Written by: Justin Benson & Greg Bishop, T.J. Cimfel, Ed Dougherty, Aaron Moorhead, Marcel Sarmiento, Nacho Vigilando, David White
Directed by: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, Gregg Bishop, Nacho Vigilando, Marcel Sarmiento
Starring: Emmy Argo, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Justin Welborn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Mayhem Goes Viral
The V/H/S franchise has obviously carried itself with a retro, analog swagger, but it was only a matter of time until it explored the implications of the digital age. Considering the first two entries have vaguely hinted on the transgressive nature of its transmissions, the possibility of going viral was inevitable. With the shift comes an exercise in anthology filmmaking that’s both familiar and unfamiliar all at once, as V/H/S: Viral is a both logical extension of the brand and a divergence. It makes for an interesting—if not fragmented—piece that taps into the franchise’s almost ethereal sense of weirdness and pushes it further into that direction.
There’s something especially compelling about the disjointed, elusive nature of the wraparound story this time. Directed by Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), “Vicious Circles” is less a framing device and more a rickety suggestion of one. In it, a young couple’s (Patrick Lawrie & Emila Zoryan) exploits are scattered throughout glitchy camcorder footage, and the two are eventually drawn to a police chase through downtown Los Angeles. When the girl suddenly disappears, the guy takes off in frantic pursuit of a mysterious ice cream truck barreling through the streets, and the story unfolds intermittently between the film’s main segments.
From a formal standpoint, “Vicious Circles” is a departure from the previous wraparound tales, which unfold at a creepy, languid pace as its characters kick around dusty, abandoned houses cluttered with old tapes and monitors. In contrast, Sarmiento’s segment is a wide-open, frantic story with more than a hint of apocalyptic fever. Innocent bystanders are plowed to death by vehicles, with the ice cream truck proving to be especially dangerous for anyone who approaches it (more than one person loses limbs during one gruesome encounter). Other bystanders view a viral video that causes inexplicable nosebleeds. The footage is increasingly disruptive and jarring. What is a constant stream of viral content but a distracting, interruptive force in our lives, though?
“Vicious Circles” takes this notion to its logical, apocalyptic conclusion. It’s every bit as enigmatic and elusive as its predecessors, yet it’s somehow more sinister in its incoherence. Frame stories are meant to guide or provide some sense of stability, yet Sarmiento seem disinterested by these concept. The short is something of a screeching howl that only announces how abrasive the film will be at times. Usually, that’s hardly a complement, but there’s something almost admirable about the way V/H/S: Viral disregards structure and form. Even more so than the first two films, it’s a scattered exercise in bewildering nightmare logic.
It’s never even made clear how the actual segments relate to their frame. Presumably, they’re the videos being dispatched by the truck, which is eventually revealed to be a roving video lab broadcasting the deadly viral videos. What’s for sure is that the trio of shorts is an eclectic collection of fragments, starting with Gregg Bishop’s “Dante the Great,” a pseudo-documentary charting the rise and fall of a magician (Justin Welborn) whose mysterious cloak grants him sorcerous powers with a twist: in order to use its magic, the cloak demands regular blood sacrifices. A stylistic sore thumb for this franchise, the short is ultimately slight slasher movie riff, but it at least signals the film’s further refusal to conform to expectations; hell, at times, it even stretches the boundaries of the found footage conceit since it features multiple camera angles and feels rather conventional—which, of course, makes it unconventional for V/H/S.
More familiar is “Parallel Monsters,” Nacho Vigalondo’s sci-fi/body horror hybrid about a scientist (Gustavo Salmeron) who builds a portal into an alternate universe. Upon encountering his parallel self, he makes a proposal that the two should trade places and explore the others’ life. At first, he finds himself in remarkably familiar surroundings—until he notices his family portrait has been replaced with something much more sinister. “Parallel Monsters” hinges upon this one twist, but it’s a repetitive note it plays well, especially within the confines of this franchise, which has often mined horror from an intimate, domestic milieu. Here, a seemingly normal home hides multiple secrets—some disturbingly worldly and some that are decidedly otherworldly—and Vigalondo cleverly twists the knife to a climax that recalls the grisly comeuppance of Amicus and EC, two forbearers whose torches V/H/S has reignited and carried in its own unique way. Of the segments in this third outing, “Parallel Monsters” is the only piece that could fit the franchise jigsaw puzzle, however jagged it may be.
You could argue that the final short, “Bonesaw” (co-directed by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson), is a souped-up riff on “A Ride in the Park,” the previous film’s Go-Pro zombie segment. Ostensibly, this is a spiritual successor, as it follows a group of skateboarders down to Mexico, where they encounter some sort of death cult that proceeds to tear them apart. But in keeping with the approach of Viral, the familiarity is reconfigured into a turbo-charged variation on the theme: we don’t know much about these twerps, and we know even less about their supernatural assailants. Even their cameras—which are practically mounted everywhere—are illogical. The choppily edited, hodgepodge footage is even less so: exhibiting little use for continuity, “Bonesaw” is a loose assemblage of hacked limbs, blood, and guts. It’s essentially all the juicy, gory bits expected from V/H/S without even the faintest pretense of a story, like a rollercoaster ride or an episode of Jackass by way of the Grand Guignol.
I can understand how that wouldn’t sound appealing. While watching the film, I have to admit that this felt like an off-brand version of V/H/S, even if the general approach—tap some emerging genre talent and turn ‘em loose on the anthology format—remains the same. However, after having it rattle around my head for the past few days, Viral seems like more than that. Given that this franchise has bothered little with unity, it follows that the next step is something that feels rather different. Perhaps this series isn’t a jigsaw puzzle after all—it’s more like a ragged crazy quilt, and this third entry is the most patchwork, ragtag piece yet.
Like its predecessors, it only truly coheres by screeching right into your brain—it leaves quite an impression, even if that impression is a frenetic, garbled broadcast of somebody’s nightmares. Nothing quite captures the viral era like a collection of loud, weird videos you can't help but look at even if you don't quite want to.
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