Directed By: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Starring: Sofia Black-D'Elia, Analeigh Tipton, Travis Tope
Tag line: "Fear what's inside"
Trivia: Though initially set to be released theatrically in Feb, 2016, the movie was eventually pulled from the schedule and instead released in July via video-on-demand
Co-directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman , 2016’s Viral takes the now-standard infection storyline in a few interesting directions, making it a solid (if not entirely original) entry in both the sci-fi and horror genres.
Teenage sisters Emma (Sofia Black-D’Ella) and Stacey (Analeigh Tipton) are new to Shadow Canyon, a remote California desert community, where they live with their schoolteacher father (Michael Kelly). But before they have a chance to settle in, Shadow Canyon finds itself at the mercy of a particularly nasty parasite. Known as the “worm flu”, this sickness turns everyday people into crazed lunatics. And by the looks of it, the virus is spreading quickly.
With rumors of an imposed curfew circulating, the girls’ father rushes to the airport to pick up his wife (and their mother), only to find himself unable to return when the military seals off the entire town. Separated from their parents as well as the outside world, the sisters are both frightened and confused. But when the virus hits closer to home than either of them anticipated, Emma and Stacey have no choice but to work together to survive what has become a terrifying ordeal.
One of the biggest strengths of Viral is how the film builds a connection between the audience and its young leads, expertly portrayed by Sofia Black-D’Ella and Analeigh Tipton. As we see early on, Stacey (the older of the two) is a rebel, a bad girl who, despite being new in town, has already started dating C.J. (played by rapper Machine Gun Kelly). As for Emma, she’s a smart girl, but shy; Stacey pushes her to talk to Evan (Travis Tope), their neighbor, who Emma has been admiring from afar.
In addition to trying to fit in with their new classmates, the sisters are dealing as best they can with their parents’ deteriorating relationship (though a mystery at first, the cause of the friction between mom and dad is eventually revealed), which has had an adverse effect on both girls. By putting in the time to develop its characters early on, Viral makes us care about these two teens, and the terrible situation they eventually find themselves in is all the more distressing as a result.
Equally as good are those scenes where we’re shown how this virus affects its victims. While those infected do, indeed, resemble the living dead, they are actually very much alive, and under the control of a worm-like creature that has invaded their body. We get a glimpse of just how powerful this virus is when Evan’s stepfather Bill (Stoney Westmoreland) becomes infected and attacks. The special effects in this scene are superb, and are matched only by a later sequence in which Emma tries to perform an “operation” of sorts to remove the parasite from another character (easily the most uncomfortable scene in the entire film).
Viral does have its share of familiar tropes. The military sealing off a community to prevent the spread of disease was a key plot point of George Romero’s The Crazies, and was even an important aspect of 2015's What We Become. In addition, the action-packed finale feels as if it might have been lifted from any number of zombie films. But thanks to the fine work of its two young leads, some well-handled effects, and a truly frightening parasite, Viral still manages to stand apart from the rest.