Studio: Epic Pictures
Director: Michael McQuown, Vincent J. Guastini
Writer: Michael McQuown
Producer: Michael McQuown, Nicola Odeku, Haldane Morris, Amon Zia Mahmud, Vincent J. Guastini
Stars: Cortney Palm, David Rountree, Matt Magnusson, Shawn Lockie, Stephen Zimpel, Jo Galloway, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Shane Hartline, Anna Rose Moore, Aral Gibble, Brittany Underwood, Jake O’Connor
Four “found footage” recordings document paranormal activity involving possession, murder, and inter-dimensional demons.
On average, I’d guess that I’ve rated more “found footage” movies unfavorably than favorably. Yet I’ve remained a staunch defender of the subgenre as a whole, even when a majority of horror fans have pronounced it dead and buried since at least the time “Paranormal Activity” (review here) peaked.
I maintain that the first-person frame is unique among conceits for presenting a fright film. But “found footage” is so cheap and easy to produce that anyone can misuse it, and they do. So for every outstanding effort like “Delivery: The Beast Within” (review here) or “Afflicted” (review here), there are at least 30 to 40 microbudget variations of haunted woods or abandoned asylum investigations perpetuating the subgenre’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ reputation.
With “The Dark Tapes,” I’m closer to considering a concession that “found footage” should go on an indefinite hiatus, because it is increasingly difficult to find it fresh. It’s not that “The Dark Tapes” is a poor film. The movie is mostly fine for what it is, which is a small-crewed indie anthology of “found footage” horror shorts with unknown actors.
But in sitting through its 98 minutes of handheld hokum involving parallel timelines, ghosts, murder, and demonic possession, I find myself unable to come up with an angle on why anyone should be amped about another movie featuring green-tinted night vision, darkened corridor explorations, video glitches, and the other usual suspects that have long since soured audiences on the format.
Up first in the anthology is “To Catch a Demon.” Theorizing that fleeting shapes sometimes seen in sleep states are actually beings from a parallel timeline, a college professor conducts an experiment to capture evidence of these entities on video.
“The Dark Tapes” doesn’t really need a wraparound, but forces “To Catch a Demon” to play that part anyway. “To Catch a Demon” is thus separated into four segments that don’t frame the other three stories so much as those three interrupt the flow of this one.
Part A consists entirely of exposition. For many minutes, talking heads detail the professor’s experiment in technical terms of ultimately immaterial entertainment value. Then we transition straight into setting up the plot of the second story about a married couple in a haunted home, “The Hunters and the Hunted,” resulting in two consecutive segments of chatty introductions.
This exposes the core pacing issue right off the bat. Instead of hitting a rhythm of ramp-sting-repeat to regulate audience interest, “The Dark Tapes” front-loads itself with multiple act ones, idling momentum and losing early energy as a result.
End credits conclude on a card promoting a website where viewers can learn and discuss more about the pseudoscience behind several stories. Writer and primary director Michael McQuown is clearly fascinated with supposed facts behind his fiction, as evidenced by lengthy monologues everyone gives to preface upcoming action.
“The Dark Tapes” has original angles on familiar frames of sleep paralysis, body transference, and supernatural spirits. But the script gets carried away with excitedly explaining everything down to details that aren’t pertinent to any premise.
We don’t need believability bolstered by doling out exact numbers for human sight speed calculations. We need character and atmosphere development that is engaging, without getting hung up on background bits.
“The Dark Tapes” has a hard time digging itself free from this ‘over-explain everything with words’ mindset. Just when “The Hunters and the Hunted” seems like it is a Cliff’s Notes rehash of “Paranormal Activity,” the story takes a turn that unexpectedly chills the tone in an effective way. Then the tempo is tripped up again by an epilogue that adds obvious exposition even though the climax has hit its hook and moved on.
Third segment “Cam Girls” falls into the same patch of quicksand. In this story, internet sex performer Caitlin comes to realize that her nightly blackouts have less to do with drinking and more to do with something else controlling her body. As with “The Hunters and the Hunted,” this piece eerily eases into a brutal shock, yet continues clamoring with more conversation to fill in blanks afterward.
“Amanda’s Revenge” brings up the rear. After a near-miss sexual assault while drugged at a party, grad student Amanda begins entering strange trances and developing telekinetic abilities. For four months, Amanda works to uncover the origins of the supernatural beings that have experimented on her at night, and concocts a plan to turn the tables. Before getting to the big moment however, Amanda is compelled to turn toward the lens and recount everything that brought her to that point, including each failed attempt to end her sleep paralysis suffering.
The four stories of “The Dark Tapes” have some sharp payoffs with bloody reveals and kind of creepy creatures (made less creepy by cheap voice distortion). But all four routes are bloated by extraneous exposition both before and after the fact, which greatly slows down the speed.
Using inventive initial ideas, McQuown and his co-director, noted special effects artist Vincent J. Guastini, bounce on a springboard for doing something slightly different with “found footage.” Their film just can’t overcome iffy acting and getting caught up in factual grounding that isn’t as intriguing as the screenplay wants it to be.
Review Score: 40