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V/H/S: Viral - 2014
see link for writing & directing credits

The V/H/S series combines two of the riskiest elements of horror -- found footage and anthology -- to what has generally added up to a more successful sum than one could reasonably expect.  The hungry young bucks of low-budget scares have by-and-large broken away from the hammy, winky traditions of EC Comics influenced shorts, and make a genuine effort to present their pieces with a certain amount of realism -- at least until they go completely batshit-outta-Hell.  The first two V/H/S films are kind of like an online personality test for horror fans.  Different shorts appeal to different fans, well, differently.  I, personally, didn't really care at all for the one in V/H/S 2 that was most lauded by the most self-righteous of horror fans

I, again personally, feel that this third installment is actually the best one yet, although I'm sure that won't be a unanimous opinion.  The narratives are better developed over all.  The visions are more unique.  And after the virtually cut-and-pasted framing device in V/H/S 2, the mythology finally evolves a little, in scope if not in clarity.  This V/H/S seems like it might actually be trying to say something.

The first film (not counting the framing story, to which I will return) is Dante The Great from director Gregg Bishop.  It's presented documentary-style, but plays fast and loose with the found footage premise when the action picks up.  The story is about a not-so-great wannabe magician who discovers a fabled cape capable of empowering real magic.  He rises rapidly through the ranks with tricks that no one else can fathom, but as his private collection of videos shows, there is a price to pay for that power.

Of all the segments in Viral, this is the one most capable of expansion into a full-length feature, and I imagine that Bishop must have considered it for that at one time.  Dante's career arc is glossed over, as is his relationship with Scarlett, his most recent assistant and potential rival.  Their battle for the cape is cool as hell and I easily could have watched 10 more minutes of that alone.  If Marvel Films hadn't already hired a director for Dr. Strange, this would be a stunning audition tape.  It really isn't scary, but then so little is.  It's clever and fun and showed me new things.  That's all I'm askin' for.

The next film is by far the strangest.  Parallel Monsters by Nacho Vigalondo is the video record of one man's secret experiments with a gateway intended to reach a parallel universe.  On this, his third effort, the gateway opens into a mirror image of his own basement laboratory.  Peeking through, he discovers a mirror image of himself.  They're both delighted by this breakthrough.  Neither one can restrain his curiosity, and they agree ("I was thinking the same thing!") to trade places for 15 minutes to see how the other side lives.

As it turns out, there are more differences than everything being a reflection.  Their cultures have some radically different bases, and then there's... that other thing.  After creeping along for a while, then getting weird and uncomfortable, this one suddenly stomps on the gas to get things over with in a way that didn't quite make sense and could have been much better paced.  However, once the Hell breaks loose, the viewer is more concerned with "WTF?!!" than the finer points of narrative pacing.  It's definitely a concept that could be expanded in another context, if it hadn't gotten into such a hurry to tie things up in a bloody little bow at the end.  There are definitely some surprises here, and I like the way it didn't feel obligated to answer every question it raised, simply allowing things to remain texture in the alternate dimension.

The third segment is the least developed and most over-long, which isn't to say that there's nothing to like about it.  Bonestorm by Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead is made of footage shot for a couple of skateboarders intent on becoming the next internet sensation, so much of it comes from GoPro cameras on their boards and helmets.  Between you and me, that isn't the best place for them.  A big chunk of the segment simply involves them falling off their boards, bitching at their videographer and getting chased out of public places.  Eventually they decide to head down to Tijuana to skate a drainage ditch (because they don't have drainage ditches in California?), so then we get footage of them wandering around TJ and finally finding a ditch to ride.  This ditch just happens to have all kinds of freaky witchcraft symbols and totems all over it.

Soon enough, one of the skaters spills a little blood on the symbol and as soon as it starts to smoke, the cultists show up and attack.  The skaters spend an awful lot of time killing cultists that might better have been spent getting the hell outta Dodge, but the cultists aren't done with them yet.  There really wasn't anything I'd strictly call a story here, just a series of events and a lot of filler.  There's some fun to be found in the skater dudes' characters and the final bouts of violence, but those both become as tiresome as the rest of it.  The thing I appreciated most about it was the way that its themes of internet fame and unearned ambition tied in with the wraparound story's.

Now, about that wraparound story; Vicious Circles directed by Marcel Sarmiento.  The first two V/H/S films essentially had the same framing device, where someone broke into a seemingly empty house and watched a series of weird videotapes (thus the name) about horrific stuff happening, then being eliminated one by one by unknown persons or dark powers.  Viral does evolve this concept, starting out with a modern internet-savvy couple who feel obligated to record far too much of their lives.  When a big ol' LA police chase hits their neighborhood, the guy heads out to try and get some footage of it, and in the process, his girlfriend disappears, evidently scooped up by the speeding ice cream truck leading the police in circles.

Between the other segments, the chase continues, reflected in footage from other sources where other incidents occur.  It seems that the truck is spreading madness in addition to mayhem.  While the narrative is distinctly less clear that the frame has been in the past, and the relationship to the segments more vague, I found it to be more artistically creative, and I believe it was actually trying to say something about the toxic power of our ubiquitous fame-chasing internet culture.  It certainly evolved the concept, taking the dark powers mobile, spreading the doom rather than merely luring others to it.

The VHS conceit had been beaten and abused in the past, given that many of the films acknowledged a digital recording context, but as Viral makes so much more of being digital and the nature of digital media, the VHS textures seem even more out of place.  I don't suppose a lot of people will notice or care, because those are much spookier textures that speak to something out of the past, but the talents involved in the next V/H/S would do themselves a favor to look at the way that a film like ETXR makes use of digital textures as they move forward.  The V/H/S title may become anachronistic, but that doesn't mean the film needs to be.  Perhaps the series becomes "Viral" from this point on.

And despite the internet nerd rage, I really hope that the series DOES go on.  This is a great format for letting a younger generation of low-budget horror directors try a few things out and stretch their wings.  I'm really curious to find out more about the entity behind the videos; certainly more than I ever have been about some mere franchised serial killer.  I think each entry shows the next round of directors places where they can challenge themselves and what kind of things just aren't cutting it like they were following Blair Witch.  As our cultural relationship with homemade video evolves, it makes sense that our cultural response to that should evolve as well.

Currently on Video On-Demand.  Opens in select theaters November 21.

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The Houses October Built - 2014
see link for writing team
Directed by Bobby Roe

In 2011, Bobby Roe made a documentary about the changing face of Halloween scare houses in the (mostly Southern) United States.  This year, he turned that concept into a found footage film about pretty much the same thing.  He and his friends visit a series of haunted house attractions looking for "real" scares.  This has an additional fictional storyline about them seeking out an underground horror house that turns out to be a little TOO real for them.  Essentially, it's Blair Witch all over again, but with the South instead of the woods, annoying bickering and whining leading up to an unsurprising doom included.  When people say "Ugh, another found footage horror movie" this is what they're talking about.

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