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V/H/S: Viral

I saw V/H/S: Viral last night, and I had to rant about my disappointment.

I’ve been a real fan of this series from the first. The anthology format lends itself well to the genre. The best horror stories are short stories — “The Call of Cthulu”, “The Raven”, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, “The Monkey’s Paw”, “The Lottery”. Short and sharp, like a knife stab, seems to be the best medium for fear. Five Nights at Freddy’s is essentially a short story in game form. Even stories of two sentences can have poignancy.

But all these stories are solid. They don’t have to fill in everything, but a good horror story — a good STORY — has to allow you to put two and two together. Viral doesn’t do that. And that’s one of the flaws of any found footage movie. But I haven’t seen it so prevalent as here.

camera vampire

The biggest problem with found footage, one that a lot of filmmakers seem to forget, is that the whole point is that this could have happened. Someone taped it and found it and uploaded it somewhere. The Blair Witch Project says it all: “A year later their footage was found.” But all the subsequent movies are eschewing that for the difficulties found footage gives. But V/H/S allows experimentation. And the premise lends itself to the very plausible short amounts of cam footage in a variety of settings. And no story lingers too long to wear down suspension of disbelief. Except for this film.

VHS Poster

The first movie had some great stories that properly used the medium. The first (which stars Hannah Fierman, who I’ve mentioned before) consists of a group of teens trying to make an amateur reality porn by picking up girls at a club. It evokes memories of a similar scene in Leaving Las Vegas, where the college boys immaturely hire a hooker so they can tape it. In VHS, though, it ends badly (of course), but not in a “karmic vampire death” kind of way. And the medium enhances that. Just like it does for all the stories — a Skype communication, a slasher that can only be viewed THROUGH a video camera, a honeymoon recording, a Halloween party.

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The second one wasn’t as good, in my opinion. There are fewer segments, and they are hit and miss. The “eye implant” was too slow and confusing and the alien costumes in the last segment were ridiculous. But I liked the “zombie with a GoPro” for its originality and “blood cult documentary” for the body and mind horror. The acting is worse and the characters are less likable but production values are higher. At this point I felt I could always count on SOME gold in these movies, and I looked forward to Viral, hoping that it would address a new premise — online video and viral sensations.

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Nope. It’s essentially confusing garbage. None of the segments made any sense. The wraparound doesn’t give any character background, just meaningless, cheesy shots with bad acting, straight out of Cloverfield. He’s supposed to be obsessed with viral videos, but there’s no evidence of that until there’s some nearby ice cream truck going in circles on a police chase, mowing down helpless pedestrians who get in its way. And somehow its passing makes cell phones initiate some kind of call or video that acts like Stephen King’s “Cell” or Pulse and the main character’s girlfriend is in the phone yelling or suffering or something.

You can’t broadcast to cell phones via a local van. That shit has to go up into space. It’s not like a television. It would have to be some kind of computer program. And what is this thing trying to do? And the annoying white kid ends up being “the chosen one” to upload all the VHS videos and end the world? I don’t get it.

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It’s not without some merit. “Dante the Magician” was good, but it’s derivative. It follows the District 9 semi-documentary format. But there are times where it eschews even this to provide cinematic shots. And there is no better way to take the audience out of a found footage film than a shot that couldn’t exist.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon did this, but at least there was a clear transition. Two-thirds of the movie is basically a Nightline profile on a Jason Voorhees type. Not via third party either — she actually interviews the guy, stays in his house, asks how pulls off tricks like appearing in two places at once or faking death. But the last third, once the twist is revealed, becomes a regular movie, because… that’s what it became. The documentarians are now part of the story. But Dante becomes a forgettable Twilight Zone episode. But there’s a transition there — you know what it’s doing and why.

The two others (yes, there are even fewer segments this time) have good premises, but end badly. A “twin from a mirror universe” story has tremendous potential, but uses hand-puppet penis monsters for cheap, unexplained body horror. The last had potential too — some stoner teens set out to make a Jackass-like video — but the characters are unlikable and it ends up as a plotless gory action scene. And I’m not even going to talk about “Glorious Vortex” — the last segment that was so “out there” it couldn’t even be included in the full movie.

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Johnny 5?

This isn’t like El Topo or something by Kubrick where it’s an intricate puzzle or a film that’s art and symbolism, with characters that are stand-ins for bigger meanings. This is a horror movie meant to shock, scare, and provoke visceral reaction. And I can’t have a reaction if I don’t know what’s going on. Confusion is not equal to fear.

It upsets me and that’s why I had to write about it. I could have come up with way better ideas for segments than what was produced here. How about a vlog series that goes wrong? Teens react to a snuff film? A Twitch TV gaming stream is rife with horror potential, from Swatting to “Freddy becomes real”. Unboxing videos, unwanted exposure that ruins lives, gang videos, devil babies, parkour body horror, cause promotions. It’s a deep well.

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I once read that writers should read both “best books” and “worst books”. The best books leave you inspired, but thinking “I could never write that”. The worst leave you motivated, saying “I can write better than that!” This is clearly the latter.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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