The Austin Chronicle

Fantastic Fest 2014: V/H/S Viral

By Richard Whittaker, September 20, 2014, 9:35am, Picture in Picture

The V/H/S found footage horror series has almost passed beyond being a franchise, to the point of being a genre unto itself. So, unsurprisingly, the hand-held carnage continues with the latest buffet of barbarism, V/H/S Viral.

As always, there is a framing mechanism, a reason for all these little stories to be told. In the original, it was a crew of burglars seeking a mysterious tape in an abandoned house. In the second, it was two private detectives looking for a collector of such bizarre video relics. The narrative being built up was that there are tape traders, desperately searching for raw footage that would confirm the existence of something paranormal. Watch too many, and there are terrible, deadly consequences.

So what if these world-warping images escape from their tape prison, and get out into the world? That's the viral part of V/H/S Viral's "Vicious Circles," as an ice cream truck careens around L.A., slicing up passers by and abducting eye witnesses. Director Marcek Sarmiento (2008's disturbing Deadgirl) makes a brief have-his-cake-and-eat-it reference to the oft-made allegations of misogyny in the earlier outings in his opening shot (it's hard to miss). But from there he swaps the haunted mansion vibe of the precursors for a deranged, almost surreal road trip. He finally makes the series' long-awaited connection to ubiquitous camera phones. The psychosis spreads out through shared videos as every kid with a phone hangs off bridges to get a shot of the mayhem, and it's burn, Hollywood, burn.

But that's simply the framing mechanism. After the lo-fi vibe of the first two films, opening segment "Dante the Great" is virtually a polished mockumentary. Gregg Bishop (Dance of the Dead) combines police procedural and sorcerous exploits as Justin Welborn (Justified, The Signal) makes Dante the kind of stage magician that would give Gandalf nightmares. It's creatively gruesome; however, Bishop drops the blood-slippery ball a little by including some shots that clearly break the POV rules of the franchise.

Fantastic Fest's own imp of the perverse Nacho Vigalondo takes the the helm of "Parallel Monsters," a dimension-hopping sibling to his alien invasion rom-com Extraterrestrial. This is pure Nacho (complete with a nod to the film-within-a-film of his technothriller Open Windows), and its handheld video tale of a scientist who meets his own alternate self (or is it vice versa?) is suitably dark, twisted, and laden with the kind of off-kilter relationship humor that has become his trademark.

The trio of bizarre tales is rounded out by a duo of directors. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (whose collaboration Spring plays elsewhere in the festival) fire up the "Bonestorm," and it is the segment that hews closest to the funhouse ride of the earlier films. How they throw three douchebag skate mutants into the inferno of a Mexican death cult sits with blood-splattered glee alongside two of the most popular chapters from the first two films: satanic thrill ride "Safe Haven" by Gareth Evans (The Raid) and Timo Tjanhanto (Macabre), and the Radio Silence collective's "10/31/98."

But there's a mystery in here. Somewhere in the last month, a segment disappeared. One of the first publicity shots came from a story by Todd Lincoln (The Apparition). Pre-release publicity said "Gorgeous Vortex" would concentrate on a secret society, dedicated to hunting serial killers, and images of a woman in white, undergoing some form of medical procedure, were part of the green band trailer. But somehow, this week Lincoln's name has mysteriously dropped from the publicity, and the segment has disappeared from the film. Maybe that was the story that would have finally tipped the world into viral insanity.

Does V/H/S Viral bring much more to the franchise? It undoubtedly hints that the world has expanded beyond the lo-fi horror of the original, and it continues the internationalization of the franchise, with its first Spanish language story, courtesy of Vigalondo. It may lack the freshness of the original, or the perversity of the second, but it does more of the same with cunning.

V/H/S Viral screens again Tuesday, Sept. 23, 8:30pm.

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