“V/H/S: Viral” (2014)
by A.J. Hakari
I’m past the point of getting pissed over the V/H/S franchise having disavowed its namesake format. The first installment of this anthology series got me all hot and bothered by arriving under the guise of paying tribute to shot-on-video horror, only to boast more digitally-inspired tales of terror. Its follow-up, however, distanced itself even further from the cassette-based conceit, yet the quality of the stories contained therein was greatly improved; who cares how beholden one is to a gimmick, as long as the content is cool? It was with the hope that some of today’s finest genre talents were similarly given the freedom to go nuts that I approached V/H/S: Viral, a vehicle that ends up rehashing everything irksome about that first flick. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of anthology horror by featuring truncated segments that whiz away any traces of potential they might have had, it sweetens the pot by incorporating dizzyingly awful photography and intentional video “glitches” that detract from the overall atmosphere rather than enhance it. I don’t hate V/H/S: Viral because it doesn’t have any tapes; I hate it because it’s a terrible film, one that exemplifies all those annoying traits that give the found footage concept a bad name.
As opposed to the more concrete framing device favored by its predecessors, V/H/S: Viral employs one that plunges us right into the carnage. As he hits the streets to record an ongoing police chase, a young man (Patrick Lawrie) witnesses his girlfriend (Emila Zoryan) getting captured by the ice cream truck that the cops are after. While he takes off in hot pursuit, viewers are shown a terrifying trio of shorts interwoven with his efforts to get his gal pal back safe and sound. The first story involves a documentary centered around a magician (Justin Welborn) whose cloak conceals the demonic truth behind his talents. Next up, a scientist (Gustavo Salmeron) constructs a gateway into an alternate dimension that turns out to be more monstrous than he anticipated. The final vignette follows a troupe of skater punks heading to Mexico to shoot a video, only to become part of a strange cult’s deadly rituals. But as the aforementioned youngster races to get his girlfriend out of harm’s way, he remains oblivious to the chaos spreading around him, a wave of death and destruction that he’s in danger of helping bring to its crest.
V/H/S: Viral is slightly better than the movie that launched this franchise, if only because the latter had no prior entries to set you up for disappointment. Such issues as ignoring the bevy of ways that it could’ve aesthetically and thematically worked the videotape angle into the proceedings are of no outstanding concern, but in its place are a host of other shortcomings to drive you up the damned wall. Firstly, there’s the matter of the photography, which alternates between unbearably jittery and almost completely confounding in design. The questions of who compiled this footage, where they found it, and how they edited it all together are things you sort of have to forgive flicks of this type for not answering, but when they nag at you as strongly as they do in V/H/S: Viral, paying them no mind is downright impossible. They take you out of the moment in a heartbeat, causing what atmosphere the movie had hoped to generate to vanish in a puff of logic. Say what you want about the wraparound stories of its predecessors, but in terms of their characters stumbling upon the segments we come to see, reacting to what they find, and interacting with the forces that created them, there was at least a little something there. Here, there’s nearly no sense of correlation between the two areas, and by the time the film gets around to spilling the beans on what they have to do with each other, the slapdash structuring and frames upon frames of intentional technical glitches (for added “effect”) have since made you cease to care.
But V/H/S: Viral is only as good as the scary stories it tells, and in this case, even its best material isn’t very sterling. With only three vignettes and the framing material, this film is much shorts than its ancestors, which delivers a modicum of relief. The magician segment has a fun premise behind it, although it’s painfully easy to predict what’s going to happen, and the staging so stretches the limits of its first-person perspective, one wonders why director Gregg Bishop (Dance of the Dead) didn’t save and expand upon it for another, better anthology flick. Timecrimes maestro Nacho Vigalondo takes on the second story, which is easily the movie’s finest; it comes the closest to peeling back the layers of its core mystery in a suspenseful manner, and despite another payoff you can see coming from a mile away, the journey there is strange and demented enough to leave you not minding so much. But the same can’t be said for the skater saga, which, with its death cults, dismemberment, and demons summoned from the depths of doom, comes off as a poor attempt to replicate the acclaimed “Safe Haven” short from V/H/S/2. With irritating characters you’re dying to see get eviscerated on the outset clobbering ghouls for twentysomething minutes, the repetition crushes your patience in a matter of moments. As far as the wraparound story goes, the less said, the better — it’s weak sauce on its own, and it’s even more anemic as a device meant to tie up all the segments with a blood-soaked bow.
I keep hoping this franchise gets better (which certainly seemed the case, considering how decent the second flick was), but after watching V/H/S: Viral, I’m ready to throw in the towel. As a junkie for found footage cinema and anthology horror, I can safely say that this film is a horrid example of both subgenres, dumping half-developed concepts on the screen and using erratic editing tricks to con its way into being declared edge or freaky. V/H/S: Viral didn’t just leave me steamed; it left me tired and utterly disappointed with the notion that some really talented horror filmmakers were brought under the same roof to crank out…this.