The Dark Tapes

Film festival favourite, The Dark Tapes, finally makes its way to Failed Critics and found-footage fan Owen Hughes reveals the good and the bad of this low-budget horror anthology.

Oren Peli, the Godfather of the new-wave found footage movie, once described the blossoming sub-genre as “deliberate chaos”. You can deliberately place a camera at a jaunty angle, or have a deliberately badly composed frame, because the unusual angles and unorthodox compositions add an element of excitement for audiences who have grown up on a diet of largely stagnant filmmaking techniques. The charm of a found-footage film is that it is unpredictable chaos.

Admittedly, this is perhaps less true now than it was back in 2007, when Peli’s surprise hit Paranormal Activity was breaking as many records as it was conventions. To a modern audience, some decade on from the revitalised (and much more prominent) sub-genre, the established conventions employed by the multitude of found-footage horrors released every year are fast becoming clichés.

Therefore the challenge for Writer/Producer/Director, Michael McQuown, and Co-Director, Vincent J. Guastini, of microbudget anthology The Dark Tapes, was to come up with something original – or, at the very least, interesting. Especially when V/H/S (also distributed theatrically by Epic Pictures Group) has already nailed the found-footage anthology market.

As such, this compendium horror contains its most inventive take on the genre in the first of the Dark Tapes, “To Catch A Demon”, whereby elements of sci-fi (and even fantasy) bleed into its disorienting narrative. A team of scientists attempt to prove the existence of otherworldly entities that are only visible in the state between the conscious and the unconscious mind, but things inevitably go awry.

The structure of this story is slightly unusual, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The story acts as partitions for the other Dark Tapes – as well as tying into the wrap-around for the anthology – and is its most intelligent storytelling (relatively speaking). Bungled together into one short, the feature might have seemed silly. But, as it is split into parts that are revisited in portions, the breathing space between each segment is most welcome. The naturalistic and believable presentation of the found-footage angle is ill at ease with some of the forced dialogue which opens the film – up until Cortney Palm (Zombeavers) invariably improves the overall quality, that is. However, the comparatively noetic concept is still mildly interesting and embraces the contrast with the shockingly violent imagery that is yet to come.

Which brings me onto the second of the Dark Tapes, titled ‘The Hunters and the Hunted’. Moving at rapid pace, the set-up revolves around a couple in their new home documenting the creepy goings on. The main problem will be trying to prevent your eyes from rolling and enthusiasm waining at yet another found-footage haunted house story. There are some brutal cuts between their home-video evidence, but it works to capture the realism of amateur shots jumbled together. You might call it “deliberate chaos” which adds a tangible texture. When the Pacific Investigators of Paranormal Phenomenon are introduced – and specifically Susan (Jo Galloway) – the substantial amount of character that they bring to proceedings helps to brighten the piece; but it’s still the least enjoyable of the tapes.

The most entertaining and innovative segment is reserved for the Cam Girls tape. Shot almost entirely from the point of view of a laptop webcam as Caitlin (Emilia Ares Zoryan), a once good Christian girl now breaking bad with her female lover for cash via cam, entertains her gentlemen viewers. The running theme throughout The Dark Tapes is how the subconscious mind is capable of controlling people’s actions, forcing them to do things without their consent. It’s a scary thought, if not a particularly scary execution. A bewildering climax belies the intriguing premise. Nevertheless, it’s certainly the most fun and visually compelling slice of horror concocted in the multiple indie award winning anthology. I dare you to try and not feel for Gerry (Aral Gribble), the most instinctively likeable character in the film.

Props should also be given to the make-up department and the visual effects team for both this and the Amanda’s Revenge segment. After a house party, a post-roofied Amanda (Brittany Underwood) wakes to find herself bestowed with telekinetic abilities and the unwanted recipient of visits from strange creatures in the night. The practical effects throughout are at worst on par with the best that the microbudget horror scene has to offer, and at best surpass them – even if some of the creatures do occasionally appear to bring to mind a cross between the old Universal monsters, Hellraiser‘s cenobites, and the more bizarre Dr Who aliens, with a sprinkling of Guillermo Del Toro for good measure.

Blending regular digital handheld camcorder footage with a (faux) old school mechanical film camera, to capture the bizarre figure, is a nice touch. It magnifies the extent to which found footage can break from convention when directors dare to do something less ordinary.

Over the decades, found footage has drifted into territory beyond just the horror genre; and is more akin to a technique than a specific genre anyway. Relatively big budget projects have employed FF as a method to present science fiction stories, from Cloverfield to Chronicle, as well as even crossing into the crime thriller with End of Watch. Go back earlier than that to cult-classic The Blair Witch Project, Belgian serial killer mockumentary Man Bites Dog; and even Michael Powell’s pre-Psycho slasher, Peeping Tom, which uses elements of found footage. To constantly refine and improve on what is being done with the technique by large studios with millions of pounds at their disposal is a lot to ask of an indie such as The Dark Tapes, with its estimated $65k budget. Did it succeed?

It would be an exaggeration to declare that it redefines what it means to be a found-footage film. It less produces a revolution to blow its contemporaries out of the water, as it does produce a solid enough flick to comfortably sail the choppy sea of the oft derided sub-genre. The fact that it has won or been nominated for 61 different awards during its festival run (including a Rondo Hatton Award nomination for “Best Independent Feature”) is quite understandable.

Anthology films are always hit and miss. Producing a consistently intense atmosphere for the duration is a tall order for any horror compendium. There’s some very good, some very bad, and some very interesting components that make this ambitious movie worth a watch for fans of the found-footage style, as well as perhaps general horror film fans alike who are able to overlook the ever present drawbacks associated with microbudget productions.

The Dark Tapes is released on all VOD platforms on 18 April, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, Xbox, Playstation and Vimeo. You can find more information on their website, on Facebook and Twitter.

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