At least the filmmakers of V/H/S and V/H/S 2 seemed intent on maintaining a sense of realistic proportion within the confines of their found-footage conceit, bypassing overt stylistic flourishes in favor of creating the illusion of witnessing extravagant horrors captured on mundane home video. One need go no further than V/H/S: Viral’s first segment, however, to grasp how little interest the latest entry in the anthology series has in generating chills from the lo-fi. “Dante the Great,” Gregg Bishop’s tale of a ruthless magician who goes to gruesome lengths to satisfy a cloak with the mind of its own, is essentially a full-blown pseudo-documentary—replete with talking-head interviews and cheesy musical score—that incorporates found-footage elements in ways that only make one wonder why its main character would be stupid enough to film himself committing such appalling crimes in the first place. And in “Bonestorm,” Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s final segment about skater boys fighting off the undead in Mexico, the sudden intrusion of color-manipulated freeze frames during kills in what’s ostensibly unaltered home-video footage is inexplicable beyond its supposedly “cool” look.
The distracting absence of conceptual rigor, however, is the least of the film’s problems. At their best, there was more to V/H/S and V/H/S 2 than just formal gimmickry. Many of the filmmakers who contributed works to the first two entries took a certain gleeful delight in implicating us in our voyeuristic consumption of sexualized and violent imagery, with many of the episodes hinging on women taking revenge on objectifying men. Other filmmakers, meanwhile, took a property of video imagery and playfully turned it into an element of horror in and of itself, most memorably in the monster that materializes through video noise in Glenn McQuaid’s “Tuesday the 17th” segment in V/H/S.
The closest V/H/S: Viral comes to a similar kind of self-reflexive commentary is Marcel Sarmiento’s wraparound story, which sets out a vision of a metropolis on the brink of apocalyptic destruction as a result of a whole generation’s obsession with—as the film’s title suggests—capturing video in the hopes of achieving fame online with them, however temporary. At one point, a teenager accidentally falls off a bridge to his death while trying to capture an ensuing car chase on this phone; toward the end, a character finds a dead woman with an iPhone stuck in her mouth. None of these scattershot bits of satire have nearly the same punch as, say, the takedown of a similar kind of culture in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler—the emotional affectlessness of a certain breed of spectator more potently encapsulated in one misanthropic freelance wannabe crime-scene photographer than in any of Sarmiento’s ciphers.
As far as the three individual episodes go, the only one that leaves a lasting impression is Nacho Vigalondo’s middle segment. Unlike Bishop’s opening salvo and Benson and Moorhead’s skater-boys-versus-Day-of-the-Dead-zombies scenario, “Parallel Monsters” not only has a halfway imaginative premise (a scientist discovering a parallel universe that only at first appears to correspond exactly with his own), but skillfully builds up suspense and intrigue as the main character uncovers the horrifying truth about the alternate reality he steps into. Vigalondo’s contribution, however, unlike Gareth Evans’s majestically loony “Safe Haven” segment in V/H/S 2, ends just when it appears on the verge of developing into something truly interesting. Like much of the rest of V/H/S: Viral, “Parallel Monsters” adds up to little more than a collection of potentially intriguing notions instead of an especially satisfying whole.