Monday, October 12, 2015

V/H/S Viral (2014)

I think I may be getting burned out on found footage films. Not that I don't still enjoy a good one, but those are few and far between. I've always staunchly defended the found footage format from the relentless criticism that gets levied against it - and that hasn't changed. I will never write off a film solely on account of it being found footage. But I miss the days when a found footage film was a subtly crafted mystery, steeped in suspense - the footage being all that's left behind to document some unknown atrocity, allowing the finder (i.e., the viewer) to go inside and get dangerously close to the action as it unfolds, instead of reading a sanitized account of its aftermath in the newspaper over coffee and danish the next morning. Nowadays, it's little more than an excuse for every amateur on the block to try their hand at making a movie with the $25 camera they bought at Walmart.

Vicious Circles

That's not a very promising opening to this review, but I don't have a lot of great things to say about V/H/S Viral. To start with, the framing story doesn't really do a good job of framing the different segments of the anthology. You hardly even know when you're jumping from one to another. It also relies far too heavily on audio and visual interference to unsettle the audience (in spite of an utter absence, at the beginning, of any danger whatsoever), which is not one of my favorite clich├ęd tactics in the found footage toolbox. It also seems to be trying to make up for the franchise's past abuses towards women by opening on a romance, but it doesn't quite succeed. As a voyeur and a photographer, I'm getting tired of the lack of understanding so many people have as to why anyone would want to document the curves of another's body, or why some people are drawn to making records of life at least as much as they are to living it. You'd think if anyone would understand these things, it would be a film director. Alas, not this one.

Furthermore, in a movie titled "V/H/S Viral", the opening sequence should be designed to introduce the audience to the modern idea (well removed from the days of VHS tapes, you'll note) of videos going viral, and why people might be seduced by the phenomenon (not just the fact that some of them are). The sequence struggles futilely to evoke any sense of realism, however. Where are the teenage girls doing makeup tutorials and singing pop hits for YouTube, or filming their pets performing funny tricks? No, this movie is all about the darker side of human nature. (But is filming three seconds of a police chase from your front yard really viral-worthy)? But while I could envision a haunting film about the seductive phenomenon of viral videos, and the lengths to which some people would go in the relentless pursuit of their fifteen minutes of fame - or even about some kind of deadly 21st century chain letter - this isn't it.

Dante The Great

This segment is about a piece of trailer trash who gets a hold of Houdini's cloak, which enables him to perform remarkable feats of magic - not least of which includes amazing spacetime anomalies - but periodically has to be fed human sacrifices. Let me not understate this - this is a really neat idea. But it certainly aims more toward the realm of total sci-fi fantasy than anything related to the viral video phenomenon (apart from the flimsy connection of a redneck seeking fame through minimal effort). It's even filmed like a documentary, complete with interviews. The human feeding aspect seems to be thrown in mostly to justify a "horror" label, but while it's a potentially terrifying premise, it's really too wacky to create much of a scary atmosphere. The magic tricks, on the other hand, are fantastic. The confrontation at the end is as spectacular as anything you'll see in a big budget superhero movie - just on a smaller scale. I could definitely see Dante the Great being some kind of egomaniacal supervillain. It's a pretty fun segment, but I feel like it deserves a professional crew that could turn it into a full-length feature.

Parallel Monsters

This segment continues in the sci-fi fantasy vein, with a scientist/inventor building a technological gateway that opens a portal into a parallel dimension, wherein the inventor meets his doppelganger. They agree to switch places for fifteen minutes, and you're already beginning to worry that they might get mixed up and lost or something (or maybe I've watched too much Sliders). But a more certain sense of horror descends as the first guy begins to discover just how much different the other guy's universe is. There is a disturbing juxtaposition of Satanic imagery and porn, in what turns out to be a total sexual nightmare, from a world that seems to confuse violence with sex. When the people in the other world's faces start to glow, it's a little bit hokey, but the libidinal monsters they reveal to be residing in their shorts are 'b' horror gold. I'm not overly fond of mixing up violence with sex, but the concepts in this segment are too imaginative not to enjoy. I would have liked to have seen them in something with a more developed story.


This segment is best poised to explore the lengths to which people might go in order to capture a video with viral potential, but instead of a haunting exploration of what the desire for fame can do to people, it's more of a portrait of a total douchebag who deserves to be sentenced to a mandatory lesson on journalistic ethics. A freelance videographer, he follows around a couple of skater punks with GoPros attached to their heads, trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to entice them into doing stupid stunts that will get them hurt, or even killed. He even goes so far as to lie to them about having the camera rolling, in a pathetic attempt to get them to re-try every dangerous stunt they perform that bears underwhelming results. The segment actually name drops both Jackass and Faces of Death, and features the kind of sexist douchebaggery we've come to expect from the V/H/S franchise.

The second half of the segment gets a little better, even as it ventures into the realm of fantasy. The videographer leads his subjects to Mexico with the promise of debauchery, but where you're maybe expecting a setup involving some kind of Borderland shit, what happens instead is that these kids just randomly happen into the middle of an esoteric ritual where they're beset by cultist freaks who may or may not be lepers or zombies. Yet, despite the assailants' apparently evil disposition, the skater punks still end up coming off the less sympathetic, as they flippantly initiate a murder spree to the tune of some hip hop track, like as if they think snuffing out people's lives is all just part of a music video. The skeleton zombies are really cool, but it's just unfortunate that they're encountered by such unlikable characters in a segment where you don't really care what happens, just so long as that sewer monster that keeps getting hinted at has a chance to come out and play - and even that turns out to be underwhelming.

Vicious Circles (again)

Two last comments before we're done. Towards the end of this segment (which is interspersed throughout the rest of the film), there's a part that takes place in the back seat of a taxicab. It starts out as kind of a male sex fantasy, only to devolve into a feminist revenge fantasy that feels awfully misguided. There is a lot of room in this world for an intelligent and sensitive treatment of the issues surrounding "revenge porn" (although you can bet you won't find it in this film - I don't know why they even bothered to take this approach, unless it's because they want to portray all segments of humanity in the worst way possible). But there's no more sympathy to be found in a woman who lies to a man in order to pull a gun on him and threaten to shoot his balls off, all because her ex-boyfriend filmed her and then sold the video to a porn site, than there is in the pathetic loser depicted in this scene, who seems calculated to misrepresent an entire industry, if not his entire sex as well.

I also find the idea that a porn leak can result in any kind of significant recognition or negative fame (unless you're a politician, or already a celebrity) to be an insincere approach to the theme of videos going viral. I would have surely appreciated a nuanced discussion of the kind of cases that involve a relatively tame cell phone pic leading to bullying and an innocent person's suicide, but again, this is not the movie for that. That's why, at the end, when the film decides to try on some social commentary, the pleas of "we're all sick", and "these videos fuck people up", sound pretentious, and fall on deaf ears, since what's been depicted throughout the whole feature is nothing even remotely resembling reality. At the same time, you kind of wish that guy hadn't uploaded the videos, after all. Not because seeing them - or wanting to be a part of this viral culture - somehow destroys our humanity (news flash: human nature itself is pretty despicable at times, and people have been trying to blame that on every popular trend since the dawn of man), but only to spare us the time wasted on watching this mostly pointless film.


  1. I actually quite enjoyed this. I would put it basically on par with the other two V/H/S films in that it has some great parts and some utterly terrible parts. In a world increasingly flooded with found footage, VHS keeps me entertained by continuing to find unique stories to explore like the one with the magician. I also really liked that the theme of the stories (other than the wrap-round) was essentially satanism! Satanism is so woefully underused in horror! I hope they'll do a fourth film.

    I'm glad you liked Parallel Monsters! Oh man, I loved this segment to death and back. This was true classic found footage, it really 'worked' for me, for some reason. If you were to compose the best VHS segments into one film it'd be maybe one of the best horror movies ever made, and this would be VHS 3's contribution to that, iyam. The effects were a little hokey, yes, but that actually was a cool thing for me because it was nostalgic: took me back to my early days of watching zero-zero-zero budget found footage films with plastic toy FX.

  2. It's funny you should say that Satanism is underused in horror, given what a perfect subject it is for the genre. Not that I would necessarily disagree. There are a lot of treatments out there - certainly if you take a wide interpretation - but I do find myself frequently underwhelmed and unimpressed with what's been done with the topic.

    And too often "the devil" is used only symbolically, something I learned as far as back as catching The Devil's Advocate on late night TV when I was a kid, only to be disappointed that it was some movie about lawyers. And it's still just as true today - e.g., with I Saw The Devil. V/H/S/2's Safe Haven is a shining beacon in the dark, however.

    Re: Parallel Monsters - I don't get what people are complaining about. I thought those monsters were awesome. Modern horror needs more imagination like that in its movies.