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VHSVIRAL_POSTER_WEB-1

In most cases, you know exactly what you’re in for by the time you get to the third entry in a horror franchise: by that point, rules and themes are established, villains are developed and fans know to expect more of the same, albeit with enough slight variations to keep the whole thing from getting (too) dull. This set of expectations works for pretty much any horror franchise out there, with one rather notable exception: the V/H/S (2012-2014) series.

Since V/H/S, V/H/S 2 and the recent V/H/S Viral (2014) are all horror anthologies that feature multiple writers and directors, there’s very little similarity between the three films, aside from the central conceit (found-footage horror shorts). As such, it’s kind of a strange “series” with no true sense of continuity between installments. While I enjoyed the first film in bits and parts (the only truly effective segments were Adam Wingard’s wraparound story and Radio Silence’s crazy exorcism piece), I found a lot more to enjoy in the follow-up: in particular, Timo Tjahjanto’s bat-shit insane “Safe Haven” is the killer cult film that Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013) should have been and easily one of the best shorts of the past several years. After digging V/H/S 2, I found myself eagerly awaiting the follow-up, despite the possibility that it might hew closer to the debut than the sequel. This, after all, is the joy (and potential disappointment) of this type of endeavor: you never know quite what you’re going to get, as that lovable goof Gump might say.

The bad news, of course, is that V/H/S Viral is not a particularly good film (films?), certainly no where near as accomplished and entertaining as Part Two. The wraparound segment, directed by Marcel Sarmiento (the twisted genius behind the suitably grimy Deadgirl (2008)), is a complete waste of time and manages to squander the supremely creepy notion of an ice cream truck driving around at night, creeping people out. Gregg Bishop (the guy behind the “zombies vs prom” epic Dance of the Dead (2008)) turns in a fairly effective piece about a cheesy magician and his deadly magic cloak that gets hamstrung by a thoroughly silly wizard duel and an old-as-the-hills “surprise” ending.

Nacho Vigalondo, who completely blew my mind with his head-spinning Timecrimes (2007), contributes a short about parallel worlds that features some great visuals (the blimp with the upside-down, neon cross is amazing, as are the glowing orifices on the “demons”) but seems to have been constructed more as a half-serious variation on the old “twins switching places” cliché than anything more substantial. As a huge Nacho fan, this one was probably the biggest disappointment, even though it was still average, by most other standards.

Only the concluding story, “Bonestorm,” manages to stick its landing (minus a slight foot shuffle on the dismount), mostly because it’s the perfect synthesis of fun, creepy, bloody and silly: pretty much the mission statement for the series, if you think about it. Directed/written by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorhead, the dynamic duo behind Resolution (2012) (easily one of my favorite modern horror films), the short is set-up like an old-skool skate video and details what happens when a rambunctious skate crew heads to Tijuana to film their antics in an abandoned drainage area. What happens, of course, is a protracted battle involving vicious, machete-wielding cult members, creepy girls in old-fashioned dresses and enough skateboard-initiated decapitations to ensure that Tony Hawk gets his eventual shot at taking down Jason Voorhees. There are also bloody pentagrams, awesome re-animated skeletons and enough gallows’ humor to guarantee that things never seem too grim, no matter how grim they really get. Extra points for an extremely likable cast, full of charismatic wise-asses.

Ultimately, any anthology film has the potential to be hit-or-miss: that’s just the nature of the beast for this kind of film. The problem with V/H/S Viral comes with the fact that only one of the four stories (in this case, the wraparound definitely functions as its own story, albeit a thoroughly confused one) is actually consistently good: the others have their moments, sure, but they also end up falling apart by their conclusions (although, to be fair to “Parallel Monsters,” it sort-of crumbles rather than outright implodes). There’s plenty of gory effects and mildly shocking moments to spare, no doubt about it: one of the best is an intensely gory, yet relentlessly funny, bit involving an obnoxious bicyclist who gets dragged behind the ice cream truck, to a deliciously distasteful conclusion. In many ways, V/H/S Viral is much closer to the original V/H/S, which also doled out delights in sparing doses, in between juvenile humor and lovingly composed gore effects.

Despite its inconsistency, however, Viral definitely has its moments, indicating that there’s still gas left in this particular franchise’s tank (unless those are some awfully powerful fumes, I suppose). With the mind-boggling array of top-shelf horror filmmakers currently working in the industry, there’s still plenty of future potential for the series, both good and bad: they could, conceivably, keep the franchise going for a full decade and still have plenty of fresh talent to pull from. As long as future installments feature films as entertaining as “Bonestorm” or “Safe Haven,” I’ll keep coming back, regardless of how many times I get disappointed. After all, part of being a horror fanatic is sifting through all the chaff to get to the wheat: as long as they keep growing ’em, I’ll keep sifting ’em.

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