V/H/S: Viral has received the worst reviews of the franchise to date but, in some ways, it’s one of the most original and inventive instalments. That’s because it’s the first and last film to really address the omniscience of smart phone technology, which is quite dissonant with the VHS-centric approach of the other films in the series. Where V/H/S was fairly austere, trapping us in one recording device for each story, and V/H/S/2 cautiously triangulated two or three cameras at a time, Viral accepts that we live in a recording ecosystem and that, with cameras everywhere, the V/H/S brand doesn’t work anymore. In other words, Viral allegorises the franchise falling apart, and the waning of found footage in an era where there is no real difference between “found” and “real” footage anymore. This is thus an end to the franchise, forcing the subsequent reboots to migrate to period pieces to keep it video-centric.
In that sense, Viral may be the last truly vital film in the V/H/S franchise, as entertaining and accomplished as the later films are. It’s also the only film to depart from the typical framing device of the series – a couple of people coming across a bank of televisions and video players in a haunted space. Instead, Viral unfolds in a continuous loop of images that gradually absorb material into immaterial media, VHS into smart phones. We start with Kevin, played by Patrick Lawrie, shooting a sex tape of his girlfriend, Iris, played by Emilia Zoryan, before they’re both distracted by a high-speed chase on television. They quickly release that the ice cream truck, which is being pursued by a convoy of police cars, is heading towards their neighborhood. Sure enough, it passes right by their window, prompting Kevin to join the chase, and film it in real time, in an effort to go viral. This chase, which attempts to fuse television footage with smart phone footage, becomes the framing device of the film. As Kevin is following the ice cream truck, short films start to glitch onto his phone, along with fragments of the first two films in the franchise. We saw this recursive quality at the start of V/H/S/2, when clips from the first film showed up in the second video library, but it takes on a new dimension here, as all the VHS libraries in the franchise are now absorbed into a compendium of phone footage.
V/H/S/2 attempts to loop these televisual and phone images closer and closer together, much as the ice cream truck traces the same loop round and round Los Angeles, followed by Kevin, the police, helicopters, and a host of other viral hopefuls, some of whom are run down by the truck and captured on footage in turn. However, even as Kevin tries to find the best vantage point to film the event, the best place to adopt an omniscient perspective on it all, the feedback loop starts to bleed out into other phones in the area. Even people who are not following the chase are infected, as waves of glitch produce waves of violence. Beyond a certain point, the framing device exceeds Kevin, as short films turn up on the phones of strangers, and it becomes difficult to distinguish between real and found footage, or between the framing device and the individual episodes. At one moment, for example, we seem to be in the midst of a new story, only for the directors to reveal that we are watching a character who is adjacent to the chase, and who is infected by the images that crop up on his phone as the ice cream truck passes his house. Of all the films in the franchise, Viral is truest to the austerity with which the original bled episodes and framing device into a glitch palimpsest.
Of course, there are still discernible individual episodes here, if only in retrospect, but all of them are attempts to come to terms with their own conditions of impossibility, and the finitude of the franchise in this classical stage. Since there’s no sense, anymore, of found footage being an object, the first film compensates with other objects, by taking us into the world of Dante the Great, a magician played by Justin Wellborn, who inherits a cloak that belonged to Houdini. This cloak allows him to perform real magic, and becomes a cipher for phones, as a physical object that nevertheless allows its user to transcend the strictures of space and time. Conversely, Dante personifies the phone, in his ability to defy space and time, meaning that director Gregg Bishop has to anchor his story in the physical object of the cloak. Viral thus uses its first episode to position the phone as the franchise’s ultimate and unassailable antagonist, and accordingly this episode is the most remote from conventional VHS technology, unfolding more like a regular film than anything resembling found footage.
If the first film suggests that videos and phones now exist in different universes, then the second film, “Parallel Monsters,” responds with multiverse horror. Director Nacho Vigalondo presents us with a scientist, Alfonso, played by Gustavo Salmeron, who discovers a portal to an alternative dimension in his basement. He is greeted by his doppelganger, and the two men decide to explore each others’ worlds for fifteen minutes. This is the strongest film in Viral, steadily building an uncanny dread as Alfonso realises that things are not quite the same in this alternative universe. Yet while he is continuously recording footage, he has nobody to share it with, since his whole social media apparatus is back in his original universe. Similarly, he can’t look up anything to explain this new universe, since his phone has no reception. The result is a short film built around smart phone footage that is impossible to share, or to parse with recourse to the informational capacity of the smart phone itself. When the final revelation comes, it returns us to the trope of the sex tape, the degree zero of VHS technology across the franchise, as Alfonso discovers that these alternative humans have radically different sex organs – phallus and vagina dentata, used for both pleasure and punishment. If smart phone technology renders the sex tape as a material object obsolescent, then this episode neutralizes phones and hyperbolises the materiality of the sex organs in one move.
This brings us to the third film, which exists less as a discrete entity than as an enactment of the gradual convergence of short films and framing device. From the outset, Viral is conspicuously set in Los Angeles, and attuned to the rhythms of Los Angeles, in stark contrast to the placelessness of the other films in the franchise. Above and beyond the framing device, the film flickers in and out of footage of the Los Angeles River, which is where the ice cream truck heads after completing its apparently endless loops as well. The Los Angeles River thus becomes an imaginary space where televisual and smart phone footage converge, producing an eerie climax in which Kevin finally arrives at the truck, stopped, in the middle of the stream. Upon opening the door, he discovers the trademark bank of televisions inside, but their materiality is offset by the looping movements of the truck, as well as a surreal finale that blends VHS and smart phone technology once and for all. Inside, Kevin sees Iris banging her head against a wall on one of the screens; outside, he finds her lying against the truck, apparently dead for some time, a phone in her mouth. It’s a deliberately incoherent ending that is momentarily allayed by a final panoramic short of Los Angeles, only for us to realise that this last image actually depicts all the occult imagery we have seen now going fully viral.
As that might suggest, Viral, and specifically the framing device, directed by Marcel Sarmiento, attempts to articulate the closing space between televisual and smart phone media by way of the Los Angeles cityscape – specifically the Los Angeles of postmodernism, where the threshold between material reality and hyperreality was often impossible to parse. In Viral, this postmodern outlook forms a kind of return of repressed, insofar as postmodernism represented the first stage in the total smart phone ecology that this third film tries to articulate. Fredric Jameson described the Bonaventure Hotel, emblem of this Los Angeles, as an exercise in hyperspace, or hyperreality, and Viral reaches back to these formative attempts to map Los Angeles as a way of negotiating the present. Accordingly, the film doesn’t end so much as devolve back into the Los Angeles cityscape, displacing any sense of a definite ending, which is why it made more sense to me here to discuss the actual “ending” first. This devolution takes two distinct forms, which together, and along with the waning framing device, constitute one of the most experimental sequences of the franchise.
The first of these is the third film, “Bonestorm,” directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Scott Moorehead, which recaptures the circular route of the ice cream truck by way of a group of Angelenos trying to create a viral skate video. The bowl of their skating rinks reflects the curvature of the truck, and this is enhanced by the extreme fish-eyes lenses of their GoPros, which evoke a 360-degree POV, a simultaneous and shared perception. To build atmosphere, they decide to shoot in a culvert on the outskirts of Tijuana, only to discover that they have stumbled into the epicentre of a ritualistic cult. Yet this only intensifies their viral ambitions, as they destroy zombie after zombie with their boards, while skating so maniacally that film now starts to segue into digital gaming. If the Tijuana culvert plays as a ghostly echo of the Los Angeles River, an eerie residue of the metropolis that won’t be mapped, then the zombie fight overlaps it with a purely digital LA, a gamified smoothing-over of unruly, messy space. In this way, “Bonestorm” enacts what is at stake in the gradual dispersal of the V/H/S franchise.
By contrast, the second major beat of this final act doesn’t involve a discrete film at all, but instead takes place at the very threshold between episodes and framing device. Upon “returning” to Los Angeles, we’re presented with a man shooting a sex video in a car. At first, this seems to be a separate story, but it turns out this car is travelling in the loose slipstream of the ice cream truck. At the same time, however, this man and woman seem to be roughly based on characters from the episodes in the first film, especially once the woman seizes the camera, holds the man at gunpoint, and demands that he return the tape to her, while threatening to film him in turn. The sex tape, the degree zero of the franchise, now unfolds as the space between real and found footage, between episode and frame, and the car crashes, right in the midst of this struggle for control between videographer and smart phone assailant. The last story inhabits this blurry space even more emphatically – Todd Lincoln’s “Gorgeous Vortex,” which was shot with the other episodes, but ended up being relegated to a DVD extra. That decision can’t have been a matter of quality, since Lincoln’s film is great, nor a matter of expediency, since at 80 minutes this is the shortest instalment in the franchise. Instead, it’s a bid for material media, an incentive to buy the DVD, the descendant of VHS, even though everything in Viral gestures to a world that has transcended this very technology.