Studio: Magnet Releasing
Director: Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Nacho Vigalondo, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: T.J. Cimfel, David White, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop, Nacho Vigalondo, Justin Benson
Producer: Gary Binkow, Brad Miska
A collection of VHS tapes tells stories featuring a runaway ice cream truck, a magician’s cursed cape, an inventor’s excursion into a parallel world, and skateboarders battling skeletons.
Grumbling filmgoers bemoan “found footage” because too few projects endeavor to do more than merely ape “The Blair Witch Project” (review here) or “Paranormal Activity” (review here) in desperate hopes of duplicating their successes without any originality of their own. The format isn’t empty of innovative potential. It’s simply overused for bloating the genre with copycat cash grabs. With the usual staples of haunted asylums, dark forests, and supernatural ghosts far in the background, “V/H/S: Viral” proves that when held by inventive hands, “found footage” can be a creative leash breaker instead of a ball-and-chain shackle.
Viewers can and will debate relative entertainment values for the four stories in this third installment of the “VHS” series. Anthologies by nature have mixed bag appeal. Less arguable is the fact that at the very least, “VHS: Viral” is memorable for its outside-the-box approach to delivering unexpected ideas never before explored as handheld horror.
“Dante the Great” bursts first from the gate with its rise to stardom story of a trailer park failure achieving Copperfield-like heights as a stage magician thanks to a cursed cape. Framed as a mini-documentary, “Dante” creatively incorporates interviews, security camera feeds, and backstage footage to enhance the tale’s telling rather than becoming unnecessarily burdened by the first-person format. Part “Lord of Illusions” and part “Friday the 13th: The Series,” writer/director Gregg Bishop’s segment demonstrates precisely how to present a story “with” found footage instead of “as” found footage.
That distinction between “using” found footage and “being” found footage remains important throughout “VHS: Viral.” When conventions are ignored, the creators aren’t cheating the “rules” out of cheap convenience. They are refusing to be bound by traditional restrictions. To put it another way, explanations regarding who is filming, who added music tracks, or why no one puts down the camera are a distant second in relevance to making sure each short flows sensibly in the most entertaining manner possible.
Also nowhere to be found in the film is anything quite as heavy as a self-inflicted headshot from a suicidal doomsday cultist. Which is not to say that “VHS: Viral” is missing a fair share of demonic darkness. It has heaps, even though it leans more into lightheartedly humorous themes than the previous two movies.
Nacho Vigalondo’s “Parallel Monsters” exemplifies that balanced blend of satanic insidiousness and laughter born from outrageous shocks. “Parallel Monsters” dares to show what happens when the inventor of an inter-dimensional portal swaps spots with his alternate universe doppelganger for just 15 minutes. As fans have come to expect from Vigalondo’s wild mind, his piece is as delightfully demented and suspenseful as “Timecrimes” (review here) or “Open Windows” (review here), but in a bite-size serving.
Harrumphing viewers might dismiss the piece’s big reveal as a gag too hokey to take seriously as social commentary. View it instead under the same light as the classic “Eye of the Beholder” episode of “The Twilight Zone” and consider what the segment may be offering as food for thought about common perceptions concerning accepted conventions.
A whiff of trouble comes when Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Bonestorm” begins with obnoxious L.A. skate punks swearing, smoking, and skating their way onto the wrong side of becoming endearing characters. Thankfully, that sniff doesn’t bloom into a full stink as there is still humor to be had in their intentionally meaningless conversations and enough energy exists in the action to propel through a Santeria-soaked climax.
If anything hobbles “Bonestorm,” it is the leisurely route it takes to move past its exposition, of which there is plenty for a piece that is primarily a skaters versus skeletons battle royale. In what was likely an unfortunate coincidence, since the filmmakers created their segments independently of one another, “Bonestorm” is also one of two stories set in a concrete river basin. That’s a lot of time spent in bleached beige locations for a movie only 75-minutes long without credits. Benson and Moorhead earn enough goodwill from their fantastic feature “Resolution” (review here) and the callback to a favorite “Simpsons” episode that such faultless shortfalls are happily overlooked.
“VHS: Viral” dirties itself sliding into third base to beat the throw, although it still manages to pull off a triple. A stronger wraparound would have cleared the bases, but the connecting links aren’t tight enough to tie the anthology together in a solidly satisfying way.
Director Marcel Sarmiento is no stranger to grand slams, having knocked the cover off the ball with his “D Is for Dogfight” entry in “The ABCs of Death” (review here). What’s interesting about his in-between piece “Vicious Circles” is that he packs in content by giving each chapter break its own 2-3 minute self-contained story as part of a greater arc. But not committing to a singularly threaded narrative betrays the point of a wraparound actually wrapping around rather than providing stunted timeouts.
“Vicious Circles” then ends “VHS: Viral” on a meta-commentary about unhealthy obsessions with YouTube, pocket cameras, and seeing reality through a blurry lens in the palm of one’s hand. Sarmiento has the right idea with what he wants to do and to say, but the fractured formatting only adds to a confused message ringing a different bell than the rest of the movie.
Produced for peanuts, the overall budget for the “VHS” series has not increased between the first installment and the third. That hurts the believability of some visuals, although the spirit behind what these creators want to bring to the screen is always intact. This is not a case of filmmakers looking for the cheapest, easiest way to churn out a project. They genuinely asked, “what would be interesting to see in this format?” while consciously staying away from everything “found footage” has already done to death. “VHS: Viral” is “Creepshow” for the 21st century, and not just because of the image a corpse clad in burlap brings to mind.
Review Score: 85