V/H/S: Viral is the third installment in the popular cult anthology horror franchise. V/H/S was a highly-original breath of fresh air to the done-to-death found footage horror subgenre. It may be one of the best indie horror gems of the 21st century. V/H/S 2 was similarly fun to watch, but was ultimately a digression from the previous film. It was a safe sequel that wasn’t trying to go above and beyond what it accomplished with the previous film.
This new sequel is somewhat similar to the first two installments, where a series of short subjects are shown interspersed with an ongoing second plotline. Only, where the original two films had a frame narrative that involved people watching VHS tapes of the other shorts, Viral does away with the isolated house full of videotapes to instead follow a car chase that seemingly everyone wants to film for the sake of being a viral internet sensation. The short subjects still break up this longer narrative, but they have almost no connection to what is going on in the main narrative arc. And this is perhaps the first notable shortcoming of this film.
There are four shorts including the movie-wide arc and a fifth short that was cut in order to have a shorter runtime. The fifth short will be made available in the U.S. Blu-Ray release of the film (a release I will not be buying, so I won’t be reviewing the fifth short. My apologies).
Dante the Great
This segment begins in a police interrogation room, where magician’s assistant Scarlett (Emmy Argo) is being interviewed about her boss Dante (Justin Welborn). Dante, a wannabe magician living in a trailer park, comes across this cloak. The cloak, supposedly owned for a short time by famed illusionist Harry Houdini and subsequently abandoned because it scared him too much, gives Dante a miraculous grasp of his magical craft. The police interrogation footage is quickly abandoned for documentary-style footage boasting of Dante’s prowess as a magician. Cut in with this footage is footage apparently filmed by Dante himself. What we soon see from these disparate video sources is that the cloak has some sort of demonic presence that causes Dante to become drunk in his newfound powers.
First off, this segment is grossly inconsistent in its filming style. We have multiple sources of footage crammed together into one haphazard attempt at a found footage documentary. This is quite a detraction from the style of the previous installments of the V/H/S franchise. There are particular moments that are visually interesting, like shots of levitation and one violent scene in a shower. But there isn’t much to this short. Any tension that may have been created in the first third is lost by the final third. At a certain point, it doesn’t even feel like a horror film anymore, but instead it comes across as a bloody rendition of Now You See Me. The final minute is the only thing bringing it back into the horror genre, and it isn’t a redeeming ending by any means. For the first full short of the movie, it doesn’t hold up to those of the first two movies.
In the second short, from Spanish director Nacho Vigaldono, a man has created a machine that reveals some sort of mirror reality. He meets his doppelganger and crosses over into the other dimension, and the two identical men agree to swap universes for 15 minutes.
This first scene that depicts the crossover is actually intricately shot and cool to watch. It is paced deliberately, revealing that perhaps some more caution should have been exercised on the experimenter’s part. From here, the two men, armed with cameras, enter each other’s lives. We get a lot of first-person POV shots as the two men discover minor differences in the universes that the other inhabits. We cut back and forth between the two men as if we were watching a living spot-the-difference puzzle. Then, as expected, strange things begin to happen, to hilarious results.
I hope that the humor in this short was intentional, because if so, it amounts to a fairly good addition to the V/H/S family. It is creepy, grotesque, and laugh out loud funny. The ending is perfectly orchestrated. There are times where the deliberate pacing becomes too slow, to the point where absolutely nothing is going on in a few shots. However, I enjoyed this short overall, and think that it is the best of the bunch (by far).
This short features a group of skateboarding teenagers trying to shoot a skate video using helmet and board cams and a craigslist-hired cameraman who, for some reason, is intentionally trying to sabotage the shoot. After getting kicked out of every conceivable skate spot in town, the cameraman suggests they travel to Tijuana to finish the video. They begin skating around what appears to be a site for occult rituals. When one of the skaters bails, cutting his elbow and getting blood on a giant occult symbol painted on the ground (which they had been essentially ignoring the entire time), a few creepy characters show up to liven up the shoot.
The filming of this short attempts to be original, but it ends up being an annoying inconvenience. The helmet cams are jarringly unnecessary, and are also apparently capable of doing anything that a professional camera can do, including utilize slow motion and freeze frames without any control by the skateboarders using them.
This short is split into two primary sections. The first 10 minutes is just shots of the boys skateboarding and telling dumb stories about, I don’t know, drinking piss. Because that’s a normal casual conversation topic. The second half is essentially a belabored fight sequence. As in the first short, there isn’t much here in terms of horror. Sure, there’s blood and speculative subject matter, but nothing about the crafting of this short makes it scary. The short doesn’t even have an ending with any closure, just a gross and useless final shot. This is probably the worst of the shorts.
This is the “wraparound” story which plays intermittently throughout the film. In it, Iris (Emilia Zoryan) is kidnapped suddenly while her boyfriend is outside trying to film the police pursuit of an ice cream truck. The boyfriend steals a bike and begins tailing the chase in an attempt to save Iris.
Then, out of nowhere, a barbecue full of Mexican criminals gets involved somehow, to bloody results. After the next short, there is a taxicab reality porn shoot that goes south. All the while, people about town are experiencing random bleeding from using their cell phones, a phenomenon that goes unexplained. It all seems pretty unnecessary, especially for what is meant to be the main plot arc of the film.
What is interesting about “Vicious Circles” is the slight nod that it gives to the best short of the first V/H/S film. Of course, that isn’t enough to warrant the short. It is a messy story that doesn’t do a successful job in building to the final scene. It is understandable that the creators wanted to do something different with their third installment, but, compared to the frame narratives of the first two, “Vicious Circles” pales in comparison. Sure, there is a meta-narrative that comments on the viewer’s own sick delight in watching these types of movies, but it is poorly executed.
This film is setting the trend for the V/H/S franchise, and it is a disappointing trend indeed. I loved the first V/H/S. Sure, there were inconsistencies and imperfections, but overall it was an enjoyable romp of a horror film. Like I said, it was refreshing when compared to other horror that has come out in recent years. V/H/S 2 had similar minor issues, and it certainly was not as good as its predecessor. However, it was watchable.
This third installment is a huge step downhill. I can’t even imagine how far south a V/H/S 4 would go. It saddens me to say this, but, in my humble opinion, I think the franchise should hit the brakes here and call it a day. Hey, batting 2 for 3 ain’t bad.
I don’t recommend this third installment. But I do recommend the first two. If you like horror, you will enjoy V/H/S and most likely V/H/S 2 as well. You can find all three of the films through the links below:
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen V/H/S: Viral? If so, what did you think? Does it hold up to its predecessors? Is it worth it to have another sequel in the future? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)