The VHS homevideo format may have gone to its grave years ago, but the horror series of the same name lives on with its third anthology, “V/H/S Viral,” delivering three playful yet thoroughly disposable experiments in short-form p.o.v. cinema. While the scares are in short supply, there’s a surfeit of macabre, tongue-in-cheek creativity to be found here, from mock docs to skate vids, sandwiched between a gonzo found-footage framing device in which cameraphone-savvy teens risk their lives to become the next viral sensation. As portmanteau films go, this Bloody Disgusting-backed, Magnolia-released offering of attention-deficit thrills seems ready-made for the video-on-demand generation.
Only the wraparound segments, dubbed “Vicious Circles” and directed by “Deadgirl” helmer Marcel Sarmiento, take the “viral video” idea seriously, even if none of the teen characters seems old enough to even remember the VHS format. Instead, as members of the digital generation, these kids are desperate to become overnight Internet celebs, using their phones to document everything in their lives, from racy footage of their scantily clad girlfriends to a raucous police chase involving a runaway ice-cream truck, all blurring together in a glitchy, nearly incoherent video stream.
Surfacing between the other chapters, Sarmiento’s contribution never quite communicates its concept (something to do with the reckless young videographers exploiting one another’s misfortune, only to become the victims for someone else’s camera). Nor does it do much to connect the three other segments — not that audiences need a cohesive narrative to justify the series’ existence at this point. Still, it’s unclear why the filmmakers decided to provide a wraparound story at all, when commissioning a fourth short probably would have worked better.
The other three segments could stand alone, like self-contained episodes of a latenight horror show, linked only by the fact that the filmmakers have attempted to tell their stories using p.o.v. techniques (subjective storytelling that acknowledges the camera’s existence within the environment). The most classical of the shorts, Gregg Bishop’s “Dante the Great,” presents itself as one of those flashy cable-channel shows designed to demystify a magician’s tricks, only here, the explanation for an ambitious magician’s overnight success appears to be an unholy alliance with a sinister supernatural force.
This effects-driven faux docu takes us through the rapid rise of a jerk named Dante (Justin Welborn), whose career takes off instantly after stumbling across a cloak that once belonged to Houdini. The cloak gives Dante the ability to do for real what most magicians achieve through illusion: He can throw fire, cause objects to float and even yank people out of thin air. As Dante’s power grows, it becomes hard to believe that cameras are present to witness his various crimes, or the climactic standoff with a heavily armed squad of cops, though auds won’t complain when watching the spectacular showdown between Dante and his savvy assistant Scarlett (Emmy Argo), once she divines his secret.
Taking a much more lo-fi approach with “Parallel Monsters,” Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo offers another case of interdimensional monkey business (in the tradition of his cult debut, “Timecrimes”), wherein inventor Alfonso (Gustavo Salmeron) builds a portal to a parallel universe. Documenting the experiment on a consumer videocamera, he flips the switch to find a similar-looking version of himself on the other side of the high-tech door.
Grabbing their cameras, the two Alfonsos agree to swap universes for 15 minutes, and though the alternate worlds look similar at first, we quickly realize that the sexual practices are vastly different — something our curious hero doesn’t realize until it’s too late to save either himself or his wife, Marta (Marian Alvarez), whom he left sleeping back in his own world. Vigalondo’s entry is the most “Twilight Zone”-like of the lot, delivering the sort of glib moral twist one might expect from an O. Henry story, plus a second, more outrageous payoff in the form of how freaky-looking human genitalia might look on the other side.
The final segment, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s “Bonestorm,” could pass for a Larry Clark movie gone horribly wrong. Set amid a group of L.A. skateboarders, the short makes too-dynamic use of all the video sources these teens use to record their own stunts, including super-subjective wide-angle helmet-cams. That’s fun for a few minutes (say, the length of a YouTube video), but grows exhausting fast when the concept kicks in: Looking for a thrill, the guys cross the border into Tijuana, planning to practice their moves in a giant concrete culvert.
Though skilled with their boards, these skaters aren’t exactly the brightest kids, and they’re slow to notice the giant pentagram painted in the middle of their new playground. Nor do they think much of the strange, witch-like woman they zoomed past on their way in. While the teens slowly wisen to the fact that they’ve interrupted some sort of demonic seance, co-directors Benson and Moorhead jump from one camera to another, staging a high-energy battle between the skaters and an army of skeletons who gather out of nowhere to make them regret their Mexico trip.
Whereas the original “V/H/S” was a half-baked horror omnibus that brought together a group of talented up-and-coming indie directors, and sequel “S-VHS” (aka “V/H/S 2”) got smart about how to use the format to deliver some genuine thrills, “V/H/S Viral” falls somewhere in between, boasting some reasonably clever, amusingly executed ideas — but nothing audiences couldn’t do as well with a group of friends in their own backyards.
Produced by Adam Hendricks, John Lang, in association with Crafty Apes. Executive producer, Chris White. Co-producer, Morgan Patterson. Directed by Marcel Sarmiento. Screenplay, T.J. Cimfel, David White, Sarmiento. Camera (color, DV), Harris Charlambous; editor, Phillip Blackford; visual effects supervisors, Tim LeDoux, Chris LeDoux, Sarmiento; visual effects producer, Jason Sanford; visual effects, Crafty Apes; stunt coordinator, Ashley Rivers.
Cast: Patrick Lawrie, Celia K. Milius, Steve Berens, Stephanie Silver, Gary Sugarman, Noelle Ann Mabry.
Dante the Great
Produced by Gregg Bishop, Dan Caudill, Stephen Caudill, Nils Onsager. Executive producer, Chris White. Directed, written by Gregg Bishop. Camera (color), George Feucht; editors, Bishiop, Justin Dornbush; music, Kristopher Carter; stunt coordinator, Brian DePue.
Cast: Justin Welborn, Emmy Argo, Dan Caudill, Nathan Mobley, Michael Aaron Millgian, John Curran, Susan Williams, Randy McDowell.
Produced by Nahikari Ipina. Executive producer, Chris White. Directed, written by Nacho Vigalondo. Camera (color, HD), Jon D. Dominguez; editor, Victor Berlin; music, Anntona; visual effects, Jorge Torrens, EFE-X.
Cast: Marian Alvarez, Gustavo Salmeron.
Produced by David Lawson, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Theo Brooks. Executive producer, Chris White. Directed by Benson, Moorhead. Screenplay, Benson. Camera (color, HD), Moorhead; editor, Michael Felker, Benson, Moorhead; music supervisor, Garret Morris.
Cast: Nick Blanco, Chase Newton, Shane Bradey, David Castro, Alexandra Besore.