Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: V/H/S: Viral

by Patrick Bromley
This has to be the movie that kills the V/H/S franchise once and for all.

I have been an apologist for the V/H/S series -- found footage horror anthologies directed by several contemporary indie horror filmmakers like Ti West, Adam Wingard and Glenn McQuaid (as well as some directors not known for horror like The Raid's Gareth Evans and Joe Swanberg) -- through two movies now, finding things to like in both prior installments despite the fact that neither was entirely successful. The first movie was totally inconsistent and didn't work more than it did, but had a low-fi scuzziness and some things to say about misogyny that made it cumulatively effective. V/H/S/2, released just one year later, had much better individual segments that ultimately added up to nothing. It was better and, at the same time, not as good.
Now there's V/H/S: Viral, the third anthology in as many years and the worst film in the series by a wide margin. There are only three segments this time out: in the first, a magician known as Dante the Great (Justin Welborn of The Signal) rises to fame with the help of a powerful cloak that allows him to get away with some pretty heinous stuff. The second segment, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, finds an inventor opening a doorway to a mirror dimension and swapping places with his doppelgänger for 15 minutes. In the third, a group of skateboarders with helmet cams travel to Tijuana and encounter some sort of death cult ritual.

Apparently, there were originally four segments in the anthology; a fourth, from The Apparition director Todd Lincoln, was cut at the last minute for "unknown reasons." At least its omission results in the first V/H/S movie that clocks in at under 90 minutes. While you might think that means it doesn't feel overly long, you would be wrong.

Then there is the wraparound story, which somehow manages to be even weaker than the previous two films' "people watch a succession of VHS tapes" approach. In this one, a guy pursues his girlfriend through Los Angeles in the middle of a citywide police chase, while a bunch of people look on and film shit on their phones and get nosebleeds. The nosebleed power of the first two movie's videotapes has now GONE VIRAL, which is making everyone crazy...I think. The point is that it's viral, because viral is a thing. Have I mentioned this movie is not good?
The badness starts right away, actually; we get the usual blue screen and VCR text saying "PLAY," which immediately cuts to some footage that is clearly not shot on any kind of videotape. The first segment, directed by Gregg Bishop (who made Dance of the Dead), almost totally abandons the found footage conceit; it's all professionally edited, there are a number of shots not taken by any video or security camera -- it's just a narrative film -- and even some shots are in slow motion. The fucking movie can't even stick to its own rules. Aside from one or two cool effects shots, "Dante the Great" is as bad as the weakest segment in any V/H/S movie, a recored previously held by "Tuesday the 17th" from the first film.

I was hoping things would pick up from there with Nacho Vigalondo's contribution, "Parallel Monsters." It starts strong, with the same kind of sci-fi bent that made the director's Timecrimes so interesting. It justifies the found footage premise, making its protagonist an inventor who's documenting everything his finds in the mirror dimension, and builds an effective sense of dread as we realize that things aren't quite right on the other side. It falls apart from there, though, and when he finally reveals his endgame, it's too silly to be scary or take seriously -- it's a punchline that ought to appear in a Troma movie. As a matter of fact, it has. Maybe it's meant to be funny. It isn't, but at least it would explain why Vigalondo pisses away the tension he had established. The final image suggests we're supposed to take it seriously, but even that is just an echo of his "A is for Apocalpyse" from the first ABCs of Death.
Finally, there's "Bonestorm" from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, the team behind Resolution and the upcoming Spring, about which I've heard nothing but good buzz. Though a bit too chaotic for my liking -- it follows a bunch of kids making chaos before some undead chaos comes to find them -- it might be the strongest segment in the bunch (Vigalondo's feels the most like an actual movie, but shoots itself in the foot). There are several really cool makeup effects and an overall creepiness that results from setting what is essentially a zombie movie in bright, broad daylight. We're not used to seeing undead monsters attack in these conditions, and the disconnect proves unsettling for even the most avid horror fan; it gives us something we've seen dozens of times, but a new way of seeing it. It doesn't work as a narrative (I'm still not sure I followed everything that happens) and its teenage protagonists are insufferably douchey, but at least it ends V/H/S: Viral with a bang.

Almost. Before the film ends, we have to get another 15 minutes of the worthless wraparound story (directed by Deadgirl's Marcel Sarmiento), which opens up the scope compared to the previous two movies but somehow manages to be worse. It loses the sense of dread present in both V/H/S and V/H/S/2 and replaces it with car chases and an ice cream truck and some gore effects, all intercut with old footage of a couple in love (you know, like in Cloverfield). It continues the "mythology" of the series without adding anything to it, except to say that now the magic videos are affecting a lot more people. Why does this series even need a mythology?
What the series doesn't need is a fourth installment. V/H/S: Viral has made sure of that. What was a series in which the good (or at least the interesting) outweighed the bad has now become the inverse. Even as an apologist of the series, I have a hard time defending anything about the third installment, a mostly-bad collection of shorts that are unrelated both tonally and aesthetically, and which can hardly even be bothered to adhere to the rules set forth by the franchise in the first place. This should have been the sequel that learned from the mistakes of its predecessors and offered something more consistent and/or effective. Instead, it offers only diminishing returns.

V/H/S: Viral is currently available via iTunes and VOD. It opens in limited release on November 21.


  1. Both of your previous podcasts with J.B. about this series steered me clear. Glad I wasn't missing much.

  2. That's a real shame, I was planning on watching it tonight. I think I liked the first couple more than you guys, as I thought all the segments had their pluses and minuses. Also it you didn't like one segment, all you had to do was wait out 10-15 minutes for it to be over, which is better than being tortured after 100 minutes of Ouija. I still might check it out, since I want to find out myself (and won't actually read the full review until I watch it).

  3. I'd probably call myself a VHS Apologist as well - I know they're not great but they appeal to my love for horror anthologies and the first two entries both had a redeeming quality or two (and I mean, "Safe Haven" from V/H/S 2 might be the best found footage thing ever) - I have a feeling that goodwill ends with this one - hopefully the franchise does as well!

  4. I must respectfully disagree with you on Dante the Magician. There are no tapes in this movie therefore there is no rules that it has to be 100% found footage. I would argue that it's not only the best of Viral, but one of the best of the series.

    I would also argue that part 1 or 2 were also unrelated both tonally and aesthetically. However I agree with you that the rest of the movie (aside from the portal machine short) is hard to watch.

  5. I saw this at a close-to-packed midnight preview at NYC's IFC Center a few weekends ago. The crowd was pumped and eager to like it, but you could actually feel the joy evaporate from the theater as the minutes and segments unfolded. At the end of "Viral" nobody booed or anything, but everyone was just numb and didn't even really wanted to talk about. Rarely does a theater audience have the same collective feeling that they've wasted 90 min. and a weekend of their precious time on trash, but that's what "Viral" contributed to our lives.

    Liked "V/H/S" enough, loved parts of "V/H/S 2" but "V/H/S Viral" isn't even worth writing or thinking about, let alone reviewing.

  6. Made me laugh. I know what you think of films that run out of ideas so they need to open up the mythology. You did well to find so much to say about a film with nothing to say.

    Great line from JM where nobody booed. They were just numb.

    I'm saving myself loads of time being an F-head recently. It might be just me but there seems to be a lot of bad movies recently

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