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New Release Review - V/H/S: VIRAL

Third installment in the found footage horror anthology series.


Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Justin Benson, Gregg BishopTodd LincolnAaron Moorhead, Marcel SarmientoNacho Vigalondo

Starring: Patrick Lawrie, Justin Welborn, Marian Álvarez, Nick Blanco




"It’s obvious that these films are intended for 13-year-olds with subnormal intelligence, but must they look like they were filmed by that audience too?"





The notion of discovering a secret, contraband cinematic artefact should be one that is close to the heart of horror fans. After all, our love of the genre is often derived from a yearning to experience something forbidden, for an encounter that is extraordinary in both its subject matter and the emotions it invokes. So why, with their thematic conceit of rediscovered supernatural snuff films, does the V/H/S anthology series feel so curiously inert? The gimmick, that videoed vignettes collected by connoisseurs are found and watched at peril, has dark promise, and 2012’s initial anthology had enough attention to gross $100,345. However, audiences soon realised that the generally noisy, brash execution that characterises this series failed to live up to the concept’s potential, and 2013’s sequel made less than a quarter of its predecessor’s bunse ($21,833), shrinking to a frankly embarrassing $2,756 (!) for this year’s effort. Will this worn out old video cassette of a franchise find its, perhaps natural, home on VOD?
Don’t bet on it. The thing that always bothered me about the previous two V/H/S films was the obnoxious and smug frat boy posturing that seemed to be its raison d’etre (the original opens with some kids sexually assaulting a woman in a car park for no other reason that I can fathom but the lulz). Here our first shot is a subjective frame of a girl’s skirt being lifted to reveal her panties and bum. A few moments later we get an eyeful of her cleavage: so juvenile. This is the beginning of the wraparound segment - here I would normally attempt a precise of the plot, but I can’t. There isn’t one. Things happen: the girl is being filmed by her fella, she argues with him, he argues with his mum, and then an ice cream van races past the window being chased by a police car, and the two duly follow, and everything goes crash bang crash bang crash bang; and that’s it for the opening and pretty much the several times we cut back to this narrative. It’s obvious that these films are intended for 13-year-olds with subnormal intelligence, but must they look like they were filmed by that audience too?
Take the third extract, Bonestorm (no please, take it), where three (or possibly four? The filming is so inept it is hard to tell) skateboarders become part of a Mexican death ritual on Día de Muertos. Sounds awesome on paper, but that’s as far as the excitement goes; the execution using go pro and handhelds is muddy, lazy and utterly confusing, as if employing the found footage approach is an excuse to not even try. Yeah, there’s loads of shots of boarders grinding, kick-flipping and carving (shot and scored like a music video, which further undermines the pseudo-amateur laziness of the rest of the short), which is great if you’re impressed by that sort of thing, but is anyone actually impressed by what essentially amounts to children playing about on planks with wheels? When the zombies attack and the gang pull a gun (?), along with a samurai sword, to fight back with, the film feels like a first person POV shooter, and thus we go from the mundanity of observing some kids skateboard to the utter boredom of watching somebody else play a video game.
Nacho Vigalondo’s Vicious Circles, the second short, covers similar ground to his previous (excellent) feature Timecrimes, but has none of that film’s finesse and mind bending intelligence. The central premise is again interesting, depicting a sci-fi through the looking glass affair, with doppelgänger scientists swapping places, only for one to gradually realise he has entered a strange Satanic world, where his demonic counterparts perform sex magick using grotesque sentient Giger-esque phalluses. For a while, it looks as if a few things are perking up, but sadly, not really knowing what to do with its deliciously weird atmosphere, Vicious Circles just descends into bad effects and more crash bang crash bang.
The film as a whole isn’t helped by its silly insistence on appropriating old video style affectations throughout; blue screens, tracking blurs, the frame going all bendy. Apart from being annoying, it makes no sense; most of these films have supposedly been shot on mobile phones, not analogue cameras! However, I skipped writing about the first segment, Gregg Bishop’s superlative Dante the Great in order to save the best until last. Unlike the other segments which constitute V/H/S: Viral, Dante the Great utilises a found footage format to superb effect, exploring the potentials of the format, not its limits, and crafting a dark, dazzling gem in the process. Taking as its plot the idea of a failing magician discovering a cloak that bestows upon him astounding powers, his rise to global fame and inevitable corruption is told through police interview footage, talking heads and backstage recordings. Dante’s seduction by power, the inexorable escalation from schlubby loser to world domination (and what it takes to stay on top), feels like the origin of a supervillain story. The fable culminates in a superbly choreographed doves flapping, bullets whizzing fight scene, which is seriously exciting and typifies the invention and ambition of this segment, incongruous to V/H/S: Viral’s otherwise grim paucity of imagination.
And, unlike the other parts, Dante the Great has an actual third act conclusion. The other shorts, including the little vignettes that make up the wraparound - a Mexican family goes berserk, some sleaze gets the tables turned on him in the back of a cab - don’t really end, more suddenly give up, usually by crashing, sometimes by banging. As if whoever is behind the process, disgusted and bored with the whole rigmarole, has just decided to stop.




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