V/H/S: Viral Review

The handheld anthology series loads up another installment into the VCR with V/H/S: Viral, proving they're not out of ideas yet.

When considering something like V/H/S: Viral, one must realize that we’re in a time where horror means “franchise” and “yearly sequels.” Due to this mentality, interesting concepts like Saw and Paranormal Activity get run into the ground. As a recent remedy to such fatigue, the ever-popular idea of anthology horror has returned to the public consciousness and as a result, we’ve seen a number of new franchises like this and The ABCs of Death pop up.

While the first two entries in the V/H/S series were effectively frightening and inventive horror films, with V/H/S 2 largely even being seen as the better of the two, the inevitable fear here is that V/H/S: Viral would muddle that mixture and dilute what is currently a strong set of films. Fortunately, the third installment in the series might be the best title yet, and is certainly the most ambitious in a lot of ways.

While V/H/S and its sequel were tied together by their wraparound runner segment, V/H/S: Viral weaves a new story here (“Vicious Circles”) as we watch a couple try and get reunited as the world seems to be falling apart around them. We’ve given oblique details about people watching a certain video, getting nosebleeds, and going crazy accordingly, and there’s some extremely effective work being done here in regard to telling a story around the edges and off-camera.

While this segment might be the weakest of the four presented here, and doesn’t contain the same sense of dread and foreboding that the previous films’ runners do, it still manages to excel at showing sprawling chaos. It feels like the apocalypse is going on around us, seeming deeply reminiscent of the subtle end-of-the-world film Last Night, as tone is built by throwing in creepy touches like creepy ice cream truck music skirting through everything.

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The first real segment, “Dante the Great” follows a magician who acquires Houdini’s cloak, a beyond-powerful magic item that basically makes him all-powerful. Dante finds himself feeding the cloak assistant after assistant to appease it, in an unspoken agreement between the two.

There are some inventive perspectives going on here, from interviews, to security camera footage, to Dante’s handheld camera, each building on the story and reflecting the illusory nature of magic.

Lots of beautiful effects work is also being done here, as well as some practical gravity and ragdoll mechanics that are a joy to watch and push all of this to the max. If you’re a fan of magic in the least, then you’ll pretty much go insane over the tour de force magic revenge sequence that occurs. It’s seriously ridiculous. Tada, indeed.

Next up is the breathtaking “Parallel Monsters,” a foreign effort that’s a brilliant, slow moving piece that takes its time and gets progressively more terrifying and dark as it goes along. The entry deals with a scientist who builds a gateway to a parallel universe, meets his other, and the exceptional concept of the two of them spending fifteen minutes in the opposite one’s universe is decided upon.

Of course, an incredible amount can go wrong in fifteen minutes, and ultimately does, in the highlight piece of the film. Not enough can be said for how gripping this story is, and it could easily just be a short on its own and find wide acclaim (and go viral, heh). Not to give away the ending, but it’ll change how you look at genitals, for sure.

Finally, in what appears to be a more mainstream entry, there’s “Bonestorm.” We follow a bunch of asshole teens trying to make a flashy skate video. To begin with, there’s some extremely understated work being done with these amazing actors who mumble their way through perfect dialogue that mirrors the idiot skater patter. It’s worth mentioning that the best line of the film, “Do crackheads have fire blood?” comes out of this entry too.

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As the skaters resort to an abandoned area in Tijuana to make their video, there’s a very abrupt turn that’s taken as occult iconography begins to dominate the piece. There’s some welcome Day of the Dead visuals in the entry earlier that become even more poignant as actual skeletons begin to come to life and try and take down our heroes.

The installment really takes advantage of the helmet-mounted skate cams that dominate the piece’s visual style, as they’re repeatedly covered in blood, whammied around, and hitting sun flares as a means to accentuate the madness. It feels only appropriate when the whole sequence is eventually set to a Tyler the Creator track as skateboarding and occult killing are married together. More than anything, this segment is just exaggerated fun and even reminiscent of “Safe Haven” from V/H/S 2 in its sheer amount of gore and absurdity.

Throughout all of these pieces there are definite commonalities, like subtle, smart occult elements in each one, as well as a gratuitous cleavage shot. The filmmakers know what their audience wants, and that’s very important here. So of course what they also want is the steep amount of violence that is used here for scares (there’s a particularly ridiculous set piece with a foot that’s aping on The Flintstones in the worst possible way). While goriness abounds, there’s still a lot more going on here. Whereas the previous V/H/S films played with the conventions of horror itself in the handheld medium, this film is more concerned with the conventions of reality and filmmaking, with this almost feeling more like a sci-fi/horror hybrid a lot of the time.

A film with a title like this, in an age that we’re currently in (this film is even being released via VOD before it’s in theaters), you’d think there’d perhaps be a little more done with the “viral” concept. It’s certainly used to exhaustion in “Vicious Circles,” and each story does deal with the main character seeking out fame and being discovered for their video, but it doesn’t encompass you entirely in a way that it could.

In the end though, a film like this either lives or dies on whether it’s scary, and V/H/S: Viral without a doubt is. It might not be the scariest of the three films, but it will present you with some truly memorable stories at the same time.

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4 out of 5