After the mixed bag that was the original V/H/S and the cornucopia of riches that was V/H/S/2, the anthology series reaches its inevitable third entry with V/H/S: Viral. Granted, the title mostly seems to apply to the film’s wraparound story, but it’s a neat, catchy title nonetheless. And while the four stories that make up Viral are executed to varying degrees of success, there’s no question that the law of diminishing returns hangs over the proceedings like a dark cloud. Though hardcore fans of the series will no doubt walk away at least somewhat satisfied by Viral’s offerings, it definitely skimps out on horror in favor of more playful and loose genre riffing—an approach that will entertain some and leave others disappointed.
Right off the bat, Viral honors tradition by again falling prey to the subpar wraparound story, a flaw that has unfortunately plagued all three installments. That’s not to say segment director Marcel Sarmiento should be dinged for trying something new. Whereas the first two films featured ongoing stories that were mostly characterized by their stationary nature—characters sitting in front of a TV and watching various horror tales play out on videocassettes—Sarmiento seems determined to infuse his version with visceral movement. The gist of this segment—as far as I can discern—involves a man on a desperate search for his girlfriend, who disappears after a mysterious truck speeds by their house. In the process, the truck appears to transmit video to various tablets and screens, thus presenting a vehicle for the three stories to follow. While there seems to be a viable concept at play involving the corruptive influence of technology, it’s not given the room or attention to develop into anything other than a vague, tacked-on idea. Moreover, the story itself, with its frequent digital glitches and shaky cinematography, becomes (literally) difficult to watch at times.
The first proper segment we get is “Dante the Great.” The short focuses on a renowned stage magician who has been arrested for the alleged murder of several assistants. Boasting the structure of a Dateline-type news segment—thereby deviating from the typical “found footage” angle—the short traces Dante’s rise from podunk/trailer trash wannabe to arena-filling phenomenon. His newfound abilities, the documentary points out, coincided with his discovery of a mysterious cape. It soon becomes clear that, in order to retain the magical abilities, Dante had to provide sacrifices to the cape.
Despite its vaguely Tales from the Crypt/Goosebumps vibe, “Dante the Great” benefits greatly from a handful of great action scenes and effects as well as a charismatic, if creepy, performance from Justin Welborn as the title character.
Second up is “Parallel Monsters” from Timecrimes director Nacho Vigalondo. The most established director of the bunch, Vigalondo brings a definite confidence and skill to a kooky premise that makes this my personal favorite pick of the litter.
The segment begins with a young Spanish man named Alfonso putting the finishing touches on a portal machine that allows access to a parallel dimension. Alfonso’s invention works like gangbusters, and he is soon staring at a parallel version of himself. The two Alfonsos are overjoyed at this breakthrough and decide to briefly cross over into each other’s dimensions for exploration. Though at first the differences appear to be minimal (what’s on the left side in one reality is on the right side in the other, etc.), Alfonso soon discovers that this new world is far more sinister and grotesque than he could have ever imagined.
What’s great about this segment in particular is the slow-burning suspense that Vigalondo employs. From the moment Alfonso steps into the alt-reality, there’s a palpable sense of dread for what’s about to transpire. Unlike all the other segments, which speed along at a rapid pace, Vigalondo is quite content with milking this anxiety for all it’s worth.
The final segment, entitled “Bonestorm,” follows a trio of young skater punks who travel down to Mexico in hopes of finding an ideal location to try out some moves. The boys quickly find that they are the targets of a gang of machete-wielding, skull-mask-wearing cultists. The rest of the segment basically degenerates into an elaborate, blood-soaked action set piece, with the boys fighting off the mini-army with little more than their skateboards and various confiscated weapons. Here, directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead do a fantastic job of creating a sense of propulsive action, punctuating the sequence with spastic editing (footage courtesy of the boys’ GoPro cameras) and a soundscape that makes sure you feel every hit.
Though certainly the slightest segment of the three core ones, “Bonestorm” marks a nice closing segment, celebrating the kind of raucous, balls-to-the-wall genre experience that the V/H/S project was founded upon. And while it’s frustrating that the story cuts off right as it looks to be reaching a new level of insanity, what’s left is a fun, adrenaline-fueled ride.
Perhaps because of its truncated story (a fourth segment by The Apparition director Todd Lincoln was cut from the final product), V/H/S: Viral can’t help but feel somewhat incomplete. On the other hand, the scant running time also allows for the kind of tight, consistent flow of V/H/S/2. And while none of Viral’s segments manage to equal any of the better sequences from either previous V/H/S installments, what’s left is a solid group of vignettes that—while not reinventing the wheel—will surely put a smile on the right (albeit, twisted) viewers’ faces. Myself included, I suppose.
Director: Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson & Aaron Scott Moorhead
Writer: Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson & Aaron Scott Moorhead, T.J. Cimfel, Ed Dougherty, David White
Starring: Patrick Lawrie, Emmy Argo, Heather Hayes, Jessica Luza, John Curran, Justin Welborn
Release Date: November 21, 2014
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him onTwitter.