Written by: Daniel McDonald
What’s that old saying, ” Everything old is new again?” Well that seems to be ringing especially true in the world we love, Horror/Sci-Fi cinema. As we all know, I am not at all happy with the tact taken by genre Promotion (or as I call it, “Deception for Dollars”) these days. For the most part trailers are over stuffed mini-movies that give away so much information and so many key “Money Shots” that one feels as if seeing the actual film could be a “been there, done that” experience. My number one caveat is marketing so overblown, deceptive and misguided that one’s expectations aren’t just steroid-like, heightened beyond recognition drool fests… between self-important “Hosannas” from critics who think they are ROCKSTARS (although I fronted an R&R band) and slyly edited, complete misrepresentations of the subject, tone and at times even the genre of what audiences trust to be an actual sales tool.
I get a bit…real with this because I’ve been seeing something occur with increasing interest: the use of “Totally fun, stylish throwback to the 80s” or” totally derivative, contrived, Grand Theft of 80s style.” I really noticed the whole “80s good of bad references thing” when IT FOLLOWS (I personally feel) is a sterling example of the problems listed above….opening to reviews that I think no film (in my personal opinion, including the equally canonized THE WITCH) could possibly live up to, marketing that was youthfully quick-cut and presented as a FRIDAY THE 13th, HALLOWEEN-ish, low budget “notch above slasher” sex and violence scream fest. It was presented and reviewed as a “look between the lines, explore the minutiae, wonderfully intricate homage to the 80s, Art House revelation” that disappointed and confused much of its intended fan base.
Now that I have laid the groundwork (Groundwork? Hell this is already a verbal high-rise!) I can speak to you about a terrific Netflix Gem (not produced by them, but currently showing, it’s actually a solid pedigree Dimension/Blumhouse 2016 project) with the somewhat generic title VIRAL.
I can’t begin to imagine being part of a creative production team that turns out a solid piece of creatively put together “popcorn fun” only to see it (weeell actually NOT see it) vanish into minimal release, promotion and consideration.
This is so obviously a witty, intelligent, passionately put together revisitation to not only 80s Horror, (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, PRINCE OF DARKNESS, POLTERGEIST, FRIGHT NIGHT) but just about every popular genre that was the energy and joy of 80s cinema (PRETTY IN PINK, FOOTLOOSE, THE BREAKFAST CLUB and if you’re watching closely, a quick nod to Adrian Lynne’ seminal 1980s Ladies with power and balls classic FOXES).
There are so many humorous but wise elements that one recognizes with warm fuzzies (although I can’t exactly find the Cinematic Horror equivalent to that) but VIRAL never feels desperate the way PHOENIX FORGOTTEN did with so much of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and it’s a refreshingly bracing 85 minutes. I’m very sorry that despite research, not very much basic production information is available-typical facts that almost every studio release is given… I dunno why this production was given the cold shoulder because VIRAL more than just lives up to Industry standards, it’s one helluva tight, enjoyable cinematic ride!
We open on a small town high school where isolated “good girl, newcomer” Emma (Sofia Black-D’Leah) and her much wilder more adventurous older sister Stacy (Annaleigh Tipton) and let me make this clear, having watched this film twice in 2 days (by choice, not necessity) I feel quite secure after 35 years in Professional Acting and Directing, in saying that every member of this cast gives high quality, layered performances. Even while portraying characters that in lesser writer/director/actors’ hands could have been flat, charmless caricatures, that is never the case here.
The sense of Emma’s isolation is re-enforced by the half-finished sub-division, filled with POLTERGEIST-ish houses, miles away from school or town surrounded by a ring of majestic mountains. Cinematography that is never less than good, and often breathtaking, belies a quoted “lack of budgetary necessity” as does editing, sound and especially FX, both far above average CGI and even more impressive practical and make up effects (it’s here the film honors and exceeds in quality, the late 70’s cult favorite, body horror maestro David Cronenberg’s THEY CAME FROM WITHIN).
Back to our story. Much like ourselves, the characters have no idea what type of local outbreak seems to be spreading through not just their school, but the entire town. Television (a very well-edited Obama address to the nation) and a mysterious computer Conspiracy Theorist begin to make clear this is not just a local, but a Worldwide epidemic and the depiction of increasing Governments envolment increases an already fast spreading paranoia, since we’ve seen Emma’s lone friend Gracy display an ever increasing illness that results in a school ground convulsion where she attacks a boy and holds onto him so she can spit blood and…something else into his mouth. Conveniently Emma and Stacy’s father is the school biology teacher and gives his class an expositionally efficient presentation of (DUH DUH DUUUUHH) Parasites and their behavior. By this time we’ve also met the two men who will fill the “boyfriend slots” very well – C. J. (Machine Gun Kelly) Stacey’s charming, humorous, extreme Punker dude, and Evan (Travis Tope) Emma’s secret crush, a handsome, charismatic Prince Charming type. The chemistry and acting chops of these four lead performers is quite strong and grounds the ever-increasing ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE activities with humanity and valid emotion. The girls’ dad, who left to pick up their mother at the airport (a highly unneeded dysfunctional family subplot that gives talented character actor Micheal Kelly busy as he also checks in by cell, updating the girls on out of town information until…).
Believe it or not there are many major plot issues I’ve left untold for your viewing enjoyment. Writers Barbra Marshall and Christopher Landon, and directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have done a highly efficient, colorful, honorable job of taking top notch talent behind and in front of the camera to make “everything old feel new again.” With some of the crap Dimension and/or Blumhouse have gotten into real distribution, it’s a damn shame this little “treasure with teeth” got lost in the shuffle. Saturday night: beer, popcorn and VIRAL, a helluva good time…I. J.S.