V/H/S: Viral (multiple directors)
by Jonathan Raab
I’m a big fan of the V/H/S series. The first two films are the exception to the universal rule: found footage movies are boring, bad, and the last refuge of movie studios hoping to trick horror fans into shelling out their hard-earned money in exchange for an unprofessional product.
I’ll spare you the history lesson of the subgenre since The Blair Witch Project (a film that deserves recognition and acclaim as both an experimental film and a milestone in horror, even if it doesn’t quite have the same impact anymore), and say that the majority of found-footage movies have degenerated into shaky-cam addled, formulaic snoozers. There’s a few exceptions for me—the Paranormal Activity movies are usually good for one watch—but on the whole, I’ve learned to avoid these movies like the plague.
But not the V/H/S series.
The first film’s opening ten minutes are boring and tired—meant to shock us with violence, sexuality, and coarse language—but it soon gets into high gear, with a series of memorable and creative vignettes, all supposedly contained on weird VHS tapes found in a mysterious stockpile. The second film follows suit, with slightly better stories, effects, and payoff, and a subtle building of the mythos behind the supernatural snuff films.
The first two V/H/S movies have a ton of fun moments, cool creatures, and genuine jump scares. The series was, to my mind, a love letter to both anthology films and a testament to the (albeit limited) utility of “found footage” as a concept within horror cinema. They had their moments, were entertaining, and showcased a variety of directors trying new things.
It’s with great disappointment to announce that V/H/S: Viral feels like a cheap knock off of these movies. There’s a complete abandonment of the VHS concept—something that made the idea of an underground supernatural snuff film circuit seemed real, as it was limited almost exclusively to a dead technology. Want in the club? Go find a working VCR from the pawn shop. You can’t see this stuff online, or anywhere else.
It made what you were seeing seem exclusive, as if your entrance into this coven of extreme video had to be kept secret, because it was special. In the first two movies, you saw things that you shouldn’t have seen, things the rest of the world would never accept.
Not so here. The overarching narrative that bookends the different pieces is confusing, a semi-coherent series of somewhat-interrelated vignettes. It’s not clear how this footage was assembled—or if we’re supposed to think it’s been assembled—and it’s a mishmash of lazy social commentary about everyone being on their phones, filming when they should be helping.
“See you bitches on YouTube!” sneers some faceless clown trying to get a good angle on the action, before predictably falling to his death.
It’s not clear how the framework narrative—which was one of the more interesting parts of the first two films—connects the shorts together.
Some images from each do show up during the disappointing conclusion in a ham-fisted attempt at pulling it all together, but at that point the film has devolved into a teenager’s bright idea of metaness that left a sour taste in my mouth.
I knew I was in trouble when the film started with a boyfriend filming his girl’s lady parts. Get it? He’s a horny guy with a camera. He’s also a douchebag.
Both characters were cardboard cut-outs from INSERT NAME OF FOUND FOOTAGE MOVIE HERE and instantly unlikeable. Unfortunately, the same can be said about the rest of the cast. I’m not sure it was the acting that turned me off—it was probably the dialogue, which mostly consisted of people swearing, making crude sexual comments, or screaming.
Despite being the third film in a supposedly evolutionary series, the movie just couldn’t break out of established found footage movie tropes. “Are you filming me?” “Why do you have that camera?” and the like are heard over and over again. And there’s not one, but two creeper with a camera films a pretty girl’s cleavage sequences. Seriously.
Most disappointing of all is that the film ejects (pun intended) the found footage concept at times, seemingly at random. It’s not clear when we’re seeing something on a security cam, as footage from a documentary, on a handheld video, or even when we’re not seeing through a recording device. Yes, that happens in this movie on several occasions—it’ll switch from something on a camera, to supposedly objective perspective. I think. This is both disorienting and confusing, as even these sequences are shot like they are on camera, complete with shaky cam and Battlestar Galactica-style pans and zooms.
Visually, the film is a complete mess. Found footage movies have low standards to begin with, but close ups from helmet cams on gap-mouthed teens, digitized interference effects, and blood-soaked darkness creeping all over the lens combine to make the movie hard to sit through. Not only is slussing out what the film is trying to be difficult (documentary? a single tape? an online webcast? a film student’s pretentious art house project?), it’s visually grating. It gave me a headache.
The movie is not helped by its shorts. There’s the bookend narrative, which, while starting out with an interesting concept, devolves into nonsense by the end; a documentary (?) about a murderous magician; a scientist exploring an alternate reality; a boring stereotype-filled Mexican ghetto mass murder; and unlikeable male skater stereotypes fighting people in bad Halloween costumes.
The high point of the film is the short about a scientist who opens a door to a parallel universe—and meets his double. V/H/S: Viral is not worth watching, but this short definitely is. It does everything right: it starts with a simple concept, doesn’t confuse the viewer with too many perspective shifts, and ratchets up the tension until the inevitable, frightening climax(es). To say more would give it away—but let’s just say that the short gives you just enough information to freak you the hell out, while mixing it up with some grotesque and effective make up and production design.
As for the rest of the shorts, I couldn’t wait until they were over. The worst offender was the skate punks-go-to-Tijuana sequence. I couldn’t wait for them to shut up or die. Unfortunately, the creatures in this one literally look like people wearing surplus haunted house masks. I felt dumber just watching the confused, unfinished mess that was this bloody skateboarding/melee sequence. I suppose the crappy hip-hop music and skeleton guy giving the middle finger before exploding was supposed to be cool or funny or something, but I’m probably about twenty years too old to think so. Also, this sequence had some stylized still-frame, color-modified shots. I thought we were watching found footage, not processed music video crap. Oh, but look, blood, and he said the “F” word a thousand times.
Every sequence is marred by horrific, cheap digital special effects. Even the blood is digital in some sequences. What, they couldn’t spring $6 for Karo syrup? I try to be forgiving for low-budget movies, but a little practical SFX can go a long way. Since most sequences look like they were filmed over a weekend by a bunch of drunk college students, I’m willing to bet that craft and quality were not motivations for the filmmakers.
I spent $9.99 to see this movie early on Amazon Instant Video, and I regret throwing that money away. What makes this all the more disappointing is that the producers work over at Bloody Disgusting, a great horror site that loves to emphasize quality (and practical effects! ha!).
I’m a fan of the series because the first two were fun, with some great “oh sh—!” moments. This film feels more like a lazy, cynical cash grab designed for fourteen year old boys. There’s nothing wrong with movies for fourteen year old boys, if you’re a fourteen year old boy.
But for the rest of you, you can spend your money better elsewhere.
Here’s hoping that the inevitable V/H/S 4 gets the series back on track.
1.5 Clunky Social Commentaries Out of 5