In an ideal world, this would be a review of a Nacho Vigalondo short film that gets to praise simple sci-fi that gradually expands its surprises. Unfortunately, Vigalondo’s short Parallel Monsters is the meat in the middle of a shit sandwich called V/H/S: Viral.
The third installment of the horror franchise is a bumpy ride that abandons its original roots only to fumble the easiest concept imaginable. Instead of heading back into the creaky house with stacks of tube-filled televisions on the floor and pyramids of gonzo VHS tapes, it toys with uploaded cell phone videos as infections. In better hands it could have been the love child of Videodrome and a thousand editorials complaining about kids today with their dang-blasted YouTubes, but the handful of unconnected shorts tip the scale on how many interesting ideas we need to wade through before we get to capable execution.
Since it’s an anthology, it’ll be easiest to break it down by its component parts while hoping they’re eventually sold separately.
Returning to the stripped down sci-fi legacy of Timecrimes, Vigalondo’s Parallel Monsters takes a gorgeously raw idea (that a man could complete a portal to another universe just as his counterpart is completing his own) and draws a perversely entertaining narrative about what we let willingly into our homes.
The two identical men agree to cross over and explore each other’s mirror worlds for 15 minutes. It’s a damned illuminating trip where the joy of discovery eventually gives way to terrified violence. By the time Man Prime is invited to what looks like a foursome with a bag of chicken entrails, it’s clear how potentially different (and dangerous) his second home really is.
Like an R-rated episode of Sliders, it’s also the rare story bolstered by the insularity of found footage instead of being harmed by the gimmick. We see everything through the handheld eye level, discovering alongside the amateur scientists on their familiar-seeming expedition. And there’s joy there – boyhood glee that overtakes the man when both of him realize the portal works. Vigalondo keeps the momentum flowing and allows new information to develop and twist organically before letting chaos reign.
Flashy and full of shocking wonder, it’s an imaginative short that won’t let you look at The Skeksis the same way ever again.
In Bonestorm, two skaters making a tape with an inept videographer head to a secluded ditch in Tijuana where they pull pop shuvits on top of a probably totally harmless satanic symbol. It’s a cool premise, but that’s all that’s there, essentially making it an exercise in speedy shots, great effects work (the skull heads look sick) and people running with GoPros aimed at their faces.
It’s also hobbled by a backstory that feels more like writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead had a minimum run time to meet and couldn’t stretch out the action any further. It starts with two talented skaters doing tricks as an unnecessarily shady camera man attempts to immortalize them. Why do they head to Tijuana? Because they get kicked out of a pool for fighting, and there are no other places to skate within 20 miles apparently. Unfortunately the no-brainer conceit to get them to the danger zone is perpetuated by no-brainer behavior – the kind of Dumb Horror Movie Decisions that should have been slashed way back in the 80s.
As a bonus, they introduce a character whose sole purpose is to provide his dad’s credit card to fuel the trip and never say anything. Which is fitting since no one here is a character so much as an attitude in a meat suit.
There’s no denying that the visuals are like shooting 5-Hour Energy into your corneas, and what’s even more impressive is the discipline the production shows in editing together several frantic camera feeds in a way that’s clear when it needs to be and disorienting when it wants to put you in the Sketchers of the bloodied main characters. There are some hiccups once the action plateaus and lingers, though, and watching nearly static faces as the real movement flies around them gets tired quickly.
It’s not a crime to make a short that’s only an action sequence, but we shouldn’t have to go through a head-slapping slog to get to the good stuff (and the good stuff had better be great).
If you hated the wraparound sequences from the first two V/H/S movies, Vicious Circles should redeem them completely. Viral’s bookend is a nonsensical blur that feels like the cinematic equivalent of an air ball. The idea – that all the hilarious cat videos we share are turning us into zombies – is embedded right there in the DNA of the anthology, but co-writer/director Marcel Sarmiento can never find his feet.
Jumping between a few different stories (that are all being videotaped near one another), the wraparound acts as a terrible introduction to the movie that can’t even use cliches for comfort. The main figures are a young man who likes to tape his girlfriend in her underwear and the girlfriend who encourages (but seems frustrated by) his attachment to the device that might bring him some highly coveted internet bucks some day. When the news reports a bizarre car chase (headed by an elusive-for-no-reason ice cream truck), boyfriend springs into action to get footage, gets accosted by a cop wearing Google Glass and then stuff continues to happen regardless of any kind of grounding logic. Girlfriend ends up inside his phone, and people on the street begin to sport nose bleeds and vacant, cell-phone-focused looks.
It feels a whole lot like Sarmiento had a vibrant idea in his head but couldn’t figure out how to communicate it. Pause for irony. The concept of ideas spreading from person to person as they imprison is an achingly simple horror construct that’s at least a hundred years old, so it’s hard to watch someone need a step ladder for l0w-hanging fruit. It’s worse when you’re cribbing the plot of The Signal (from O.G. V/H/S alum David Bruckner), but can’t figure out how to do anything with it.
The segment also does nothing to attempt to lead into the others (which means it’s more of a sectioned short film than a true wraparound), and since it’s terrible, it comes with the added dread of knowing that when one story ends, we’ll be forced back to the ice cream chase for more inane bullshit.
As the video virus progresses, we meet a girl stripping for an amateur porn site in the back of a cab, some teens chasing the truck on bikes (because, yes, it’s that slow) and a group of gang members having a dysfunctional barbecue that reads like Tobias Funke in a Scared Straight skit at San Quentin. None of it is any good, and it builds to a climax that’s muddled even though we could all see it coming for miles.
A final nitpick on top of the pile: Circles breaks the found footage structure pretty quickly by showing us cell phone screens and other conveniences without diegetic cameras. To be fair, it’s minor. Fortunately, the first short of the anthology, Dante the Great, runs with the rule-breaking and eventually throws found footage completely out the window.
Set up as a mockumentary with interlaced home video footage, the story follows a trailer park loser who comes into the possession of a magical cloak which allows his bumbling illusionist career to launch all the way to Las Vegas. He’s got an upper hand on Penn and Teller because he can perform the genuine, Faustian article. The only problem (there’s always a Catch), is that the cloak has the appetite of Seymour Krelborn’s alien plant.
Everything is promising, and it leads to an average downfall account that comes with a Tales From the Darkside vibe, but it’s all fairly by the book, and the acting does it zero favors. The low point comes at the high point of the action, where writer/director Gregg Bishop says fuck it to found footage and shoots a magical fight sequence from at least a dozen angles (all still with grainy POV style!) from humans who aren’t anywhere in the room. It’s one of those live by the sword/die by the sword irritations that a more entertaining movie might have gotten away with (see: District 9), but it speaks clearly to 1) the difficulty of handling the limitations of found footage and 2) the ease of giving up and shooting traditionally, conceptual mandate be damned. It’s almost like the completely forgot they were supposed to be making found footage – the final straw that arches eye brows and launches frustrated hands into the air.
In all the shorts of V/H/S: Viral, there’s a fame-hungry figure who flies too close to the sun. It will always be fascinating to give different filmmakers the same starting point to see where they run to, but it will also always be dangerous and lead to wide ranges of quality. What’s most aggravating about this collection is that it’s dumber than its predecessors while still having a ton of great ideas. Sadly, that’s not enough to add up to something worth sharing.
The Upside: Strong, sometimes gory CGI; Vigalondo’s entry
The Downside: Interesting ideas are half-baked; outright stupidity; faulty found footage; and acting from soap opera land
On the Side: Despite everything being shot on cell phones and digital cameras, some of the shorts still rock VHS tracking errors and glitches.