By now, horror fans are used to Blumhouse Productions’ surprise “dumping” strategy, where a handful never-before-seen titles hit Netflix/VOD without warning. This explains why you might not have known about Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s second feature this year, Viral, until – well – now. Movies like Mockingbird, Mercy, and The Veil don’t make you question why Blum chose to unceremoniously push them out, but Viral does. There’s more to Christopher Landon and Barbara Marshall’s screenplay than squirmy invaders and teenage chills, that I urge you to discover from the comfort of your sofa and surround sound setup.
VOD is no longer a kiss of death, people – and that’s not the worm flu talking.
In this quarantined nightmare, Sofia Black-D’Elia and Analeigh Tipton play two sisters who find themselves under government-sanctioned house arrest, sans supervision. Emma (Black-D’Elia) and Stacey (Tipton) are without their parents, both of whom find themselves stuck outside of town thanks to a nasty case of “Worm Flu” being reported. The infection can only be spread through the passage of blood, which contains a parasite that then inhabits its new host. Sounds nasty, but it’s avoidable considering how you need to come in contact with an infected host – like the one who crashes a party where both Emma and Stacey shouldn’t be. Daddy said to stay at home, and it looks like father really does know best…
The first thing you’ll notice about Viral is that Joost and Schulman know how to shoot a movie. When you think straight-to-VOD, I’m sure you picture rough camerawork that might feel a bit amateurish (AKA not fit for theater screens) – but erase that presumption. Cinematographer Magdalena Górka works with Joost and Schulman to reconstruct a sun-soaked West Coast atmosphere, shot cleanly and succinctly. The gated community of Shadow Canyon sits juxtaposed against hazy, clay-colored mountain regions, as a crisp lens follows Emma and Stacey while they fight to stay human. Even when ADR effects are employed (flailing worm parasites, bomb explosions), production never dips below a quality line that many indies fail to limbo under.
So that’s one VOD myth busted.
By way of acting, Viral becomes a standard teen-driven thriller once any adult characters are eliminated from relevance. Michael Kelly appears as Mr. Drakeford (Emma and Stacey’s last name), but he’s locked out of importance by the government, much like Mrs. Drakeford (who we never see, because of relationship problems). That means Black-D’Elia and Tipton navigate a national travesty as silly kids would, putting themselves in harm’s way just to party and bullshit.
An unadvised strategy, but once the film’s true plot begins to twist into a dangerous character exploration (yes, someone important gets infected), the dynamic between both stars hits upon a devoted, sisterly bond built on brownies and bloodlust. Throw in Travis Tope as Emma’s love interest (who thankfully isn’t as annoying as his Independence Day: Resurgence turn) and Machine Gun Kelley as a cheating, hatable scumbag, and you’ve got an all-American cast who plays their parts with ample investment in doomsday realizations.
That said, Viral is not without some run-of-the-mill expectations being met. As many teen-focused thrillers go, there’s an obvious relationship crafted from nothing but high-school crushes, sappy moments and childish decisions that horror fiends might find frustrating. Generics that so many other films have employed in their own ambiguous way. Unfortunately, producers love these arcs, but they’re not always necessary – as a few scenes in Viral do exemplify. But, they’re not make-or-break worthy, and the struggles that these Drakeford girls face aren’t entirely dragged down by a few predictably common factors.
If you’re into mass-hysteria infection films, you’ll dig Viral and its smaller-scale experimentation. Same goes for body-horror lovers, who can get down with some Faculty-like creature designs that don’t exactly break the bank, but slither under you skin when needed. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have captured the essence of a bigger genre piece in a much tinier package, and do so with enough technical knowhow to create a sleeker, smoother kind of indie experience. It’s good enough to make you wonder why Blumhouse skated under-the-radar with this one, which is certainly more than anyone can ask for given their track record of similar surprises…
Viral doesn't reinvent the infection genre, but has enough fun playing in its massive sandbox to make for a sleek little indie watch.