Anthology films are, quite by definition, not created equal. Give a bunch of different filmmakers carte blanche to do whatever they want and you’ll inevitably find that some of them either aren’t up to the task, or simply didn’t bring their A-game.
The VHS movies are no exception: the first film was a mediocre effort with only one or two (arguable) highlights, and although the second had mostly clever entries, all of them paled in comparison to a terrifying centerpiece. The VHS 2 short Safe Haven, by Gareth Huw Evans & Timo Tjahjanto, remains not just the best part of this franchise so far, but also one of the best horror films of the decade by its lonesome. And while nothing in VHS: Viral can compare with Safe Haven’s cinematic ambition and shock value, the third film in the found-footage horror series does at least break the curse: every entry is equally intriguing, memorable and (mostly) scary.
The wraparound segment, Vicious Circles by director Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), does little to set up the other entries – which, really, was its only job – but boasts a manic intensity. As an ice cream truck leads the police on a circular chase throughout Los Angeles, home video enthusiasts leave their houses to capture the chase and get caught up in the mayhem. The hero, if Vicious Circles has one, is trying to find his girlfriend, who went missing in the chaos, but the short digresses into several violent misadventures throughout the city that have unexpected consequences on, or from, the chase itself.
What Vicious Circles lacks in purpose it makes up in mad momentum. It eschews the typical short film set-up/payoff structure to paint a tapestry of Los Angeles as a realm of disturbing, random violence. The deaths are unexpected and inventive, and the overall tone is hellish. Only the finale drops the ball, concluding the film with a note that should be unsettling but mostly just confuses. It raises questions it doesn’t answer, and the effect isn’t creepy, it’s just dissatisfying. But the build up is so strong it almost – almost – doesn’t matter.
Dante the Great
The first standalone segment, directed by Gregg Bishop (Dance of the Dead), is a break from VHS tradition. It’s a TV documentary about a magician who performs actual feats of magic with a supernatural cloak. But the cloak must feed…
Dante the Great isn’t horrifying by any stretch of the imagination, but to its credit, it does stretch the imagination. Dante isn’t a horror movie villain, he’s a comic book movie villain who must fight his own assistant to the death in a fantastic and thrilling duel of prestidigitation. It’s engaging and fun, and certainly horror-themed, but it may just be the lightest installment of the entire VHS franchise. But when it’s also one of the most entertaining entries, that’s hardly worth complaining about.
The second standalone segment, directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes), plays like a found footage “Outer Limits” episode. That is, if there was ever an “Outer Limits” episode written by Clive Barker. It’s a sci-fi tale with an immoral, grotesque twist.
An inventor opens a doorway to another dimension in his basement, only to find himself on the other side. The two protagonists agree to swap universes for 15 minutes, but when they encounter each other’s wives, they discover that these realities are not as similar as they once appeared. To say more would ruin all of Parallel Monsters’ surprises, but suffice it to say, it’s suspenseful and strange and ultimately very, very disturbing.
The finale segment, directed by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead (Resolution), isn’t so much a film as an idea, but it is undeniably fun to watch. A pair of skate punks hire a camera guy to film their dangerous exploits, leading them to a Tijuana road trip and a skate park with suspiciously Lovecraftian symbols painted on the ground.
What follows is a knockdown, dragged out fight to the death – sometimes more than once – with cultists with skulls for faces and flammable blood. And… that’s it. There isn’t a real story being told in Bonestorm, it’s just an excuse to film a couple of bratty punks beating the hell from hellbeasts, filmed by GoPro cameras strapped to their helmets. There’s an adolescent anger present that has to be appreciated, but a shallowness that can’t be ignored either. But damn it, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the pleasures of watching a “Jackass” episode go horribly wrong are enough to carry the short for as long as it lasts.
The problem with the VHS franchise is that the concept means something, but the films themselves do not. Critics and discerning horror fans have long complained that the VHS movies have touched on something poignant about our times – the ghoulish tendency to film everything, well beyond the point of propriety – but have lacked the focus necessary to actually make a statement worth listening to about the subject.
VHS Viral does absolutely nothing to change this, although Vicious Circles does at least broach the dangerous zeitgeist of filming disasters as they occur in real-time. Unlike the previous installments, however, this wraparound story does nothing to set up the other films, and unfortunately – and quite like the previous installments – it ends with a vaguely apocalyptic enigma instead of a proper conclusion that brings everything… well, full circle.
But the time has come to admit that although the emperor has no clothes, he does look great in the nude. The VHS movies have proved themselves to be a likably cynical horror franchise, capable of bringing out the best in great directors and inspiring even subpar filmmakers to at the very least try their damnedest. And taken as just a collection of shorts connected only by the found-footage conceit (and not even the VHS video format), VHS Viral is the best VHS yet, at least on average. Every installment is a mean-spirited little treat for horror fans, and in a genre that is – again – largely defined by inconsistency, that’s a tiny little triumph in and of itself.