Fantastic Fest Review: The V/H/S Franchise Takes A Step Backwards With V/H/S VIRAL

But Nacho Vigalondo's segment makes it worth checking out.

Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of the anthology structure, particularly when it's applied to the horror or sci-fi genres. I grew up reading Stephen King, watching Twilight Zone reruns and clicking over to Tales From The Crypt whenever my parents fell asleep, and something about those quick-and-dirty tales of the macabre has always worked for me. Maybe it's the lack of padding the anthology structure all but demands (there's little room for fucking around when you've only got 10-20 minutes - or 10-20 pages - to tell a complete story), maybe it's the sharp narrative turns anthology entries tend to take (guessing the twist is half the fun!), or maybe I just like the Whitman's Sampler-style setup a solid anthology offers (insert shameful Forrest Gump reference here). Whatever the case may be: as a rule, I'm a sucker for anthologies, in any medium.

And yet: the V/H/S franchise.

Things got off to a decent enough start back in 2012, with V/H/S, which featured shorts from Adam Wingard (You're Next), Ti West (House of The Devil), Joe Swanberg (stuff) and a band of newcomers operating under the name Radio Silence. The film was way, way overhyped by the time I saw it, so my first viewing felt somewhat underwhelming. But a repeat viewing - with expectations firmly in check - left me a bit more satisfied. There were peaks and valleys to the thing, of course, but overall I'd say the original V/H/S is consistent in its entertainment value, and I'd recommend it if anyone asked.

Then there was V/H/S 2, where the peaks were higher (notably Garth Evans' Safe Haven) and the valleys were...well, maybe not lower, but definitely on par with the original's slower, less-impressive entries. More troubling were the film's wraparound segments, which traded the off-putting shitheads featured in V/H/S' bookenders for a meandering storyline that a) tried to assemble a sort-of mythology around the "tapes" introduced in each film, and b) built to a borderline non-existent payoff. Glad to see the first film's skeevy lowlives go, not so happy with what we got instead. V/H/S 2's "main story" was, in fact, its weakest feature.

So you can imagine how bummed I was to discover that V/H/S Viral would make the same mistakes a second (third?) time. Once again, the wraparound segments (directed by Marcel Sarmiento) attempt to build on the "mythology" of the first two films, and once again they build to a somewhat deflating climax. This time, however, the bookend/interstitial segments are even longer, filling out so much of the film's ~90 minute run-time that only three "tapes" make it into the film:  Gregg Bishop's Dante The Great (the weakest of the bunch), Nacho Vigalondo's Parallel Monsters, (the most effective segment in the film, by a wide margin) and Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead's Bonestorm (kinda fun, features several great moments, ultimately the second-best of the bunch).

The wraparound segment (titled Vicious Circles) turns the mythology of the series in a direction that reminded me of Stephen King's Cell (as well as 2007's underrated The Signal), but once it makes its point it just keeps making it; you've figured out "what's going on" long before the segment wraps. If there were less of Vicious Circles and another segment-- even a middling one-- to balance out the rest of the film, I think V/H/S Viral would feel more on-par with the other films in the franchise. But it's repetitive, and time-consuming, and the fact that it builds to a predictable conclusion makes it feel really damaging to the film as a whole.

Vigalondo's Parallel Monsters, on the other hand, almost single-handedly gives me cause to recommend the film (Bonestorm's also probably worth seeing, if only for the impressive makeup effects and the inventive staging Moorhead and Benson pull off). Vigalondo introduces a guy who's built a doorway to a parallel universe in his downstairs laboratory, and the tape we're watching is him on the night he decides to open said door. When he does, he finds his doppelgänger staring back at him. The two decide to switch places for 10 minutes, at which point...well, it gets fucked up, real fast. I don't want to spoil a second of it.

I'm going to recommend V/H/S Viral, but there's a lot of qualifications to that recommendation. Don't go too far out of your way to see it, for instance, and know ahead of time that Parallel Monsters and Bonestorm are really the only segments worth getting curious about. Another one would be: be prepared to feel like the movie's missing something. Yet another would be: probably don't bother if you didn't enjoy the first two.

I report this to you with zero relish. I'd really love to be able to champion this series, as it's trying to pull off a trick that I've always been a fan of. But I'd suggest the gatekeepers of this franchise have a nice, long think about the next one before they churn it out. With so many exciting indie filmmakers playing in the horror genre these days, there's no reason the V/H/S series couldn't run for a long time - annually, even! - but it needs to reconsider its format and apply a tighter leash in the quality control department.

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