The title of V/H/S: Viral is a bit of a paradox, putting a dead technology alongside one of the most current new media trends: the viral video. It’s also a bit of a misnomer, because the film has little to do with either. The latest installment in the found footage anthology series V/H/S strays from its roots and no longer adheres to the conventions of literal found footage, but only the wraparound, which is also the film’s weakest segment, has anything to do with viral video. The result is a film that is disjointed and inconsistent, but contains three individually creative and entertaining horror shorts.
The subjectivity in V/H/S: Viral is never static, constantly shifting between different characters and the omnipotent view of security cameras or police helicopters for establishing shots. In this way, the film technically adheres to the “found footage” premise, because while it doesn’t restrict itself to the singular first person viewpoint familiar in the genre, one can attach some kind of ownership to every camera used in the film. Even in the film’s first segment, in which the climactic scenes are very conventionally shot, it’s established that the scene was captured by is behind-the-scenes documentary crew. The action movie style angles and editing are still not plausible behind this premise, but it allows the segment to technically stay within the genre. Still, one shot in which blood spatters on the lens reminds the viewer that V/H/S: Viral is never trying to hide its camera.
The fact that it plays loose with the “found footage” convention may be why the first segment, “Dante the Great”, is the weakest of the three standalone segments. It’s about a stage magician whose powers turn out not to be illusion but the result of a Faustian pact in the form of a cloak that gives the wearer telekinetic powers but needs an occasional blood sacrifice in return. If this premise seems shaky on the page it’s no better on screen, and the mythology of the cloak and its powers are never clearly defined. This reduces the effectiveness of what is otherwise a fun and well choreographed scene in which the magician squares off against a heavily armed S.W.A.T. team. This final scene is technically tight and the stunts look impressive within the micro-budget aesthetic.
The second segment is a spooky and existentially terrifying sci-fi story about a scientist who builds a portal that allows him to cross into a universe inhabited by an alternate version of himself. The two scientists both carry handheld cameras as we discover that their lives are not as parallel as it initially seems. In this segment, the first person point of view is most effective, as on one side the restricted viewpoint allows for a slow reveal of the evil and twisted alternate world he’s walked into. On the other side, the viewer realizes that the scientist’s ‘evil twin’ is dangerous and alone with his wife, turning the camera into a monsters-eye view, as he prowls through the home. The runtime of the segment is a tight twenty minutes, which isn’t enough time to answer every question it raises, but through a simple Twilight Zone style premise and creative production design “Parallel Monsters” is a genuinely spooky and thought provoking short.
The film ends with “Bonestorm”, a gore-fest from the directing team who made the inventive horror/romance Spring. The short follows two skateboarders who square off against a horde of the undead, when their skate spot turns out to be the site of an occult ritual. The two teens’ skate rat banter entertains just barely long enough to set up the premise before the real fun begins, but the ensuing showdown has enough splatter to make it worth the wait. In sticking with the found footage theme, the whole scene is captured from the GoPro cameras mounted on the skaters’ helmets (after “camera kid” who was filming their skate video is the first man down). The first-person shooter aesthetic adds tension in its claustrophobia, and the directors effectively use the limited viewpoint to tease the monsters’ initial appearance in the edges of the frame. The firecrackers and skateboards the kids use as weapons lead to some inventive monster kills, and the quips from these pathologically laid-back skaters never disappoint (“we killed a lot of fools… a looot of fools”). Of the film’s segments “Bonestorm” has the most personality.
There’s not much to say about the mostly incoherent wraparound, “Vicious Circles”. The underlying story about a viral video that causes people to go insane is meant to unify the film thematically and provide a backbone for the other shorts, but it fails on both counts. The viewpoint cycles between different types of media (iPhone, news footage, camcorder, Google Glass) in a way that leaves the viewer constantly spatially confused, never mind that the fact that what’s happening in the story is poorly explained outright. Ultimately “Vicious Circles” makes a rather weak statement about the dangers of our voyeuristic “viral video” culture, and it’s far less interesting than any of the three shorts. While V/H/S: Viral definitely plays loose with the concept and conventions of “found footage,” its three shorts are creative if inconsistent. Unfortunately the wraparound does little to tie the film together, and so, for better or for worse, “Bonestorm,” “Parallel Monsters,” and “Dante the Great” can be best taken as three entertaining and autonomous short horror films.
V/H/S Viral is now available on VOD and DVD/Blu-ray via Koch Media