The third film in the V/H/S series is here: the jarring, wannabe-shocking V/H/S: Viral. It unleashes skateboarders, Satan, and a murderous magician — and a flicker of hope that the found-footage horror trend is finally on its way out.
Was anyone overjoyed to hear that the V/H/S series was becoming a trilogy? (Serious question: did anyone actually see part two?) What began as an intriguing anthology concept in 2012 — the first film boasted contributions from indie bros Adam Wingard (You're Next, The Guest), Ti West (The House of the Devil), and Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies) — has begat V/H/S: Viral, a flailing mass of horror imagery that only occasionally ties into its titular "viral" theme.
Back to that viral business in a minute. First, can we all agree that it's time for every horror filmmaker, everywhere, to back off the found-footage trend? (It was actually the time about five years ago … maybe longer.) It's been 15 years since The Blair Witch Project wrung genuine terror from a simple story about three kids lost in the woods. It's been seven years since Rec, and six since Cloverfield. The sixth Paranormal Activity flick comes out in 2015, which means those video ghosts are halfway to Jason Voorhees-style redundancy at this point.
Those films are genre high points, yet they still suffer from the annoyances that pepper every found-footage film. Someone has to whine, "Why are you still filming?" (something the audience is usually already wondering — put that camera down and run from that zombie! You in danger, girl!) The action, ostensibly entirely self-filmed, is almost always shaped by hand of an unacknowledged editor; even in cases when the footage is literally "found" as part of the narrative, scenes tend to be carefully stitched together: a surveillance cam shot here, a shaky cell-phone vid there, a dramatic cut precisely when it best serves the story. The idea that found-footage films are supposed to deliver an authentic, fourth-wall-busting, spontaneously-unfolding story is compromised when the films begin to echo each other too closely.
But still, though the material is presented as "real," it's never entirely believable — even back in the Cannibal Holocaust era, did any audience member believe he or she was watching a true story, as the movie insisted? The most real thing about found footage is that it's incredibly cheap to make (no-name actors, purposefully crappy production values) and tends to turn a profit, which means Hollywood won't be signing my KILL THE GENRE petition anytime soon.
Ergo, we have V/H/S: Viral, which has one established director (Nacho Vigalondo of time-travel mindfuck Timecrimes) and a handful of on-the-rise types (Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, and duo Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead — aaannnd the series' no-female-directors streak continues). Synopses scattered across the Internet suggest Viral was planned with a frame story and an additional segment, both scrapped in favor of a more slender running time and, as it turns out, at the expense of coherence.
We begin with the sound of a VHS tape being sucked into a VCR, followed by blips of static well familiar to any kid of the 1980s who frantically hammered the "tracking" button to make Blockbuster's well-worn copy of Poltergeist play more smoothly. Without a wraparound for context, the movie begins by crash-landing into its first segment. Vicious Circles starts as a sweet video diary capturing a pretty girl and her camera-obsessed boyfriend. (Boobs are ogled.) The constant filming inevitably puts a strain on their relationship — writer-director Marcel Sarmiento carefully includes a caught-on-tape argument in which the girl snaps, "Put that thing down and face what's going on! Do you think it's gonna go viral? Do you think you're gonna be famous?" — but the interpersonal drama is soon overrun by an outside event: a police chase involving a rather slow-moving ice cream truck through the streets of Los Angeles. With a gruesome ambition that rivals Jake Gyllenhaal's ambulance-chaser in Nightcrawler, the boy takes to the streets to record the action, until his girlfriend receives a mysterious call on her cell and suddenly vanishes.
Where did she go? (We learn more as the film progresses, since this segment is reoccuring.) But do we care? We don't, really, because it's on to the next sequence without any fanfare or much logic. Gregg Bishop's Dante the Great is shot like a documentary, complete with "expert" talking heads. The subject is a fame-obsessed magician with questionable facial hair who discovers an enchanted cape. Mind-blowing tricks are his reward — as long as he satisfies the cape's thunderous blood lust by supplying it with fresh victims on the regular. (Still with me?) "Dante recorded everything. He always needed an audience," we learn, and his frightened assistant eventually leads the cops to a stash of hidden VHS cassettes (actual tapes! Drink!), crammed with so much damning evidence they might as well all be labeled "Dante the Great...Murderer."
Despite its head-scratching premise (was Bishop a fan of H.G. Lewis' The Wizard of Gore, or what?), Dante the Great is the most conventional of the segments; it has a discernable beginning and end, and its wild-eyed commitment to its ludicrous plotline is almost admirable. Vigalondo's Spanish-language segment Parallel Monsters is similarly balls-to-the-wall, but its choppy editing is a constant distraction, and its CG effects are distracting at best and snicker-inducing at worst. A scientist sets up his camera to record the test run of the contraption he's been building in his basement: a portal to a parallel dimension, which slides open to reveal the man's exact double, living in a mirror-image world. Delighted, the doppelgangers decide to swap places for 15 minutes, and we follow them both: same house, same wife, same weird Satanic artwork in place of a wedding photo ... aw hell no. Turns out flipped-around world is a very dark place, though its mounting bizarro revelations do pause long enough for someone to ask our inventor, "Are you filming this? What's your problem?"
The final portion, Benson and Moorhead's Bonestorm, is the only part of V/H/S: Viral that suggests anyone going into this actually knew what a viral video is. Its theme: skateboarders, entrenched in a culture that believes one's best trick is only worth anything if someone happens to catch it on tape. In search of a skate spot that will yield Jackass-eclipsing stunts, the SoCal bros motor down to Tijuana, where they happen upon a drainage ditch that seems to fit the bill — until a rampaging cult lurches out of the desert. Rarely before has "skate or die" taken on such literal meaning.
Though Vicious Circles' car-chase mayhem runs through the entire film, it's not substantial (or sensical) enough on its own to support all of Viral's fragments. Its conclusion tries to make uploading a video into something terrifying (true only in situations involving crappy wireless), but it feels like mere lip service, justifying an of-the-moment sounding title that contains zero content that would actually go viral. Despite its generous carnage, there's nothing here that tops real-world found footage — and ain't nobody going to be sharing clips from V/H/S: Viral on Facebook, because there's nothing memorable about it.