I love horror anthologies for the same reason I love horror short story collections: they provide a quick fix for a junkie. Horror fans like me have sat through so many movies, read so many novels, and sat through so many TV episodes that it’s nice to have a film that gives you five stories for the price of one. The first V/H/S film provided that and then some. Conceived as a series of short films helmed by different directors who were given complete creative freedom, V/H/S was close to a masterpiece. Why? Because despite the producer’s insistence that no director knew what the others were making, a cohesive theme emerged: that film was about misogyny. The wrap around story concerned a group of ghouls who got their comeuppance, the first story focused on a creepy group of guys who got more than they bargained for on date night, the second story showed us how cruel men can be when given a camera, the third story presented the viewer with a final girl who had no use for her hanger ons, the fourth story dealt with with abusive relationships, and the final story portrayed a group of pranksters who tried to save a girl only to discover that saving was the last thing she needed. Not all the tales were good but they all dealt with the same issues and that gave the film real purpose.
V/H/S 2 was not as successful. There was no central theme present and only one story (Gareth Evan’s and Timo Tjahjanto’s Safe Haven) really stood out. And so we come to the third entry in the series, V/H/S: Viral which tries and fails to bring a cohesive theme back to the proceedings. I admire the effort but this movie doesn’t have a clue what it wants to say and spends so much time flailing its arms about that it becomes very frustrating. It also suffers from the law of diminishing returns. V/H/S contained six stories. V/H/S 2 contained five stories. V/H/S: Viral only contains four. I thought sequels were supposed to be bigger, badder, and bolder. In V/H/S: Viral’s case, sequels are smaller, dumber, and safer. That said, there are some things to admire here. I appreciate that the movie tried to bring a theme back and two of the stories are quite good. However, since the movie fails in its attempt to provide a central point, we’re going to look at each story separately. We’ll start with the wrap around segment and move on from there.
Directed by Marcel Sarmiento
Wrap around segments are never the best part of horror anthologies. They’re just there to provide a vehicle for the stories. Creepshow has a little boy reading a comic, Asylum has different patients talking to a doctor, Tales from the Darkside has a boy telling stories to a witch to keep her from eating him, Body Bags has a deranged mortician telling stories of the dead, and Tales from the Hood has a funeral director speaking about different corpses. The first and second V/H/S films used the wrap around segment to have characters find bizarre videotapes that they and we would watch. V/H/S: Viral completely abandons that concept in favor of a story that is supposedly about voyeurism, which the movie tries to make its central theme. Focused on a teenage boy and girl who get caught up in filming a high speed chase, Vicious Circles is all over the map. It starts with the troubled relationship (the girl doesn’t like the boy filming everything, hell who would?) and then jumps around to mexican street gangs and back seat pornography. It’s obvious the film wants to shows us how dangerous the videotapes are as several side characters go crazy from watching them but never makes clear how or why these people are watching the tapes. So this section of the film fails not only as a narrative but also as a wrap around segment because we are never sure how the tapes are being viewed. It’s a complete disaster and easily the worst segment in the entire V/H/S franchise. It makes the critical error of thinking we actually care about where the tapes come from and even fails to deliver an answer in that regard. I appreciate the fact that it tries to bring the franchise full circle but it does so in such a clumsy manner that I can’t help but piss all over it.
Dante the Great
Directed by Gregg Bishop
The first segment of the film is fun if a bit off putting. The central conceit of all the V/H/S films is that each story is found footage. I’m not the biggest fan of found footage but was surprised by how Dante the Great basically kicks that concept to the curb. It seems odd to complain that the story abandons a technique I don’t normally care for but if you’re supposed to be a found footage movie, shouldn’t you at least attempt to film the story in that manner? That criticism aside, Dante the Great is terrific fun and would have easily made a solid feature film. The story of a magician with a mystical cloak is told with clarity, conviction, and a solid dose of black humor. It’s not scary at all but if you’re a fan of magicians and wonder where they get their power, Dante the Great will please you. The special effects are stellar for such a low budget flick and I did dig the way the story was told even though it ditches the found footage angle. Once again, voyeurism is the main theme here and it’s highlighted fairly well. Though not as well as in the next segment.
Directed by Nacho Vigalondo
Have you seen Timecrimes? If you haven’t, get the fuck out of my face, go see it, and then come back to this review. Director Nacho Vigalondo is obsessed with men who need to know more than any other man and with this and Timecrimes, he is establishing himself as one of the best sci-fi/horror directors around. Parallel Monsters is easily the high point of V/H/S: Viral. It focuses on a scientist who opens a door to a parallel dimension and discovers an eerily similar version of himself. Both men are eager to explore the new world but, of course, their universes are very sinister when compared to each other. The movie’s central theme of voyeurism is on display to best effect here and this is the only story in the film that is genuinely unnernerving and frightening. However, it’s not good good enough to recommend the film as a whole. V/H/S 2 contained a story called Safe Haven that was so terrifying and unnerving it made the entire film worth watching. Not the same with Parallel Monsters: it’s the best segment in the film by far but it’s not enough to salvage a clumsy whole.
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
What a disappointment. Benson and Moorhead’s Resolution was one of the best indie horror movies to come along in many a moon so it’s a shame that their V/H/S: Viral segment feels like little more than camera tricks. Voyeurism is again on display as a group of reprehensible street punks travel to Tijuana to film a viral video. They soon find themselves fighting off members of some sort of cult who want to use them to resurrect…something evil. The skateboarding characters are completely unlikeable and this story thinks that a lack of explanation is scary when it’s really just an excuse for the filmmakers to do whatever the fuck they want. I mentioned how I hate found footage right? Well, Bonestorm is an example of everything wrong with that genre: stupid camera angles, cheesy shots that would be impossible for the average person to capture, distracting quick cuts that take away from the story, and lots and lots of shaky cam. An incomprehensible waste.
V/H/S: Viral has its heart in the right place. It tries to bring a cohesive theme back to the series but is far too clumsy in its execution. There are only four stories here and while two of them are good, they’re not enough to recommend the whole movie. Let’s hope that V/H/S 4 or whatever the hell it’s called finds a way to make this franchise scary and relevant again. Because if it can’t, it’s time to put these VHS tapes to bed.