These days, any original film idea that makes money will likely be turned into a franchise and any franchise that reaches a third installment will likely be received with a healthy dose of skepticism due to the cinematic rule of trilogies, that inadvertent yet tragically pervasive pattern that finds that any momentum of quality built up from the first to the second installment is quickly undermined by a steep decline from the second to the third. Filmmakers like Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) have seen their work fall victim to this pattern, which was undoubtedly and mercifully ceased due to the financial consideration of diminishing returns.
The V/H/S films, though not a trilogy in the traditional sense of three consecutive stories taking place within the same cinematic world, are nevertheless an established, moneymaking brand, one that saw its initial gimmick succeed enough to warrant a sequel that, though completely separate from its predecessor, stood upon its shoulders to deliver a higher quality installment. With the release of V/H/S: Viral, the V/H/S titles have now become, despite their anachronistic titular technology, a franchise and, as a trilogy, it will now imminently be viewed under the lens of how it does or does not fit within the pattern of past trilogies. In that respect, V/H/S: Viral fulfills its role as unwanted, low quality, black sheep of the franchise to a T, instantly becoming the clear cut worst installment so thoroughly that it might – and should – destroy any chance of the franchise continuing.
If you weren't tired of the V/H/S one-trick pony after last year's V/H/S/2, Viral will undoubtedly be the nail in the coffin. Neither of the previous installments were particularly inspired or even intelligent in presenting a cohesive wraparound narrative that sufficiently explained why a series of found digital short films were being collected (and somehow miraculously and immaculately compressed) onto VHS tapes, but neither of them assumed that their wraparound stories needed to strive to be anything other than a loose adhesive that bridged one short to the next. Viral attempts (poorly) to kick convention, introducing the viewers at the outset of the film to a wraparound story called "Vicious Circles," which attempts to both add a meta commentary to the V/H/S series so far while also providing a geographical and narrative umbrella under which all the other shorts are supposed to fit. It fails spectacularly at both with any power or atmosphere it would intend to hold being constantly and obnoxiously undermined by poor acting, an incoherent story and lots of digital and audio noise, the unfortunate and ineffective byproduct of attempting to emulate a lower-fi than the lo-fi actually being used.
In between Viral's atrocious attempts to justify its own existence, we're treated to 3 shorts – inexplicably cut down from an initial 4 – that confirm, one after the other, just how deep into the bottom of the barrel the producers and filmmakers associated with this franchise are scraping for ideas. The potential shown by the series' initial short, "Amateur Night" and the creative and narrative innovation sparked by Gareth Evans's "Safe Haven" or Jason Eisener's "Slumber Party Alien Abduction" are obliterated with Viral's first offering, "Dante the Great," which cannot justify its omniscient and omnipresent cameras any more than it can its overuse of CGI, perhaps its most glaring of sins considering how blatantly it shatters the illusion of verisimilitude the series has strived so hard to achieve. There is something infuriatingly ironic about how truly terrible "Dante the Great" is considering the dichotomy between its blatant manufacturing and its story about a magician whose magic is all real.
Things get a little better with Nacho Vigalondo's "Parallel Monsters," a sci-fi/horror story that explains why its protagonist continues to film the madness while failing to explain the madness itself, and Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's unfortunately named "Bonestorm," which follows a group of teens who unwillingly stumble upon a Mexican death cult while skateboarding in Tijuana. "Bonestorm" is perhaps the best of all the shorts in how it constructs verisimilitude in the nature of its characters, its approach to practical, simple scares and its justification for why its characters are filming what they're filming, but its inclusion in the film as the last short underscores the subpar quality of its ilk. By the time "Bonestorm" rolls around, it's too little, too late and any good will that Benson and Moorhead generate is immediately nullified by the bonkers conclusion to the "Vicious Circles" wraparound that you'd almost forgotten you didn't care about.
Even at its best, Viral can't offer anything new or exciting to a franchise that at this point is barely even 2 years old. The continued existence of V/H/S qualifies as proliferation, but not progress, and in only 3 installments has used up all its goodwill and already exposed itself as being tired and out of ideas. If Viral was truly the best that they could do, then perhaps it's best that they quit now while they're behind.
Photo: Bloody Disgusting