Now streaming on Shudder, V/H/S/99 (2022) has received mixed critical reception. I enjoyed most of the segments, but the anthology contains one stand-out gem that I want to celebrate: “Ozzy’s Dungeon,” directed by Flying Lotus. Flying Lotus also co-wrote the short with Zoe Cooper, who has been announced as a writer on the forthcoming V/H/S/85.
Steven Ellison, under the stage name “Flying Lotus,” is primarily known as a music producer. His music first appeared on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, and he went on to produce seven well-received studio albums. FlyLo’s directorial debut occurred with the gross-out comedic short film “Royal,” premiering at Sundance in 2016. This short film was a precursor to his infamously disgusting feature-length debut, KUSO (2017), which Pitchfork described as “the most vile body horror film ever made.” Needless to say, Ellison’s previous output demonstrates his cinematic penchant for the grimy and grotesque. While some viewers may find “Ozzy’s Dungeon” overly scatological, the V/H/S/99 segment looks tame in the context of FlyLo’s directorial career.
Fair warning: the remainder of this article will contain full spoilers for “Ozzy’s Dungeon.”
“Ozzy’s Dungeon” begins with a kid’s game show reminiscent of “Legends of the Hidden Temple,” a Nickelodeon program that ran in the 90’s. The winner of the show gets their “favorite wish” granted by Ozzy. As viewers, we may have questions about the nature of Ozzy, but the game show audience seems quite familiar with him. The game show host (Steve Ogg) introduces the segment’s protagonist, Donna (Amelia Ann) and proceeds to talk over her, even giving her opponent, Timmy, a high five while ignoring her. There’s a comment about white male mediocrity in here somewhere, since Timmy (white male contestant) is, by the host’s own admission, “not very good at all,” fumbling his way through the course while Donna (black female contestant) excels. At the last second, though, Donna suffers an excruciating compound leg fracture, seemingly caused by Timmy. The segment finally breaks into horror, making sure you get a good look at Donna’s leg flopping around on the bloodied floor. She begs for the game to stop, but it continues, and she loses.
This is where the short takes its first twist. The footage we’ve been watching is playing on a small TV in a basement, where Donna’s family has the host hostage in a dog cage. Donna’s mother (Sonya Eddy) expresses rage at the fact that he made an impossible course that maimed Donna, who was going to be a “star,” who was going to be the one to “get out” (presumably “get out” of their home city, Detroit). After allowing Donna’s young brother to impale the host with a bizarre knife-helmet, running the host through a tortuous, homemade variation of Ozzy’s dungeon, and threatening him with an injection of acid into his eyes, the host finally claims that he can take them to Ozzy, that he can ask Ozzy to grant Donna’s wish. Donna’s mother, skeptical, claims that she thought Ozzy was “off world” (this jarringly bizarre phrasing tips us off to the fact that Ozzy may have extraterrestrial or extradimensional origins, though it does just enough to drop a hint without actually shedding light on anything).
The short ends with the family and the host arriving at Ozzy’s dungeon, located in a cave under the old game show set where cultic worshippers surround a pregnant woman (Stephanie Ray) lying flat on a bed/altar. Donna’s mother comments that she wants a new car and $10-15 million. Donna whispers her wish to the pregnant woman, who begins to groan. Her stomach opens up and the dark, tentacled “Ozzy” appears, using some sort of necrotic power (accompanied by inscrutable glyphs and symbols) to melt the faces of the game show host, Donna’s mother, and Donna’s father. The visual effects in this scene are, at least aesthetically, top-tier. The segment ends on Donna’s smiling face.
Why does this short work so well? For one: it’s a satisfying revenge fantasy, a staple of horror anthologies and a theme running through all the shorts in V/H/S/99. The story centers on Donna, whose voice is never really heard until the very end, and even then she whispers in such a way that the adults in the room cannot hear. The game show host talks over her, doesn’t allow her to speak, and doesn’t acknowledge her bid for a high-five. We also see that her parents, her mother in particular, have been pressuring her toward stardom from a young age. Though perhaps the audience can find a bit more sympathy for the struggling parents, at least up until the first twist, we nonetheless see the way that the daughter’s own desire is never acknowledged except insofar as it furthers her career and has the potential to enrich the family. She is used. In the climax, we see the violent, repressed urge in a girl who could never voice her own desire gaining expression in Ozzy’s death ray.
The short also seamlessly blends three genres: dystopia, gore, and cosmic horror. The dystopian element is perhaps the most evident in the opening scene, where the host mentions that children often get hurt. We see a girl injured before she is picked up and put on a stretcher, dropped, and the picked up again. Clearly the show exploits children for entertainment. The gore elements in the basement scene are also effective, including a debased version of Ozzy’s obstacle course, some sections filled with excrement (“it sure ain’t bean dip”). Here, the viewer encounters the abject in it’s most literal form: shit. On top of dystopian exploitation and gore, the segment climaxes with, in my opinion, an incredibly effective Lovecraftian deity. In a scene that combines body horror (the woman’s stomach opening), cosmic horror (the literal appearance of a dark, tentacled deity), and gore (face melting), the short delivers on its promise of revenge.
The short conceals as much as it reveals in terms of setting. While a feature-length picture would have needed more “lore,” as it were, “Ozzy’s Dungeon” teases us with just enough to establish narrative stakes and advance the plot. The nature of Ozzy himself becomes a driving mystery behind the short. We are never let into the broader cultural context of the kid’s game show, but it seems that, based on the mother’s knowledge of Ozzy and the signs held by audience members, Ozzy is a well-known phenomenon. But my question throughout the segment was this: is Ozzy generally well-understood? That question is never entirely answered, since the short centers instead on a more important question: is Donna well-understood? That question is answered in the negative, until, of course, her murderous intentions are revealed in the final scene.
This segment is pitch-perfect horror. The revenge arc, the gross-out and the abject, the dark deity, the revelation of suppressed desire, plenty of gore, excellent visual effects, and two major twists that work in the span of about 25 minutes… all these ingredients make for an instant classic in my book.