The V/H/S series has already become a scattershot if worthwhile experiment in reviving the portmanteau horror film; each installment inviting a selection of guest directors to produce their own found footage video nastie. As with any anthology series, the results so far have not always worked, but the misses have been forgivable in light of the hits and the overall grubby aesthetic. The first installment in particular maintains this sensation of a transgressive encounter, while V/H/S/2 focused more on cataclysmic events (the centrepiece being Gareth Evans and Timi Tajahjanto’s extended “Safe Haven” segment). It provided bigger wows but somehow lessened the overall impact.
V/H/S Viral marks the first time that the series completely redrafts the talent on board (previously Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett of The Guest fame had recurred). It’s a leaner film; the shortest of the three so far, but that sense of upstart mischief remains.
As previously there’s a film which surrounds the others, but our first full story is a mockumentary piece from Gregg Bishop titled “Dante The Great” detailing how an amateur magician (Justin Welborn) comes into possession of a supernatural cloak that affords him great fortune at a murderous cost. There’s an immediate sense of fun here, far more pronounced than in the previous movies (where it wasn’t entirely lacking). Bishop’s breezy, almost hectic pace renders potential jump scares less effective, yet it ups the enjoyment factor; something of a trade-off and a pleasing one. It allows Bishop to play with some neat little effects and gets things off to a spirited start (no pun intended). Quite who is filming the story’s showdown, however, is anybody’s guess, and it marks the first time that the series seems to genuinely abandon it’s found footage conceit.
Next up, a decidedly more sci-fi set of scares in “Parallel Monsters”, in which a bedroom scientist develops a gateway into a mirror world. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), this second film continues the sense of fun that began in “Dante The Great”. Our intrepid inventor Alfonso (Gustavo Salmerón) swaps universes with his mirror self, agreeing to trade lives for 15 minutes. What happens from here ought not be spoiled, but the playfulness of the idea continues the series’ evolving trend of prioritising inventiveness as much as any attempts to spook or unnerve. For the first time in a while we might have a horror franchise that benefits from its evolutions and changes. When the first film appeared I was optimistic that it would inspire future installments to improve, essentially one-upping itself. “Parallel Monsters” is a great example of this ambition being fulfilled, even if at least one of its reveals is likely to cause as many giggles as shocks.
Thirdly, in “Bonestorm” (directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), a group of skater kids shooting their stunts decide to take a trip to Tijuana where they prat around for a seemingly interminable amount of time before stumbling upon the site of an occult ritual. Little effort is made to make these interchangeable kids sympathetic, so when they inadvertently summon a gathering of demonic cultists, it’s difficult to care at all about the chaos that ensues. There’re some neat little effects, but the overall tone is difficult to reconcile as anything other than ambivalent. However, in the same way that an extended joke finally receives a second wind, the very exhaustive nature of this installment eventually yields better results.
Which brings us back to the broken-up ‘wraparound’ film, “Vicious Circles”, directed by Marcel Sarmiento, which concerns numerous events surrounding an inner city crisis. It features this film’s most sensational visual moment, all the more brave for appearing totally out of focus. It is this fourth story surrounding the other three that connects most transparently with the Viral element of the title; blogs, camera phones, websites – all feature in the fractured narrative, as do crowds of spectators, hungry for footage they can upload to YouTube, even if they’re at a loss to explain what it is they’re chasing.
Suddenly V/H/S is in danger of actually being about something; a critique of a culture hungry to become famous or satiate itself via connection to ‘content’, regardless of what it is that fills those spurious quotation marks. Through this gaze, the shorts within all fit the mandate; all feature characters searching for their own fame and fortune, be it via introverted invention or extroverted performance. Notoriety is key to all of these stories, and all lead the protagonists to downfall.
It is only at the end that V/H/S Viral reveals that it’s installments are integral to its framing device, as much, if not more so than in the previous movies. And while the overall effect has less atmosphere than before, it’s worth celebrating that this franchise feels far from running out of steam. Found footage horror movies have a terrible time excusing themselves or fleshing out a feature running time. V/H/S and it’s sequels thus far go a long way to suggesting a reasonable out for the stumbling genre; keep it concise, stick it in an anthology and invite the audience to have fun.