Not nearly the catastrophe others would have you believe but still pushing its franchise onto thinner ice than it should be at this stage in its lifespan, V/H/S: Viral rolls out the same old concept for the third time. The connective tissue binding these four short horror films all shot in a found-footage style is quite weak this go round as there seems to be less and less invested each time in making us believe that these films are anything more than a gimmicky way to sell otherwise unsellable shorts. At the epicenter is “Vicious Circles.” Here we have a young, photogenic couple in LA whose relationship is starting to sour due to his very modern need to document everything with his handy video camera. His obsession hits new levels when a criminal starts leading the LAPD on a wild car chase around his hood and he smells an opportunity to hit it big with an irresistible viral video that will (fingers crossed) end with some sort of death and/or destruction.
Stitched around that story are three other shorts that have nothing (or next to nothing) to do with that mayhem. The first two shorts are silly and undercooked but enjoyable nonetheless in a high concept, low production value kind of way. “Dante the Great” (directed by Gregg Bishop) is a rags to riches story of an unemployed, dirt bag magician (Justin Welborn) who finds his ticket out of the trailer park in the form of a magical cloak that grants him real powers. Sadly, though, Dante doesn’t have the intellectual capabilities to handle the responsibility and he goes about proving that absolute power corrupts absolutely. He graduates quickly from eviscerating rabbits to murdering sexual conquests for sport which gets the attention of the local police unit. Some of the scenes here play like scuzzy outtakes of Now You See Me if that movie had tried to emulate The Matrix but I really can’t fault Bishop for trying even if his skills still need a bit of sharpening.
From there we transition into “Parallel Monsters” which is, for my money, the strongest in the bunch. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo and playing like an extra-demented Primer it tells the story of a basement scientist who builds a portal into another world only to find another version of himself that is similar but oh so very different from him. It’s hampered slightly by an overly simplistic dichotomy (what if a sweet family man swapped places with a literal hell beast who has an affinity for blood soaked orgies?) but Vigalondo clearly has a lot to say and he’s working from a very dark place. His ideas certainly aren’t carved into diamonds the way Shane Carruth’s were a decade ago but this take on a similar topic is in a lot of ways much more fun.
After this, any semblance of quality film-making quickly vanishes. “Bonestorm,” directed by the duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, finds a bunch of good-time bros heading down to Tijuana to film the next Jackass or Faces of Death video so that they can become rich and famous like they totally deserve to be. Nonsensical to the extremist of degrees and trading on cheap clichés such as selling Mexico as a hotbed of senseless violence it feels like a flimsy excuse to attach cameras to the heads of some skater boys and watch as they use their boards to bludgeon skeletons. It is the bloodiest of all the shorts and that is the one thing it has going for it. There is some sick pleasure to be had when things get really filthy such as when one character has his arm ripped clean off or when a discarded syringe is turned into a potential murder weapon. Near the end Benson and Moorhead lay out their mission statement a little too explicitly as one of their heroes proclaims in a moment of celebration, “Hey, we killed a lot of them fools!” Yes, you did, and I feel all the dumber for having watched it.
The big idea this collection seems to be pushing back against is that somehow it is healthy or normal that our generation endlessly pursues internet fame. And worse than just selling our stories online for likes and retweets we now seek out human misery knowing that it has a value in our twisted society. I’m not saying I fully disagree with that premise only that they lose me when they try and draw a straight line from a man and his camera chasing down an active crime to his girlfriend being abducted and tortured. Besides, at this point we all should have seen the “White Bear” episode of Black Mirror, an episode that called out the same inhumanity to man while seriously questioning our relationship with technology without coming off like a scold. V/H/S: Viral does give voice to smaller directors and shorter films but the haphazard way they are all tied together here makes everything seem compromised. Until we have a better delivery system for non-feature length entertainment this will simply have to do.
The one special feature worth seeking out is the hidden short film that starts as soon as the credits stop rolling. I’m not saying it improves on the film overall, but considering how short it is it’s nice to have an extra 15 minutes tacked on. Other than that the special features are fairly run of the mill with director commentaries and behind-the-scenes features that fail to really add anything to the experience.
Magnolia Home Entertainment presents V/H/S: Viral. Directed by: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Gregg Bishop, Marcel Sarmiento, Nacho Vigalondo. Starring: Emmy Argo, Emilia Zoryan, Justin Welborn. Written By: Todd Lincoln, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Gregg Bishop, Nacho Vigalondo. Running time: 82 minutes. Rating: R. Released: February 17, 2015.