Overview: 3 separate found footage tales of intended terror are woven into a larger found footage frame narrative in this third installment of the indie-horror anthology franchise. 2014; 8383 Productions in association with Bloody Disgusting and presented by The Collective; Rated R; 97 min.
“Vicious Circles:” I’ll begin with the frame narrative, directed by Marcel Sarmiento; it loosely follows teens who are all filming an epic car chase between police and a creepy ice cream truck. The catch of the frame narrative, we eventually realize, is that these various teens all run into some terrifying bad luck in their aims of having the videos go viral, and those moments in which the teens meet their fates are fun but fleeting– they never quite pack any kind of punch, and the narrative doesn’t ever build like those in the first two V/H/S films. Having written academically about found footage, though, it is interesting to me that this frame narrative eventually suggests that there are negative, moral repercussions to participating in viral video culture. But, this frame narrative doesn’t really work to convey this message clearly or early enough, and it certainly doesn’t do anything to tie the segments together in any cohesive or meaningful way, neither thematically nor structurally.
“Dante the Great:” One thing that was cohesive– almost too seamless and polished, if you ask me– was the transition between frame narrative and segment. And yet something about it still felt jarring, even more so than in either of the first two films of the series. Again, I think that goes back to the frame narrative and the segments never feeling grounded within it– it doesn’t seem (until the end, I guess) like anyone within the frame narrative is watching these videos, but I digress. “Dante the Great,” directed by Gregg Bishop, is a solid segment. It’s gleeful and campy in all the right ways, sometimes feeling unabashedly like a segment in one of those cheesy, addictive anthology horror television shows; a magician is accused of murdering his many assistants, because he feeds them to his demonic cape, whose powers are great but also pretty scary. It doesn’t have the gritty feel of most of the V/H/S segments, but it’s still entertaining enough, and it does feature some of the most interesting and simple-yet-sophisticated technical elements and special effects of the entire film.
“Parallel Monsters:” Nacho Vigalondo’s Spanish-language freakshow of a segment was by far my favorite of the three (speaking of which, another reason this film feels somewhat emptier than the other two, is perhaps because I was expecting more segments, but I digress again). What I love about this one is its ability to sustain suspense and shock you over and over again; many of my favorite segments from either of the first two films are ones which have little twists and surprises. This story is about two men (well, both the same man, really) leading the same life in two separate universes; when they invent a machine that allows them to swap places and cross universes, what one man finds on the other side of the portal is deeply troubling. This segment is disturbing and creative and far superior to the other two, in my opinion.
“Bonestorm:” The last segment, my least favorite, was directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. It tells the story of an annoying, unlikable group of skateboarders who cross the border to Tijuana while filming their skateboarding exploits. This segment is a mess, visually– cameras on the skateboards and helmets made the already-stupid and weirdly paced fight sequence even more unpleasant to follow, and I’m not one to get nauseated or irritated by shaky cam. The fight in question is between the skateboarders and a group of Mexican mystics-turned-skeletons– because the giant shrine and painted symbol on the ground of their new skatepark doesn’t strike any of the kids as spooky until it was too late. This story is the most pointless and lackluster of any segment in any of the three films.
Consensus: I loved the first two V/H/S films equally for different reasons. The first was raw and wholly entertaining, a thrilling (even if not always successful) grab bag of up-and-coming indie horror directors, just experimenting and showcasing their capabilities (and clearly having a ball doing so). The sequel was far more coherent and of a generally higher caliber of storytelling, much more focused on figuring out how to utilize found footage in even more fascinating and effective ways. V/H/S: Viral has its moments– but with significantly less segments to even choose from, the ones that were there all needed to be top notch, and they needed to be nestled within a frame narrative that made it all make sense together. This film is enjoyable enough, with plenty of humor and fun visual tricks to be had where scares unfortunately lack, and I would still say it’s worth the watch for fans, but overall– V/H/S: Viral is more or less forgettable. And part of me feels like that’s probably more disappointing than if it were simply not good.