Overview: When the world is thrown into chaos by an infectious disease, two California sisters barricade themselves inside their house to wait out the forthcoming apocalypse. Dimension Films; 2016; Rated R; 85 minutes.
Prolific Schmohlific: This week, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost released two films. One brilliantly charted the strange, overnight blossoming of a high-school wallflower into a veritable mischief-athlete cum performance-artist. Her friends’ reactions—a spectrum ranging from spite to derision—lent her journey a strange weight, one that this writer found deeply affecting. For their part, Schulman and Joost directed the heck out of the film; their daredevil craftsmanship mirroring the similarly reckless actions of their characters with such insane gambits as laying dolly-track across a ladder suspended seventy feet in the air or shooting an extended (probably composited, but what the hey) take of a Macklemore lookalike as he lay underneath a speeding train. It’s called Nerve, and it’s one of the very best films of the year. The other film? Well…
Whine Flu: Viral’s biggest sin is its refusal to expand on the 21st century double-meaning of its title, something of a shock coming from Schulman and Joost who, ever since their already iconic Facebook documentary, Catfish, have always employed technology to foreground their stories. Here, in conjuring up a worldwide plague, the filmmakers have gone a route that could be called “the anti-Contagion,” suggesting international strife only with the occasional ominous murmur of trouble in China, and a domestic situation conveyed largely through hilariously re-contextualized snippets of Obama’s H1N1 address from seven years ago. This is a movie that more-or-less takes place in one, egregiously beige house, indifferently lensed by Schulman and Joost. And it’s a house occupied by only the most ughtacular teenage archetypes imaginable.
As in Nerve, our leads are seniors in high school, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they behave, which is capital-M Middle School. Paper airplanes inscribed with phone-numbers sail through open windows, our lead is embarrassed when her science-teacher father nonchalantly brings up her history of head-lice to make a point in class, and the film ends with the first kiss between two characters who have spent days around each other, locked in a house with no adults in sight. Notwithstanding all the gore effects, the film skews equally juvenile, with the symptomatic moment being when the word “ass” is cut off by the start of a car engine.
Zombeh: Having to sit through all this sub-CW tedium means it’s doubly frustrating to realize that the film’s horror bare-bones are too muddy to compensate. Even though each of Viral’s tiny handful of legitimate zombie attacks are admirably distinct—in both mechanics and outcome—from their immediate predecessor, none of them work, because Schulman and Joost never set-up a satisfying, coherent archetype for their creatures. It’s clearly something about worms that burrow under the skin and control their hosts, but how exactly this works and to what end never transcends mindless obtusity. So the film therefore leaves itself open for epically frustrating bits, such as when one character, rather than devolving rapidly into a mindless eating machine like every other infected we’ve seen, instead remains completely articulate before orchestrating what is perhaps cinema’s first VENGEFUL zombie attack! While this plot thread does wrap up somewhere unexpectedly bold (think of it as the flip-side to Lights Out’s atrocious ending), by that point we’re already too firmly entrenched in too-little-too-late territory for much of anything to register.
Overall: As with its spiritual predecessor The Faculty (also released by Robert Rodriguez’s Dimension Films), Viral seeks to infect a teen-pic with some dollops of zombie blood, but only once does the film ever combine the two genres in any sort of meaningful or original way. An early image of a partygoer facetiously employing two face-masks as makeshift bra-cups is the fairly brilliant blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight-gag in question, and it feels beamed in from a better film— perhaps one with an interesting subtext about what exactly gets a teenager to take life seriously, and how even the complete collapse of socio-cultural mores is sometimes not enough. Oh wait, that movie is called Nerve, and it fucking rocks. Please see that.
Featured Image: Dimension Films