It is a safe assumption to say that the V/H/S films have become modern day cult classics for horror fans, particularly those with a taste for found-footage. Viral is now the third installation in the VHS anthology series, during which characters have been known to watch horrific, violent, and supernatural events that have been previously recorded.
The first V/H/S film caught the attention of many indie horror fans, myself included, due to its original manner of plot progression. Yes, found-footage horror is a dime a dozen these days, but the first V/H/S installment managed to stand out due to its outlandishly frightening storytelling and the ever-expected gore one can anticipate from an indie horror release. For the most part, both V/H/S and V/H/S: 2 delivered the darkly sinister and haunting stories horror fans have yearned for. The first film presented the terrorisms of a succubus, serial killers, supernatural forces, and satanic rituals. V/H/S: 2 also recounted similarly grisly events, such as violent ghost hauntings, zombies, the practices of a satanic cult in Indonesia, and alien abductions.
In a nutshell, the previous V/H/S installments have all borrowed concepts common in the horror genre and added their own abhorrence and originality to the stories being portrayed, each with its own validation for the footage recording of each event. However, the previous two films have done something that V/H/S: Viral failed to do completely: include actual V/H/S tapes. Both parts one and two involve an individual searching through V/H/S tapes for answers. In the first installment, it was the search for a snuff film worth a lot of money. In the second film, it was the search for answers after the disappearance of a loved one. This is what has allowed the V/H/S films to function as an anthology series—the fact that we are experiencing the terror of a grainy video simultaneously with the protagonist of the film. There is always a core plot the film returns to after its bloodcurdling segments, and therein lies the fault in V/H/S: Viral.
Viral has no concern for explaining why exactly we are watching segments of V/H/S tapes, or rather, how they ended up as a compilation on the same tape we are watching. It is assumed that the anthological installments of the film were previously recorded on the tape, while the introductory plot of the film is told between the three main segments. Furthermore, Viral’s three segments are recorded in a fashion much more electronically advanced than those of the previous films, such as the use of documentary storytelling, camera headsets on helmets, and even aerial shots from helicopters. While the continuity and explanation of the film is shaky, to put it mildly, V/H/S: Viral still manages to be a chilling and highly entertaining experience, delving into black comedy and surrealism that is much more original than the plots used in the previous installments.
The film begins with an enthusiastic man who cannot keep his camera off his voluptuous girlfriend as they return to his hometown for vacation. It is not long before night falls and he becomes aware of a car chase that is headed straight toward his home. In hopes of getting good footage to “go viral,” our protagonist decides to follow the car chase on bike, leading to the abduction of his girlfriend by a suspicious ice cream truck that initiated the car chase. It is then that the grainy V/H/S tape goes into white noise and we are introduced to the first segment in Viral’s anthology, “Dante the Great.”
“Dante the Great” is told in a documentary-like fashion with the overall plot occurring in real time. It follows the account of Scarlett, a young woman working as a magician’s assistant who made a disturbing discovery involving the manner in which Dante the Great “performs” his magic tricks. We are informed that Dante was arrested for the murder of several of his assistants, with a resoundingly haunting method of murder. “Dante the Great” is a supernatural tale of magic and deceit, filled with gorgeous cinematography, gore, and hilariously compelling plot development. It is easily the most enjoyable of the segments, although its much more black comedy than it is horror.
The second segment, “Parallel Monsters,” is the strangest and most difficult to decipher from the three parts of the anthology. It is a Spanish piece that tells the tale of a man who is successful in creating a portal to an alternate universe. As he peers through the portal, he sees himself, and timidly talks to his alternate self to see if their universes are alike. Both are in complete awe and agree to trade places for 15 minutes in each other’s universes. Due to the shock value and possible spoilers for this segment, I will no longer discuss it, but let’s just say the thrills and bloodshed come quickly in this fast-paced thrill ride through alternate universes.
The final segment, “Bonestorm,” is a fitting end to the anthology before Viral returns to its core storyline. It is both captivatingly humorous and monstrously unnerving that it is near impossible to keep track of how to feel throughout the segment. We follow a group of teenage skaters with headpiece cameras attached to their helmets, hoping to catch their stunts on video. Due to a lack of adequate skating areas, the boys decide to travel to Tijuana where they believe there is a superb area to film themselves skateboarding. Upon arriving at said destination, they find a disheveled woman whispering about blood and the unleashing of a creature. The boys ignore her and silly banter ensues as they find their supreme skate destination, hardly giving a second thought to the giant pentagram drawn onto the cement floor. Chanting figures with horrific make-up and cloaks soon surround the boys, and the segment plays out like a contemporary homage to the original Evil Dead trilogy by being equally gory and engagingly funny.
Ultimately, V/H/S: Viral is a highly entertaining horror flick that is more comedic and original in plotlines than its predecessors. However, that is not to say it is without its faults. The core storyline that is told between segments is one the film’s failures, never living up to the expectation of terror promised by the ice cream truck kidnappings. The film’s finale makes hardly any sense and is easily Viral’s largest failure. Its lack of cohesive structure makes the film feel poorly executed and incomplete, which is a disappointment after such a strangely enjoyable experience. Overall, V/H/S: Viral is a film for horror buffs in the mood for a change in atmospheric intensity and storytelling. For better or worse, that is exactly what is provided.
As third installation in the anthological cult classic V/H/S series, V/H/S: Viral delivers as a black comedy film much more than it does as a horror film.