With its first two entries, “V/H/S” established itself as one of the most promising horror franchises around, featuring a variety of talented directors and an intriguing, carefully revealed mythology. Unfortunately, “V/H/S Viral” puts a brutal halt to the franchise’s momentum, demolishing every meaningful tenet of the franchise and failing to produce a single scare.
As with the other films, “V/H/S Viral” opens with a segment that threads the other tapes together, featuring a renegade ice cream truck racing around Los Angeles and causing chaos wherever it goes. While previous films stayed with a single perspective in the wraparound segment featuring characters actually playing the titular VHS tapes, “Viral” is content with letting the wraparound function as an extra burst of violence between more scenes of gratuitous violence. Unfortunately, the wraparound segment is mostly nonsense, providing little connective tissue between the other shorts in the film.
The other shorts in “V/H/S Viral” range from pleasantly clever to genuinely toxic. A segment by “Dance of the Dead” director Gregg Bishop, featuring a magician obsessed with his darkly powerful cloak, is amusing enough, with a handful of memorable moments. It also provides the closest thing “Viral” has to an actual scare, a commodity that the film drastically lacks.
Meanwhile, Nacho Vigalondo, Spanish filmmaker and Fantastic Fest mainstay, produces the best segment of the bunch: the tale of a scientist who creates a door to an opposite dimension only to find out that the grass is decidedly not greener on the other side. Vigalondo’s short is full of funny little moments and haunting images — and is an easy highlight of the film.
Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are to blame for the bad taste “V/H/S Viral” ultimately leaves in its viewers’ mouths, as their segment pushes the film from decent to downright disappointing. When a gang of despicable skateboarding teens goes to Tijuana, Mexico, to make a skate video, they end up in an extended, bloody showdown with members of a supernatural cult.
This segment features a handful of satisfying kills — especially once the kids get their hands on some fireworks. Unfortunately, it’s also completely incoherent, a barrage of senseless bloodshed captured with absolutely no effort toward geography or character. While plenty of horror films have had fun with teens fighting for their lives, this one becomes nauseous, as they take pleasure in shedding blood, making the entire segment feel like a juvenile fantasy about going down to Mexico and getting in a crazy gang fight. The characters are unlikable at the beginning of the short, but, by the conclusion of the short, it’s easy to root for them to meet their end, preferably with the same enthusiastic violence they’re using to defend themselves.
While it’s impossible to trace the failure of “Viral” to any single source, one wonders whether the absence of producers Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett is an influence. Wingard and Barrett are among the most exciting directors working in indie horror, and “Viral” direly misses the sense of humor and impeccable style that their feature films consistently tout.
“Viral”’s lack of cohesion, inconsistent batting ratio and occasional moral bankruptcy render it wholly unsatisfying and, again, not the least bit scary. “V/H/S Viral” is the first major disappointment of Fantastic Fest, a marked misstep in the trajectory of a genuinely exciting franchise, and, hopefully, the inevitable fourth entry in the franchise gets things back on track.