Movie Review: V/H/S: Viral (2014)

VHS VIRAL POSTER
VHS VIRAL POSTER

V/H/S: VIRAL (2014) A Co-Production of Magnet Releasing, The Collective and Bloody Disgusting.

“Vicious Circles”: Directed by Marcel Sarmiento; Written by Marcel Sarmiento, T.J. Cimfel, David White and Ed Dougherty; “Dante The Great”: Directed and Written by Gregg Bishop; “Parallel Monsters”: Directed and Written by Nacho Vigalando; “Bonestorm”: Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead; Written by Justin Benson.

Well, I’d had really high hopes for the third installment in this found-footage franchise, especially after one of the beautifully-crafted nightmares in the previous sequel managed to raise the bar considerably for any future efforts that would become part of the series.  Although I can certainly applaud the latest crop of filmmakers for trying to make things fresh and different, overall, the level of quality falls back down to about where it was with the freshman entry in the series, even if it’s not completely lacking.

Marcel Sarmiento’s “Vicious Circles” is the wraparound story this time around, and once again, kudos for the different take on the overarching theme, even if at times the entire piece seems to suffer from a case of terminal incoherence.  A typical L.A. cop chase scene unfolds in the story opening, as patrol cars pursue a vehicle that’s anything but typical: a beaten-up ice cream truck.  Gawkers and cell phone junkies everywhere are almost compelled to get as close as they can, to get footage of the chase and get themselves in it as well on-scene.  But Kev (Patrick Lawrie), in hot pursuit of the truck on a ‘borrowed’ girls’ BMX bike, has more at stake in the chase than anyone else.  The truck has something to do with the disappearance of his girlfriend, Eva (Stephanie Silver), following an argument they had about his obsession with getting everything they do on digital recording devices.  A nice tie-in to V/H/S’s whole “raison d’etre” about commenting on and satirizing our selfie/sound-bite/YouTube clip saturated culture, though we have to assume later on how it is we are given access, through the wraparound tale, to the stories that follow.

“Dante The Great” is first on-deck, as Dante, a magician wanna-be trailer park denizen from Georgia, (well-played by Justin Welborn), somehow gets his mitts on a cloak allegedly once owned by Harry Houdini himself, but so terrified the master illusionist that he ‘got rid of it.’ The murder and mayhem that occur at the hands of the stalwart magician makes why all too apparent.  To be blunt, nothing happens in this part-mockumentary, part-supernatural thriller, that wasn’t already explored in the films THE PRESTIGE and THE ILLUSIONIST, and to a much fuller and more effective extent in the Clive Barker blowout, LORD OF ILLUSIONS.  The thing that earns writer/director Gregg Bishop more than a small measure of respect, is the way he adapts this more-than-twice-told-tale in a thrilling and engaging way…and in about thirty minutes. Emmy Argo, who plays Scarlett, the ‘magician’s assistant’ who is more than a match for him, in more ways than one – is also a standout.  It just did the story no favors that the ‘shock’ ending is completely predictable – and clearly given away in the movie’s spoiler-heavy preview trailer.

VHS ViralAfter a re-visitation to the wraparound, showing that there’s more going on with the chase scene than meets the eye, we get “Parallel Monsters” from writer/director Nacho Vigalando (TIME CRIMES, THE ABC’S OF DEATH).  Vigalondo’s favorite, often-visited theme is how he is inspired by anomalies in time – loops, pockets, quantum physics.  In this tale, he takes on alternate dimensions, accessed by a homemade machine crafted by scientist Alfonso (Gustavo Salmeron).  Not only does it work, but it opens up a portal to a ‘reverse world’, in which he meets an alternate version of…himself.  Rather than having the usually-implied catastrophe of what happens when we share the same space with our Doppelgangers, the two Alfonsos strike up a tentative deal – to ‘switch’ places with each other, in their opposite sides of the portal for fifteen minutes.

What occurs next brings to mind that old adage about “the grass being greener on the other side.”  It may not be greener, but it can certainly be frighteningly different in ways your imagination can’t possibly begin to dream up.  Nice “TWILIGHT ZONE” twist to this tale, with a flourish at the end worthy of the old TALES FROM THE CRYPT series.  I have no idea if Vigalando was shooting for “Safe Haven” territory here intentionally, after the impact that short made with its inclusion in the second sequel, but as close as he comes with this, it’s more of a “bunt” than a clear home-run.  Having said that, “Monsters” is still the best of the shorts here.

Though we know that the ice cream truck is somehow affecting everyone’s behavior as it continues to make widening circles throughout the city, we continue to know as much about how, as we did from the first two films…meaning next to no information is telegraphed, before the final story.

VHS ViralThat would be “Bonestorm”, which was obviously made for the ‘skaterpunk’ and gamer contingents of the fanboy audience.  While supposedly shooting a video with a snarky, shady “videographer” they’ve hired to showcase their talents, two skater friends, Danny (Nick Blanco) and Jason (Chase Newton) learn from the shooter of a legendary spot in Tijuana, that’s a perfect spot for filming and “thrashin’”.

Thanks to a little help (very little) from a friend of the cameraman’s who gets nicknamed “Gas Money”, they make the trip to T.J., and true to the shooter’s word, the spot is indeed ideal for completing their skating video.  In spite of all the strange symbols and Satanic totems placed about the empty basin.  And the appearance of a strange woman doing an eerie chant.  And in spite of a bunch of other wraiths popping up seemingly from out of nowhere, who look like extras from TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD…I guess you can sense where this is going.

The numerous, quick jump-cuts and the other edits that switch back and forth from what I will call “GoPro-Vision” just left me feeling slightly nauseated and frustrated…probably in the same way it affected people who ultimately wrote off THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.  I guess this is what I get for never having been a skateboard nut or a hardcore gamer. I have a feeling that both groups will love this segment, and completely disagree with me about my dislike for it. But that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  I would have probably preferred to see the one segment I have heard was cut from the film at the eleventh hour.  But what’s done is done, so no use spending a lot of time on THAT subject.

VHS ViralWhich brings us to the ending.  “Circles” does finally complete the larger “circle” of the franchise in its own way, but how it achieves this goal is wide open for interpretation, which I guess is what Sarmiento intended.  Normally, I can appreciate movies that don’t beat you over the head with obvious answers, or spoon-feed you every detail of what you need to know, to understand the point the film is trying to make.  However, after sticking with this series through the two previous installments, I would have appreciated a bit more clarity about exactly WHAT the ending was trying to convey…Is the evil powering the antique recording and playing devices a metaphor for society’s raging appetite for more stimulation, more violence, more outrageous hi-jinks, more everything? And how the satiation point will never be reached, even though the madness has finally ‘gone viral’?

I don’t feel like we, the viewers, were ever really provided with the answer.  You will have to decide, dear reader, if you agree, or have your own take on it.  For me, V/H/S: VIRAL unfortunately takes the franchise three steps back.  And yet, I still hope there will be one last installment that will rectify that problem once and for all.

Check out the V/H/S: Viral Red Band trailer (intended for adults):