VHS: Viral manages to improve upon its predecessors in terms of structure and format; however, in terms of actual scares, Viral is more ‘tales of intrigue’ than ‘tales of horror.’
In VHS: Viral, the haunted and gruesome videotape murders of the first two films have gone digital. Now, the nightmare videos can be seen anytime, anywhere – broadcast across the digital realm with the speed of people’s morose curiosities.
While we watch the account of a magician tempted by a demonic cloak; or a man who opens a portal to a freakish parallel world; or a group of skaters who happen upon a Mexican death ritual, we are also watching the effect these videoed horrors inflict upon the real world. As the city begins to fall under the grip of the videos’ dark magic, young vlogger Zach (Kelly Misek Jr.) braves the savage metropolis streets in order to save his girlfriend Iris (Emilia Ares Zoryan) from the clutches a mysterious assailant in an ice cream truck.
SHORT VERSION: With a fresh collection of directors (both new and more established), a shorter segment count and overall runtime, VHS: Viral manages to improve upon its predecessors in terms of structure and format; however, in terms of actual scares, Viral more ‘tales of intrigue’ than ‘tales of horror.’
“Dante the Great”
In this first segment by Gregg Bishop (The Other Side) we get a new expanse on the usual found-footage restrictions imposed by VHS film structure. This time the story is framed as a crime documentary story about enigmatic magician Dante the Great (Justin Welborn), who comes into contact with a demonic cloak owned by Houdini. Feeling inadequate and wanting more, Dante strikes a deal to feed the demonic cloak human victims, in exchange for real magical powers and all the fame that comes with them.
The documentary format allows for the logical (and welcome) inclusion of footage collected from multiple sources of video – and Bishop pulls off some nice visual magic (pun) in order to create magic and supernatural forces at work onscreen. Welborn is also convincing as a conniving and creepy magician scumbag type – while Emmy Argo is more camera-friendly than performance-able in her role as Dante’s assistant/crush, Scarlett.
Yet, even with a Tales From the Crypt throwback vibe and some good visual trickery, “Dante the Great” pushed its limits too far. By the end, we’re relegated to cheap-looking stunts and a total loss of found-footage video logic. It’s a slice of disturbing fun more so than an effective fright segment.
In this segment by Timecrimes helmer Nacho Vigalando, a tinkerer named Alfonso (Gustavo Salmeron) creates a portal to a parallel dimension – only to discover that his doppleganger on the other side has accomplished the exact same fame feat, at the exact same moment. Acknowledging their shared curiosities, the two Alfonsos decide to trade places for exactly fifteen minutes; however, when the places are traded, both men discover that the “other’s” world is in fact vastly different.
If “Dante the Great” feels like a Tales From the Crypt throwback, “Parallel Monsters” feels like a slightly more explicit version of something from The Twilight Zone. Most of the segment hinges on the dangled mystery of what the difference is between each man’s universe; once that mystery is revealed, it is more ridiculous (and gross) than it is frightening.
Oddly enough, the segment carries a deeper social commentary subtext regarding domestic violence (and rape), but the grotesque expression of these themes tends to overshadow the cleverness of the narrative. All in all, “Parallel Monsters” is that now-customary, semi-sci-fi VHS segment that will probably leave people scratching their heads and saying, “WTF was that?” (Seriously there’s one in every installment.)
The final segment by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead takes us on a journey with some teenage skateboarders who are filming their latest video. When the local streets are exhausted of possibilities, the boys decide to make a bold excursion down to Tijuana for access to an exclusive skate site. At first the venue looks ideal; however, when one of the boys falls and gets scuffed up, spilt blood on cursed ground gives rise to deadly supernatural threat.
Again keeping with VHS film franchise tradition, “Bonestorm” is the segment that is seemingly aimed at sports enthusiasts. In the last installment, we got a GoPro cycling zombie thriller; this time, it’s skate punks of the video game era versus a mob of undead death worshipers. The result is pretty much the same in either case: a jumbled, shaky-cam visual experience that’s only semi-coherent.
The way the segment plays, it seems like the filmmakers are aspiring to create a live-action film that mimics the style of a first-person shooter video game. Portions of the segment accomplish that goal, but many other moments are compromised by the restrictiveness and instability of GoPro cameras put to wild use. Even when the format is successful, watching young teenagers take to brutally fighting and killing a group of attackers with almost frightening acclimation carries its own level of disturbance – one that the filmmakers may not have intended.
In the end, “Bonestorm’s” presentation proves to be much more of a hinderance than a creative asset.
“Vicious Circle” is without a doubt the most baffling and poorly-constructed “Wraparound” segment yet (the overarching story that frames the other shorts). Marcel Sarmiento attempts to use Zach’s almost overbearing love of voyeurism (and consequent loss as a result of that indulgence) as a parable about the spread of and effect of negativity, pain, horror and madness via digital means – but doesn’t end up conveying much of anything at all, despite having multiple opportunities between segments.
With constant static blurs and spliced-in frames of previous VHS installments, the surreal “Vicious Circle” is the hardest segment to follow, providing little impact when depicting the city-wide “infection” of the VHS horrors. Hopefully the next installment has a much stronger frame to hold it together.
When all is said and done, VHS: Viral is a fine prospect for at home On Demand viewing if you’ve followed the franchise thus far. However, for newcomers or those interested in the theatrical experience: This chapter won’t be worth the investment.
VHS: Viral is now playing on Video On Demand and Digital Streaming Services – it is also in limited theatrical release as of today. Look for a wider release in the forthcoming weeks.