When it comes to the indie horror genre, the obvious limitations of low-budget filmmaking can be forgiven, so long as the end product is somewhat entertaining, and the creators of a movie are really trying to accomplish something more than the usual ripoffs of whatever the popular ‘flavor’ is at the moment. And when tackling a tried, true and tired component of the genre, they’re going to have to try even harder.
So before I even begin this assessment of THE DARK TAPES, a new film from directors Michael McQuown and Vincent J. Guastini, I guess putting a caveat out there to potential viewers is in order: as the title implies, yes, boys and ghouls, this is yet ANOTHER anthology. And a found-footage one at that.
But, hold on! Before you go stomping out of the room in total disgust, it’s best that you know something first. If you are a fan of THE OUTER LIMITS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE, or the better parts of the V/H/S franchise, you may actually want to give this one a chance, as it’s not as bad as you might think it would be.
The framework is no different from any of its predecessors, like SOUTHBOUND, TALES OF HALLOWEEN or the aforementioned V/H/S flicks, which this kind of resembles with its four tales enveloped in a wraparound story. But writer McQuown has actually put some imaginative work into these stories, so the payoffs in each are actually worth the watch.
In the intro, two people, Sam (DAVID BANKS) and Marie (SARAH CASTRO) arrive at a theater space, expecting to find it empty. What they get instead is the door wide open, and the place in a shambles, with a bloodstained bed and some weird equipment strewn everywhere, not to mention a camera that they found outside. When Sam turns on the camera’s playback feature, that’s what kicks off the stories that unfold.
“To Catch A Demon,” the first tale and the one that calls back the most to LIMITS and ZONE, involves a physics professor, Martin (DAVID ROUNTREE), his teaching assistant, Nicole (SUSHI GIRL’S CORTNEY PALM) and their cameraman, Jason (MATT MAGNUSSON) who has been hired to document their ‘experiment’, which doesn’t involve demons at all, but rather the attempt to prove that these products of Martin’s attacks of “night terrors” are actually inter-dimensional alien beings trapped within our own dimension. Naturally, the three of them get more than they bargained for along with the proof that they’re absolutely on the right track. (I especially appreciate the way the order of the ‘tapes’ themselves and the dates, echo a theory that is quoted in this segment…pay attention and you’ll see exactly how that works.)
The whole subject of these beings and the how and why we perceive them as demons or ghosts, makes a nice segue into the second story, “The Hunters and the Hunted”, which lulls you into thinking it’s going to be just another carbon copy of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY. Excited couple Karen and David (SHAWN LOCKIE and STEPHEN ZIMPEL) have just moved into their new digs, but no sooner get settled in when they discover their beautiful abode comes with hot-and-cold-running-things-that-go-bump-in-the-night. Yes, they do the same idiotic thing that the stand-up comedians have a field-day satirizing, regarding people in horror movies who won’t just MOVE when they find out their house is haunted: they put out a call for help to the local team of paranormal experts…especially when the frisky apparitions start to get physical with their uninvited guests. Yes, I was rolling MY eyes at this point, too, people. But be sure you stick with this one. It’s going somewhere…just not where you expect it to. Also, this has the usual annoying distortions and picture degradation that is always simulated in found-footage flicks, but there IS a reasonable explanation for it. This one may make you think twice about becoming a professional “ghost hunter”.
“Cam Girls”, the next vignette in the collection was also a pleasant surprise, but may not be for those viewers who are into some of that ‘cam2cam’ action with the ‘local’ hot babes, who won’t forget this one anytime soon. Caitlin (EMILIA ARES ZORYAN), new to “the big city”, is equally new to her relationship with her girlfriend/roommate, Sindy (ANNA ROSE MOORE), who likes to get freaky with her other half on-cam for the thrills – and the money, of course. Caitlin’s been concerned that she hasn’t been quite herself lately, but can never say no to her lady love. Meanwhile, the two cammers decide to grace one lucky member of their audience with a free show, and when the ‘winner’, Gerry (ARAL GIBBLE) is told to prepare for the cam show of his life, he should’ve taken it a LOT more seriously. Nothing about this scenario, like most of the stories, appears to be what it seems, and this has one of those great “WTF DID I JUST SEE?” kind of endings.
The final story, “Amanda’s Revenge”, takes us deeper into ‘Freakytown’ by way of one of the older tropes of any anthology: alien abduction. When our heroine in question, Amanda (BRITTANY UNDERWOOD) is roofied and nearly double-banged at a party being given by her closest friends, and that is actually the LEAST of her worries. Blackouts, personality changes, sleepwalking, time loss…and no matter how she tries to solve her dilemma, nothing she does seems to work. Until one important element of her episodes inspires her to whip up a strategy that FINALLY solves the problem. Or does it?
Okay, first of all, the cons. No new ground is broken here in terms of themes…all of these have been covered in anthologies before, and better in a few of them. If you are a fan of indie films at all, you know that it makes no sense to sit and bitch about the low-ball production values of a feature you wind up watching. DARK TAPES’ is unmistakably low-budget, but this reviewer has seen a HELLUVA lot worse. If you are not in the right frame of mind to watch something like this, (which is another reason why I keep bringing up THE OUTER LIMITS: TOS and THE TWILIGHT ZONE), the creature effects in two of the stories will look downright laughable. And there are a few places where the filmmakers couldn’t escape the old mistake of not justifying the presence of cameras and certain refined camera angles, where no one in their right mind would EVER continue to carry a camera and film.
The pros? Scripting, first of all. Writer McQuown (who also wears directing, producing and editing hats here in the best indie tradition) has given more than a little thought to each of the tales here, especially “Demon”, which is as it turns out, the hub of all the other vignettes, including the wraparound, which is NOT the main story as you might believe in the beginning. Having the bits of “Demon” interwoven throughout as the delivery system for the other stories was a great choice, and I like how that worked out.
Second, the acting. If you’ve seen enough of these kinds of movies, you know that there is a wildly diverse range of acting talent, and fortunately for McQuown and Guastini, everyone here ranges from good to REALLY good. I have been a fan of Cortney Palm ever since the gorgeously effed-up SUSHI GIRL, and she doesn’t disappoint here, either. I have to give special shout-outs to three actors in particular in the HUNTERS sequence: Lockie, Zimpel and little Brittany Fishelli. Not trying to drop any spoilers here, but these three were given a beautiful gift by McQuown in this story, and lesser actors could have easily dropped the ball on it and left this sequence cold and flat. Attaboys to all for leaving me with my jaw hanging open!
McQuown scores extra brownie points for leaving the directing chores of “Demon” up to award-winning makeup and visual FX wiz Guastini, because it IS the most important out of the bunch, and one of the places where Vincent’s expertise in the field really becomes evident. As I mentioned before, this is not one of those movies made on a Michael Bay-sized budget, so when a couple of really impressive pieces of work do show up, the shock is that much more effective. And as an aspiring filmmaker myself, I completely understand why the creatures in the stories didn’t look that great. “Robbing Peter to pay Paul” only works if “Paul” (or in this case, Vincent) kicks MAJOR ass, and he does! And if you’ve never seen THE OUTER LIMITS or THE TWILIGHT ZONE (and you’ll be one of the two people in the world who hasn’t), check out some of the classic episodes for comparison’s sake. Many of the ‘monsters’ and makeups in both series reflect the low-budgeting and primitive state of effects artistry at the time, but it was also why they hired great writers like Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and of course, Rod Serling himself: to emphasize stories and characters that didn’t have to rely mostly on visual tricks.
In the vein of concentrating more on storytelling and characters, rather than effects and flashy cinematography, (though McQuown and Matt Shapira do a more than serviceable jobs as DP’s), THE DARK TAPES overall gets a solid three out of five stars from me. With more money to work with, I think certain aspects could have been ramped up to make this an OUTSTANDING genre experience, rather than just a good one. But for what it is, I think a lot of fans will be pretty damn well entertained.