Monday, October 13, 2014

V/H/S Viral

V/H/S Viral (2014) aka V/H/S 3
Dir. Nacho Vigalondo, Marcel Sarmiento, Gregg Bishop Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
Written by all those guys, plus T.J. Cimfel, Ed Dougherty, David White
Starring a whole bunch of blurry people, I dunno. Some skeletons I guess.

NOTE: Hey, check it out, I saw this one already and it hasn't even hit theaters (and I even managed to do it totally legally!). Because like Kanye, my life is dope and I do dope shit. Worship me mere mortals.

Well, here we are again. Another year, another V/H/S found-footage sequel, another shot at taking this found footage concept and actually using it to do unique and interesting things. And another opportunity to be disappointed that they didn’t really do that but still be mildly entertained a few times. And that’s pretty much what V/H/S: VIRAL delivers. But honestly, this one isn’t as bad as I feared; it’s actually a pretty big step up from V/H/S/2 (with the obvious exception of the amazing Evans/Tjahjanto joint in part 2 which remains far and away the best segment of the series overall.) This third sequel doesn’t have quite the horror director star power of the last two efforts (Nacho Vigalondo is probably the most famous guy here, and it’s not like TIMECRIMES exactly took America by storm, in fact I didn’t even realize he’d directed two more films since then) but it turns out to be OK, because --perhaps having taken an instructive look at the first two movies before filming-- this generation of aspiring horror directors has done something that almost no one thought to do before this: tell actual stories. What a fuckin’ concept, am I right?

See, to my mind the problem with this whole obnoxious found-footage movement (other than the fact that it erases and degrades the very cinematic language which makes films evocative and enjoyable) is twofold. First, it encourages lazy, unimaginative retreads of hackneyed old horror tropes, which we would never accept or tolerate except that they’ve managed to trick people into thinking the found footage gimmick somehow makes it new again. Fie on that, I say. The same old crap is the same old crap, it just looks uglier because of the shitty lighting and camerawork. We all this know this argument by now. But a more often overlooked problem is the second one: shooting movies this way seems to encourage an abandonment of traditional narrative structure. Real life doesn’t have a clear-cut beginning, middle, and end, right? Real life doesn’t have character arcs, it doesn’t have witty, literate dialogue, it doesn’t have subtext or metaphor, it’s just a bunch of shit that happens. So since found-footage is trying to emulate real life as closely as possible --why else would you even bother with it? The only conceivable argument in its favor is that it can potentially create a sense of immediacy and reality-- filmmakers tend to make their films that same way, meandering, uneventful, mumblecore nonsense that depict a lot of things that happen but don’t really tell a story in the traditional sense. No drama, no arcs, just events.

Speaking of events, here's one that doesn't happen in the movie. Which is weird, because this is the image which was included in all the press releases about VHS 3. None of these people or the location are in there either, so I can only assume it's from the mysterious lost segment by Todd Lincoln.

Not all found footage shit is guilty of that, of course; Ti West’s recent THE SACRAMENT for example (which I foolishly watched before Chainsawnukah and didn’t write about [yet?] sorry about that) does a good job subtly setting up character and conflict even within the trapping of this kind of thing. If I remember correctly DIARY OF THE DEAD is kinda like that, too, even though it’s really awkward and shoddy about it. Evans/Tjahjanto's Safe Haven from V/H/S/ 2 of course, which introduces characters and their problems and ultimately addresses them in the course of the narrative. On the non-horror front, stuff like END OF WATCH or LUNOPOLIS do an OK job assembling some sort of satisfying complete story out of their footage. And then there’s, Um. Hmm. Wow, not too many examples coming to mind. I think I’m starting to see the scope of the problem here.

Anyway, what V/H/S VIRAL fails to achieve in reinventing the concept of horror through the innovative use of first-person filmmaking, it makes up for in getting back to the basics: These four stories* (generally speaking) present more satisfying narratives than most of their ilk, and, blessedly, also manage to tell stories that would be independently worth telling regardless of some stupid camera gimmick. The gimmick is used as a tool (maybe a bad tool, but a tool nonetheless) in telling a tale, not a crutch for disguising a lack of imagination. That goes a long way.

I'm sure this is terrifying, whatever it is.

Things get off to a decent start --at least at first-- with Marcel Sarmiento’s (DEADGIRL, Dogfight segment from ABC’s OF DEATH) framing story, which finds this dickwad amateur videographer obsessed with scoring big youtube numbers, irritating his incongruously gorgeous model girlfriend by filming her constantly (well, mostly filming her cleavage, something that will turn out to be kind of a running theme here). When a high-speed police chase passes close by his house, he leaps on his bike to follow it and try to get some like-bait footage, only to find that his girlfriend is mysteriously missing and everyone keeps getting these evil video messages (i.e, the other segments here) which drive them insane. Or at least, I think that’s what it’s about. It certainly makes a better framing story than that bullshit about sneaking into creepy peoples' houses and watching their films from V/H/S 1 and 2, and for awhile it looks like it might actually do something interesting with the camera gimmick: see, the fact that he’s recording over an old tape means you occasionally get old footage intersplice with the “live” events we’re seeing, a clever means to telling a fractured-chronology story using only found-footage.

Someone should do that in a movie someday; unfortunately this one doesn’t really make the most of it, turns out that the flashbacks add nothing interesting. The shoulda-been simple narrative quickly gets bungled, too. There are long cutways to unrelated events for no apparent reason, dozens of competing camera perspectives to try and acclimate yourself to, and with the annoying added digital glitches and the standard visual confusion of hand-held cameras, it quickly becomes extremely difficult to figure out what the hell is going on. I appreciate Sarmiento’s effort to do something different, but sloppy execution combined with chaotic editing eventually render it utterly incoherent. It does build to a pretty cool ending (which also caps off the film), it’s just a shame that by the time we get there I had no idea what the story was about anymore.

A rare frame of relative calm in the framing story demonstrates its nicer use of color than a lot of the grimy, gray entries before it. Too bad you can't usually tell what those colors actually make up most of the time,

Fortunately, we next move on to a segment by Gregg Bishop (DANCE OF THE DEAD) which is kinda a breath of fresh air. I mean, it’s not exactly THE SHINING or nothin’, basically it’s just a mockumentary about this douchebag magician with a magic cloak that eats people. But it’s a bit lighter than your usual V/H/S fare, kind of dorky and funny and not too concerned about blowing your mind with how raw and hardcore it is. In fact, towards the end it pulls a DISTRICT 9 and tacitly gives up on the found-footage conceit, including an amusingly flashy special-effects heavy sequence with no discernable source for the supposed “found” footage. But what the hell, that’s OK. It means everything we see is much more competently framed than we’re used to in a film like this, and it establishes this resolutely as the jokiest, weirdest V/H/S so far, not necessarily a bad decision given the high failure rate of the dead-serious material that has come before.

Let's dance. Note the relatively clear framing, and oh my god, a tripod!

Next up -- for some reason stuck in the middle, usually a no-man’s-land-- is the film’s best sequence, from Nacho Vigalondo. The less know you about this one going in, the happier you’re gonna be, but suffice to say it revolves around two men --well, one man, really-- from parallel universes, who build a doorway into each others’ respective worlds and agree to spend 15 minutes exploring there. What starts off as a kind of moody high-concept sci-fi premise abruptly and uproariously turns into a outrageous fish-out-of-water comedy. I’ll say no more, except that like Evans before him, Vigalondo seems better able than most of these directors to effortlessly integrate the found-footage concept into a story which doesn’t really require if, seamlessly playing it out almost identically to the way you would want this shot in a more classic format. OK, so there’s not a lot of point in having this as a found-footage film, but at least it’s not a distraction or a detriment, and Vigalondo more than delivers the goods in terms of crazy ass horror shit. Guess I’m gonna have to watch his Elijah-Wood-starring OPEN WINDOWS now, though this shit is gonna be a tough act to follow.

Here's lookin' at me, kid.

The final segment comes from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead, who did last year’s excellent RESOLUTION. That one was a quiet, dread-tinged drama more than an overt horror show, but I thought it triumphed through remarkably strong characterization and an unadorned, exceedingly patient and ambiguous style which almost evokes Kiyoshi Kurosawa**. So it’s quite a surprise that their segment here is almost the polar opposite: a jokey, action-packed special effects rollar coaster ride starring quippy teenage skateboarders. If they’re going to be K. Kurosawa some day, this has got to be their SWEET HOME, a startling departure which nonetheless offers some serious and shameless entertainment value. Basically, it involves four punk kids who cross the border to Tijuana looking for somewhere to skate, only to stumble upon some sort of weird ritual which involves aggressive skeletons, chalk-faced goons, and possibly summoning Cthulu. There’s some slight attempt at atmosphere at first, but quickly it turns into a wild, slapstick-heavy brawl, which turns out to be just fine.

There are some problems, of course; for one, this is the only section which harkens back to the first two movies in its disinterest in really telling any kind of story. Secondly, these little wieners are (somewhat entertainingly) obnoxious, and we probably spend just a minute or two too long with them in the fun-but-languid setup, particularly since none of that will really pay off anyway. And finally --alas, there’s no other way of saying this-- found footage is not a good medium for what is essentially a long action sequence. The design here is great, the weird skeleton cult really looks unique and cool, so it’s a shame you can’t see them as well as you’d like. In a chaotic, scrappy fight like this, you want some visual disorientation, and I could even live with some helmet-cam shots intermingled with real film. But relying just on helmet-cams turns this into a disorienting mess, you’re never sure which perspective you’re temporarily sharing (since the footage cuts between all the kids, who each have their own camera) and you lose absolutely all sense of where people are and even who’s still alive.

Good to see Kate Moss is still getting work.

That said, the whole thing is too rambunctiously fun to be completely ruined by those drawbacks. I mean, they get flicked off by skeleton. You gotta like that. It’s not out-and-out jokey, but instead nicely captures the sense of ridiculous, cheerfully over-the-line bloodletting you get in a lot of the better 80’s horror movies. It’s outrageous without being parody, bloody without being grim, and appreciably committed to its own splatter-heavy inner anti-logic. What more could you ask from this admittedly shaky (ha!) found-footage premise? If we must indulge this crappy trend, this seems like the way to do it -- get in, deliver the goods, make them worthwhile goods, don’t overstay your welcome, and try to have a little bit of fun with it. I’ve given up the idea that the V/H/S series is really gonna be able to give us genuinely innovative horror filmmaking ideas, but if they keep providing simple pleasures like this, I guess I’ll keep seein’ em. Maybe ditch the idea of a framing story next time, though, huh guys? There just doesn’t seem to be a way to win with that one. If you're into framing, let's focus on framing the shots a little clearer instead.

*There were originally supposed to be five, but director Todd Lincoln, though included in the initial press materials, isn’t represented in the final product for whatever reason.

** In terms of tone, of course; it doesn't approach his impeccable craftsmanship, not that it would be remotely reasonable for any first-time filmmakers to compete at the intimidatingly high bar he sets. Still, I like to think he'd appreciate their ambition if he ever got to see it.

See, it's a skeleton wearing a skull mask, did I just hear your mind blow?


The Hunt For Dread October

  • SEQUEL: Third sequel in the VHS series.
  • REMAKE: None.
  • FOREIGNER: Vigalondo is Spanish, as is his segement.
  • BOOBIES: I think every segment except Vigalondo's features a pervy camera operator staring at someone's cleavage (the framing story does it twice). Grow up you fuckers. But for all that, I don't think there's any actual nudity, well, human nudity anyway.
  • SEXUAL ASSAULT: Yes, probably the funniest one you're likely to see, so feel free to not wince at this category for once.
  • DISMEMBERMENT PLAN: Arm loss, foot loss, severed head, skeletal deconstruction.
  • MONSTER: We only see a little of it, but something Lovecraftian.
  • THE UNDEAD: Yeah, skeleton cult!
  • POSSESSION: Doesn't seem so.
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): Arguably the magician from the first segment.
  • EVIL CULT: Heck yeah, arguably two.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid. The series has done well, but pretty far outside the mainstream.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Buy a tripod.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: The framing story does have a viral element, but no VHS anywhere in sight.

Pretty weak four thumb effort (call it a B-), but I want to reward its improvement over the last one.

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