Sophia Takal and fellow V/H/S director Joe Swanberg, implements a level of underlying dread typically only achieved in features.
6. “Ozzy’s Dungeon” – Flying Lotus (V/H/S/99)
The least predictable and most unhinged of the fifth anthology spans the genre spectrum in a clean three-act structure. It begins as a gross-out retro comedy paying homage to Nickelodeon’s notoriously difficult Legends of the Hidden Temple, switches to a revenge/torture porn saga, and concludes with a Lovecraftian nightmare. It’s not the spookiest segment of the franchise, but Flying Lotus expands upon the bizarre creativity he displayed in Kuso to provide one of the most fun (and most memorable) chapters.
5. “Terror” – Ryan Prows (V/H/S/94)
Prows toes the line effectively with the V/H/S/94 bookender; gun-toting right-wing extremists might be the scariest villains imaginable in this day and age, but for those who are able to laugh at their buffoonery, this might be the funniest segment in the franchise. The exploding vampire rabbit (perhaps an ode to Bunnicula, since this is 1994 after all) is almost as memorable as the long-jawed vampire master himself.
4. “Parallel Monsters” – Nacho Vigalondo (V/H/S: Viral)
Widely believed to be the worst film in the franchise (and possibly the reason why it remained dormant for years), V/H/S: Viral nonetheless gives viewers a truly great segment from Vigalondo. The pacing is the key here as the short follows a Spanish inventor who builds a gateway to another dimension…and then slowly finds out how different that dimension truly is. (Two words: demon penis.)
3. “Storm Drain” – Chloe Okuno (V/H/S/94)
The concept here—a vainglorious news reporter trying to spin gold out of a dead-end story—is a refreshing framework for not just this series but the found footage subgenre at large. Perhaps it owes a bit to [REC] for that, but what this news team discovers in the titular storm drain is wonderfully wild and ultimately unforgettable, right down to the ill-fated recap behind the news desk. (I’m convinced this one was partially inspired by the Crichton leprechaun in Mobile. That amateur sketch!)
2. “Amateur Night” – David Bruckner (V/H/S)
Bruckner’s chilling segment stole the show the first time around and announced him as a future force in the horror genre. What starts as a despicable spin on a sexual conquest for a few young men—which feels even slimier after the first portion of “Tape 49”—slowly devolves into something sinister and befitting of its faux hero characters, fueled brilliantly by Hannah Fierman’s terrifying expressions and landed splendidly with a terrific climax. This one is so good, it got its own feature-length spinoff (Siren).
1. “Safe Haven” – Timo Tjahjanto & Gareth Evans (V/H/S/2)
Two of the finest 21st century genre directors combined their talents to create not just the best segment of the franchise but what might be among the best short-form horror pieces ever made. What could’ve been a routine found-footage concept—a camera team traveling to a remote area to document something vaguely unsettling—is elevated to classic status thanks to tremendous effects, terrific atmosphere, a stellar performance from Epy Kusnandar, and one hell of a final moment. Even at a full 30 minutes (still the longest segment of the franchise), it doesn’t wear out its welcome for a single second.