THE DARK TAPES (15)
Director: Vincent J. Guastini, Michael McQuown
Screenplay: Michael McQuown
Review: David Stephens
Ah, found-footage. The sub-genre of horror that’s as immediately divisive as much as the “unnecessary” remakes of classic films and so-called “torture porn”. Some fans will immediately knee-jerk a negative opinion (although if they suffer from motion sickness they may have a valid point). Whilst most open-minded individuals will at least wait for trailers or a full-viewing before inflicting an opinion upon others. But it’s been around far longer than “Blair Witch” (NB: “Cannibal Holocaust” was primarily found-footage don’t forget), and will probably outlive us all in some cinematic format or other. One recent example which has been getting positive notices on the Independent film circuit and festival runs is “The Dark Tapes”. A culmination of 3 years of work by Co-directors Michael McQuown and Vincent J. Guastini, it’s a bona fide Indie totally free from any studio involvement, and is a literal video anthology of 4 supernaturally tinged stories. There are a number of recognisable actors in the crew with Cortney Palm (“Sushi Girl”,”Zombeavers”), David Banks (“Bornless Ones”) and other hey-I-know-them-from-something faces making appearances. The film is due in the US (after a limited theatrical run) on pretty much all VOD platforms from April 18th onwards, via Epic Pictures Releasing. So YGROY gets that VHS recorder from out of the attic (again) for some more jittery japes on the home screen…
After an ominous verbal warning from a deep-voiced “someone”, we get a taste of what’s to come with a couple discovering the remnants of an experiment in a locked-down building, along with the inevitable abandoned camcorder. It’s circa 2007, and the set-up was the result of some theoretical work being carried out by a Physics professor (David Rountree from “Cut”) and one of his students (Palm), which is being videoed by a documentarian. The scary shenanigans that ensue are but a wrap-around story for the proceedings which are gradually revealed in sections, as 3 other “tapes” are presented for your viewing pleasure (and provide a little further evidence for the Prof’s theories). So there’s also; a young couple who buy an apparently haunted house and plead for help from paranormal investigators, a good-girl-gone-bad who runs a sexy cam-show with her girlfriend that turns into something weird, and an attempted assault on a young woman that awakens repressed memories and strange skills. By the end of each story (and the experiment) it’s apparent that you should be careful about what you film…
Whilst the low budget and mini production values are well in evidence as you watch the “Dark Tapes”, the nice thing about that, is that it doesn’t really matter. Yes, some of the effects and costumes probably wouldn’t work so well under HD video conditions or too much scrutiny. But there’s a wealth of imagination and talent at work here, which makes the festival awards and plaudits understandable.
For a start, each and every cast member gives a great performance in their individual stories. Palm and Rountree are very good in the wraparound, along with Brittany Underwood (Nickelodeon’s “Hollywood Heights”) and Emilia Ares Zorayn (“Bosch, “V/H/S: Viral”), who manage their conflicted roles very well. But all the rest of the crew also provide realistic and believable characters throughout each of the “tapes”.
And whilst the influence (intentional or otherwise) of such films such as “Paranormal Activity” or “Blair Witch” can be read into certain parts and situations within some of the narratives, this can be ignored when you experience some of the extra qualities that McQuown and Guastini bring to the camcorder party. There’s a great unexpected twist to one story, and there’s a thoroughly engaging emphasis on “weird science” and far-reaching academic theories, which juxtaposes nicely with the more supernatural elements. As the resident Prof says at one point; “Everything is science”. It also allows for some further neat little plot developments as the wrap-around story coasts along. It all enables a very intriguing hypothesis as to why demons and spirits are only sighted by certain individuals and at certain times. And it’s no surprise that the teasing of a “bigger picture” and mythos will feed into a “spin-off” called “The Darker Paths”, involving some of the same characters and themes, which is just going into production.
Despite the aforementioned concerns around the budget and suchlike, some moments really do hit home and create some well-crafted scares; the sudden appearance of huge demonic hands which were hiding in plain sight, a painful-looking graphic throat-slitting, and an unusual cause for a body mutilation. Perhaps the most effective though is a simple foreground murder which is genuinely disturbing for spoilery reasons which we can’t obviously divulge.
As regards the “footage” element of the visuals, it’s pretty much as you would expect it. People who hate on this format won’t be converted, but it’s certainly utilised well here.
Camcorders and connections fizzle with static effectively, and there’s some nice choreography where characters look away from the video calls as subliminal flashes of bloody incidents flash across the screen, or they may even react as you would in the circumstance. It actually comes across as more “Banshee Chapter” or “Willow Creek” in terms of execution, rather than “Blair Witch” or similar.
Of course the one film that it can be compared with quite rightly, are the “V/H/S” films, and this is probably the best found-footage anthology since the second one of those… which is probably damning it with faint praise to some extent, because there are admittedly not a lot of those around. But let’s just say that it’s definitely worth a viewing however you categorise it.
One or two of the stories may not quite reach their full potential (one “tape” feels like a lot has been left untapped and it ends a little too abruptly and anticlimactically), and you won’t necessarily be convinced by the appearance of certain “characters”. Plus the generic “distorted” voice(s) feel awfully cheesy in comparison to the other details.
But beyond that, this is still a striking found-footage anthology which certainly delivers some cool ideas, decent scares, and some classy story-telling. It proves again that the quality of any kind of sub-genre and format is ultimately as good as the material and the people making it. And this provides plenty of substance for the discerning horror fan. We look forward to future projects from the director(s) and the expansion of this new found-footage universe. Tape it away!