Normally In The Spooklight we look at classic horror movies, but every once in a while I like to shake things up a bit and examine something more contemporary.
Up today, VIRAL (2016), a horror flick that’s now available on Netflix Streaming, which happens to be an easy way to catch horror titles that don’t receive a theatrical release. Some of these are quite good. VIRAL tells the story of two teenage sisters trying to survive during an outbreak of a deadly disease that turns people into murderous killers.
Sound familiar? Of course it does! That’s because apocalyptic movies are all the rage these days. And VIRAL is nothing that hasn’t been done before, nor is it better than other similarly themed apocalyptic horror movies of recent years, but it does have some nice things going for it, which is why today it’s in the spooklight.
Teen sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and Stacey Drakeford (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved into a new neighborhood with their parents, although their mom is spending a lot of time away from home, and we learn later their dad Michael (Michael Kelly) cheated on their mom, and the move into a new home is an attempt at a new beginning, something their mom is having a difficult time with. But their dad is around and teaches at their high school. Awkward!
A strange virus has been reported in the news that has been overtaking the world, and when it arrives in their neighborhood, the entire area is quarantined, and Martial law is declared, but not before Michael races to the airport to find his wife who has just arrived home from her trip. He tells Emma and Stacey to stay in their house and not to let anyone in. Of course, being teenage girls, they don’t listen to their father, especially Stacey, who’s the rebellious daughter. She invites her boyfriend over, and the three of them even go off to a party.
At the party, someone arrives with the virus, and it’s at this time that they realize that in addition to making people sick, the virus also makes people crazy and aggressive. The infected person goes on a killing rampage, and Stacey becomes infected, but Emma brings her back home anyway. Together, with their teen neighbor Evan (Travis Trope), they spend the rest of the movie fighting to survive.
The strongest thing VIRAL has going for it is some pretty good acting. I really enjoyed Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton as sisters Emma and Stacey. Black D’Elia doesn’t play Emma as your typical “good girl.” Sure, she’s more responsible than her sister Stacey, but she’s not a saint. She goes to the party when she knows she shouldn’t, and she is definitely very interested in Evan and doesn’t shy away from his advances one iota.
Analeigh Tipton is just as good as Stacey, the sister who is more of a rebel. The best part about both performances and the writing behind them is that neither character is a cliché.
Travis Tope is also very good as their young neighbor Evan, who we find out likes Emma as much as she likes him. I found their relationship in this movie refreshing. It wasn’t forced, contrived, or didn’t try to be something it wasn’t— there wasn’t any unnecessary drama- they both like each other a lot, but unfortunately, it’s a bad time to be starting a relationship.
The movie really focuses on these three characters, and no one else does a whole lot. It was nice to see veteran actor Michael Kelly as their dad Michael. He gets to play a halfway decent person for a change and actually smiles once or twice. He’s been busy playing Kevin Spacey’s right hand man Doug Stamper for five seasons on the Netflix TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2013-present), a dark character who is as grim as they get.
There are some decent horror scenes here. I liked the sequence at the party, and when we see the little worm-like creatures that carry the disease crawl into their victims’ bodies it’s a pretty neat effect. But the horror never really explodes to levels where it becomes memorable.
VIRAL was directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, and for two-thirds of this movie they had me. Initially, I was interested in the plot, and when the virus takes hold of the town, the suspense rose and the film reached a much higher level, but strangely the intensity wanes during the film’s final act. Perhaps there wasn’t enough budget to film a worthy conclusion, but the natural expectation is for our three characters to be attacked by the worm-carrying murderous hosts who have overtaken the town. But this never happens. As such, the final third of the film pales in comparison to what came before it.
Parts of VIRAL reminded me of IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a recent horror film I liked a lot. IT COMES AT NIGHT is also about an apocalyptic event, but it’s an event that’s never defined in the movie. But IT COMES AT NIGHT is a better film than VIRAL because it’s grittier and far more suspenseful.
Joost and Schulman also directed PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 (2011) and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4 (2012). I liked VIRAL better than these two PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies, but that’s not saying much.
Barbara Marshall and Christopher Landon wrote the screenplay. They do a great job with the dialogue and the characterizations, and the idea they have for the virus is a good one, although the concept of a virus that turns people into murderous monsters reminded me a lot of the plot in both versions of THE CRAZIES (1973 and 2010). And like THE CRAZIES, the monsters are not zombies, because they don’t have to die first before they become murderous.
What’s most lacking in the screenplay is a strong third act, which hurts, because the film slows down and it limps towards a conclusion that is hardly memorable.
VIRAL is well-acted, well-directed, and even well-written. But ultimately it never gets as gritty or as in-your-face disturbing as this type of movie needs to be, and it definitely drops the ball in its third act when it seems to forget that it’s a horror movie.
In spite of its shortcomings, I actually liked VIRAL and wished it had been just a tad more intense.
A bit scarier and this one may have gone— viral.