It’s amusing to think that the V/H/S horror franchise has gone from bigger, to smaller, to smallest in the span of three films. Last year’s V/H/S 2 cut the first picture’s punishing two-hour running time down by about half an hour, resulting in a leaner, nastier, infinitely superior final product (and, consequently, one of 2013’s very best horror films). Now, V/H/S: Viral takes the concept of content reduction even further by shaving off yet another 10 minutes. It’s a micro movie made in service to, and as a comment on, the short attention span of Internet culture. It falls somewhere between its two predecessors in terms of overall quality, and, arguably, that’s worse than just being straight-up bad. There’s a lot about V/H/S: Viral that works and a lot that doesn’t; if you’re a fan of frenetic, high-concept gorefests, you’ll probably vibe with it even in spite of its idiosyncrasies. But the film fails to successfully answer both of the essential questions all found footage films must: basically, who is shooting this footage, and how has it managed to make its way to us? Maybe worst of all, it isn’t particularly scary, either. Considering that even V/H/S managed to tap into a very real vein of terror in its best moments, the absence of fear in V/H/S: Viral feels like a humongous crime. The film trades on shock for bloodshed and straight-up weirdness, but even at its oddest, it’s never terrifying.
To be fair, V/H/S: Viral is incredibly entertaining, to the point where it feels like the filmmakers involved (Nacho Vigolando, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Justin Benson, and Aaron Scott Moorhead) were each more interested in fun than in fright. To that end, V/H/S: Viral works, and you may wind up so engrossed in its propulsive sense of energy that the lack of real horror doesn’t end up mattering. This is particularly true of Benson and Moorhead’s joint contribution, “Bonestorm,” which pits teenage skateboarders against a Mexican death cult, as well as Bishop’s “Dante the Great,” the story of an amateur magician who gains extraordinary powers after acquiring an old prop cloak of otherworldly origins. Both of these segments have momentum to spare, and “Dante the Great” should be noted for its ambition and execution (in a V/H/S first, it’s formatted like a TV documentary rather than a home video). But they’re just rough ideas, stuffed into a cramped space and given precious little room to develop.
With V/H/S Viral, less is just less.
If anybody really comes out a winner here, it’s Nacho Vigalondo, making up for his recent Open Windows stumble with V/H/S: Viral‘s most complete and unsettling tale. “Parallel Monsters” feels like a concept ripped straight out of Tales From the Crypt: a man creates a machine in his basement that opens a portal to a mirror universe to his own, and he trades places for 15 minutes with his double from the other side with disastrous, creepy results. It’s also pure Vigalondo in theme and craft, a well-made little chiller about identity and voyeurism that’s sure to stick in your mind long after it’s over. Which brings us to “Vicious Circles,” the wraparound piece that ties V/H/S: Viral’s whole together. Unlike the wraparounds from V/H/S and V/H/S 2, “Vicious Circles” is as integral a piece of V/H/S: Viral’s narrative as any of the individual segments; it also supplies the film’s critique of Internet notoriety and our culture’s growing need to film anything and everything in sight, hoping to win ourselves the coveted 15 minutes of fame. The clip revolves around a police chase through Los Angeles, and a young man trying to find his girlfriend amidst the chaos; as he races around the streets on his bike, violence and tragedy erupts around him, and all roads ultimately lead to the root cause of the commotion. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, a sentiment that V/H/S: Viral uses as a coda of sorts. It’s a smart idea that, like everything else in the film, is given far too little room to properly breathe. In the case of V/H/S 2, less was more. With V/H/S Viral, less is just less.