V/H/S: Viral is the third entry to the popular anthology horror series, a series we’ve had an affection for since its inception back in 2012. The first two films showcased a multitude of styles from across the world with consistently inconsistent quality. The third film comes with the star power afforded by the previous involvement of new genre-masters like Adam Wingard (You’re Next), Timo Tihijanto (Killers), and Ti West (House of the Devil, The Sacrament).
The problem with V/H/S, as Viral proves, is that the formula has become too bankable: as long as there’s at least two good films, the rest can be a bit wobbly. If quality were sacrificed in the name of experimentation (as it frequently is with The ABC’s of Death) then stupidity would be a little more forgivable. Instead, V/H/S: Viral loses its nerve and makes a quick-dive at wider scope without bothering to build on the – already irritatingly – elusive connecting narrative of its predecessors. The house/flat full of ominous old tapes is long gone.
In V/H/S: Viral, we are confronted with a choppily edited, unfinished master-narrative around an ice cream van which tears around the same part of town for hours, eliciting madness in those around. A young fame-hungry jock with a camera decides to follow the van after his girlfriend is seemingly possessed then abducted. The idea behind Vicious Circles is cool but it just doesn’t sit right. How the van is able to still be running after so many tailing police cars/helicopters without being forcibly stopped, is a total stupid mystery. But the van segment manages at least one cool moment (again void of realism or common sense) where a BMX-er is clumsily dragged along behind the van, slowly and graphically losing his shoes, socks, feet, and legs to the corrosive effects of speed and asphalt. The digital effects are passable, but hardly as tangible as a prosthetic bit of dismemberment could have been. It’s a serious disappointment, especially when director Marcel Sarmiento was responsible for one of the more solid shorts in The ABC’s of Death; D is for Dogfight.
Interspersed throughout this alienating frame are some intriguing tales.
Gregg Bishop’s Dante the Great is a magician tale with bite. Dante, a shitty down-on-his-luck redneck with little talent, discovers an ominous cloak once owned by Harry Houdini. The story, told in mockumentary style, unfurls at good pace with a hammy but enjoyable lead performance from Justin Welborn. The cloak, you see, is a rampant carnivore, consuming flesh and ignoring the natural laws of physics whilst granting powers as long as it is fed. The story takes a dodgy OTT turn when Dante and his apprentice Scarlett (Emmy Argo) end up magic-fighting, but visually the scene is so perfectly edited and fast-paced that it pulls off. Bishop’s film is probably the only short in V/H/S: Viral that manages to work impressively with digital effects. Dante and Scarlett tumble around back stage, channelling the almost god-like power of the cloak to beat each other and a platoon of armed officers. After a few minutes the whole thing seems a bit silly, crossing the boundary between spooky and comic after some dumb X-Men ideas, but it’s still a lot of fun. The original concept of losing people or everyday items to a cloak was unnerving enough without the camp elements.
Nacho Vigalondo’s Parallel Monster will seem a bit reminiscent of his Timecrimes (middle-aged guy defies his wife to get caught up in a dark sci-fi adventure) but this one is refreshingly ridiculous and way more unfortunate. A man creates an inter-dimensional portal which grants him access to a parallel world where everything is the same, just a little different. He and his alternate self swap places for fifteen minutes. The portal is gorgeous and the sense of wonder is easily infectious, the horror though, is just as transferable. The mystery of just what is different about these two worlds is both darkly wonderful and hilariously disgraceful: a foul punchline that will have you two parts laughing, one part wincing. It’s a curious point that could be a step too far for many viewers, but for this reviewer, it was a hoot. Vigalondo takes dystopia, Satanism, and monstrous sexuality on a trans-dimensional holiday where the very worst is totally possible and indeed probable. Vigalondo proves himself the most adept at constructing evocative concepts and superb images, hinting at an entire world in just a few minutes.
The best short of the lot is probably Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Bonestorm, but even then it flirts with boredom for far too long before unleashing its occult fury. Too long is spent meandering with a group of young stoner skaters before they decide to travel to Tijuana for weed and women, a doomed venture in the eyes of any seasoned horror fan. After landing on Mexican soil, it isn’t long before the group have found an empty river to skate in and spilt blood over an ominous-looking bit of graffiti. Seconds later there’s murmurs and madness in the air, a witchy type appears, rips off one of the boy’s arms, and chaos ensues. Suddenly, Bonestorm becomes a desperate fight for survival against an increasingly multiplying force of zombie skeletons who are seamlessly constructed for sudden and gorey dissemination. The steam, sweat, and sticky heat have an icky Curandero vibe. Go-pro cameras bob too and fro through the macabre mess, but it’s the white noise and erratic choppiness that threatens to fuck up Bonestorm’s success. Like much of the feature.
V/H/S: Viral attempts to blur the boundaries by randomly instigating its shorts chapters, allowing the frame narrative to blend with the short films. One of the segments sees a group of Mexican types relax for a communal BBQ which inevitably goes to Hell. A roasting fork ends up in a cute wee dog’s head, then seconds later everyone is dead, impaled by multiple forks. It ends as quickly as it begun and though it exists to give scope to the Viral promise of the title, it seems shoehorned, like the brief revenge-porn sequence. It’s part of Sarmiento’s vision and fits alongside the BMX dragging thing, but ends up proving how disjointed and ultimately lacklustre the whole girlfriend rescue plot is. Maybe the issue with V/H/S: Viral, is that it tries to bring the so-far “domesticated” structure of the films out into the dark of the world, but with only an hour and a half to do it. Now that V/H/S is a trilogy, fans will no-doubt be hungry for some explanation beyond the evolution of the threat. The wider narrative is detrimental to the shorts, and the shorts are detrimental to the framework.
The third entry to the VHS franchise proves what I’ve always suspected: concept just isn’t enough, especially with 10-15 minutes screen time. The features have to be technically slam-dunk. The messages have to be clear and concise. In the first two, the shorts that worked were that ones that surpassed the expectations of a short film, both visually and narratively. The ones that impressed did that and managed to refresh basic horror concepts. Glenn McQuaid’s Tuesday the 17th riffs on Friday the 13th by replacing Jason with an unrecordable digital glitch whilst 10/31/98 perfectly condensed a haunted house narrative. Even though Bonestorm is fun, Dante the Great has some tricks up its sleeve, and Parallel Monsters is pretty intriguing- nothing here trumps Timo Tjahjahnto’s Safe Haven from V/H/S 2. On a final note someone deserves a boot up the ass for the choppy glitch editing which is not only disruptive to the film, it gives you a thumping headache too.
V/H/S: Viral is a rushed and fairly daft third venture into the V/H/S collection, reserved for only the most patient open-minded of horror fans. It does, however raise an interesting prospect for a fourth instalment.
Dirs: Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Nacho Vigalondo, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Stars: Patrick Lawrie, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Steve Berens, Justin Welborn, Emmy Argo, Marion Alvarez, Gustavo Salmeron, Shane Brady, Chase Newton