V/H/S: Viral Review
By: Brandon Wolfe
2012’s ‘V/H/S’ found a new spin on the now-ubiquitous found-footage subgenre, employing the device in the service of a horror anthology. Essentially ‘Creepshow’ with camcorders. Telling five short stories about horror caught on amateur video, the film was a decidedly mixed bag. While the segment “Amateur Night,” about a succubus terrorizing a bunch of frat-boy creeps, was a hugely effective piece of work, the other segments ranged from solid to decent to lousy. Even so, the film maintained enough of a free-floating sense of dread throughout its various chapters to be held as a qualified success. I never saw its sequel, but the consensus there also seemed to indicate enough high notes were peppered in among the low to award the film some merit.
But now the second sequel, ‘V/H/S: Viral,’ has arrived and it doesn’t receive quite as much as its predecessors by way of partial credit. Gone is the sense of white-knuckle foreboding that the original film was able to cultivate just enough of to feel like it had done its job. ‘Viral’ tells three stories, with a wraparound framing device, and never is it remotely frightening. It barely seems to be trying to be.
The first, probably best, story is “Dante the Great,” the tale of a magician who comes into possession of a cloak that grants him genuine magic powers. Trading in sleight-of-hand for the actual ability to bend time and space in the service of captivating audiences, arrogant jerk Dante (Justin Welborn) finds his career beginning to soar. But there’s always a price to pay in scenarios like this, and the price here is that the cloak gotta eat, necessitating that Dante periodically feed it his lovely assistants. However, his latest assistant, Scarlett (Emmy Argo), an aspiring magician herself, proves savvy enough to avoid becoming cloak chow so easily.
“Dante the Great” doesn’t really attempt to be scary. It’s barely even a horror story. When Dante begins to use his magical abilities to fend off an advancing SWAT team, the segment becomes almost like a gory, microbudget ‘X-Men’ as the magician uses all sorts of neat reality-bending tricks to dispatch each officer. But it’s entertaining enough and actually possesses some fairly decent visual effects. The premise of a magician becoming a killer is so good that it’s wasted as a ‘V/H/S’ segment, where it, by design, can’t really have sufficient justice done to it. The segment, which takes the form of a mockumentary, also periodically dispatches with the found-footage conceit altogether, a welcome break from the often stifling format, even if it is at odds with the franchise’s mission statement.
The second story, the Spanish-language “Parallel Monsters,” concerns Alfonso (Gustavo Salmeron), an inventor who creates a machine in his mancave that opens a portal to a parallel dimension, where he meets a seemingly identical version of himself. The two Alfonsos each agree to spend 15 minutes in each others’ universes to see how the other half lives. Entering into this familiar-looking realm, Alfonso Prime begins to realize that the world his double occupies only superficially resembles his own, and when he discovers the differences, he runs screaming back to his own world. The set-up here is tantalizing, but “Parallel Monsters” doesn’t ultimately deliver, devolving into a bunch of nonsense involving demonic genitals before exiting on a violent shrug of a closer.
Thirdly, we have “Bonestorm,” easily the worst of the three core stories. This one features a group of skaters with Go Pros mounted to their helmets (the better to shoot this segment with, my dear). After a dreary eternity of the group doing stunts and exchanging obnoxious banter, one of them halfheartedly mentions that there’s cool stuff to buy in Mexico, and on a whim, we head south of the border. The skaters end up in a dry reservoir doing more totally sick stunts when a supernatural death cult descends upon them. It’s here where “Bonestorm” basically turns into a first-person-shooter as the boys fend off the ghouls by firing guns, swinging their skateboards and even firing off recently purchased M-80s and Roman candles to handily defeat most of the cult. While some of the boys are killed, the two more resilient members of the group are shown to possess action-hero defense capabilities, never seeming to relinquish the upper hand to the monsters. There is so little of a point or premise to “Bonestorm” beyond its POV shots of the boys dishing out and receiving carnage (much of it too visually chaotic to make much sense of) that one has to conclude these shots, in fact, were the point.
The wraparound concerns a televised police chase throughout Los Angeles and a mysterious ice cream truck that appears to hijack the girlfriend of a teen obsessed with capturing the next big viral video that will be his ticket to Internet fame. This sets the boy off on a citywide search for the truck (with non-sequitur excursions along the way with a violent gang member and a sleazy porn producer, which stand out as wastes of time even within the larger context of a segment that is also wasting our time) before we get to the climax, a bit of nonsense that appears to mistakenly think it’s saying something about the perils of the viral video phenomenon.
The ‘V/H/S’ series has a pretty terrific hook and can function as a solid launching pad for up-and-coming horror directors to hand out a calling card of what they could eventually accomplish with their own films (as was the case with Ti West and Joe Swanberg in the original). But the stories presented in ‘Viral’ are not strong enough to make me want to see more from any of these people. If subsequent installments aren’t any better than this, ‘V/H/S’ stands to be rendered as obsolete as its namesake.
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