The Dark Tapes is an independent found footage horror anthology. It is a film in the same family as the V/H/S films, The ABCs of Death, and the recent XX. The difference between those films and this is that, while other anthology films split its work among multiple directors who each take on a self-contained short, The Dark Tapes is a film written by one screenwriter (Michael McQuown, who also shares directorial credit with Vincent Guastini).
As such, the frame narrative should share some cohesion across the film. The immediate impression, thus, is that the various “chapters” bleed together. Glitches transition between the shorts on the “tape.”
What this does at first is cause a state of purposeful confusion. The frame story is a question mark before it really begins. Two people find a camera outside of what appears to be a small auditorium. On the stage of the auditorium is the setup for some sort of experiment, an experiment which briefly gets explained in the first “chapter.”
Then the separate shorts begin. The first is immediately reminiscent of Paranormal Activity in the handheld style that follows a couple in a new home.
There are some fun tricks in this first full segment, and the interplay with a naive crew of paranormal investigators helps. There are minor issues that take away from tension, as in the overuse of film pixelation, and the similarities to the Paranormal Activity formula is too apparent to omit comment.
Still, it is an interesting ghost story with some impressive tactics. The lighting schemes, in particular, are effective. The final twist may be revealed from a point of view that lacks a suspenseful revelation, but it is a convention-subverting plot point that is effectively unsettling.
The second short, “Cam Girls,” begins with the already unsettling premise of a woman who cannot remember what she does every time she goes out at night.
Seemingly, the entire short is filmed voyeur style through the webcam of Caitlin’s (Emilia Ares Zoryan) laptop, as if we as viewers have hacked into her webcam. It’s an interesting way to further implicate the viewer in the sexual terror.
Unfortunately, this same intimate—intimate to the point of discomfort—atmosphere is squandered by the problematic acting from the cast. Zoryan keeps things afloat in scenes where she is the main focus, but pretty much every other cast member lacks the naturalism necessary for a found footage film.
While loud sound effects are often a red flag in the modern horror film, the glitchy sound work here is not too shabby. The repetitive nature of the visual accompaniment to the glitches, on the other hand, is less helpful.
Narratively, “Cam Girls” is different and engaging, even if it makes some logical leaps and lacks a satisfying conclusion. The short tows the line between suspense and torture porn without becoming egregious and gratuitous. It is a mashup of Unfriended (or, to those Unfriended detractors, The Den) and Kevin Smith’s short in Holidays. Although it does much more with originality than Smith’s short does.
The third short is entitled “Amanda’s Revenge.” Amanda (Brittany Underwood), as she explains during the opening direct-to-camera address, has been kidnapped. But she knows how to get out.
This opening bit is an awkward start to the short, if only because the jump cut edits take the viewer out of the found footage aesthetic. While this editing style can be explained away in retrospect, it is still a weird way to open up the short.
Once the short flashes back four months, this awkwardness fades away. The party sequence is shot much better, and it unfolds efficiently. And things quickly get weirder from here.
Underwood’s performance is the highlight of the short. With much of what is intriguing visually absent from the frame, Underwood’s Amanda is all that is there to convey the tension. Compared to the other two non-frame story shorts, the acting in “Amanda’s Revenge” is great.
The visually absent nature of the “entities” being discussed is also a nice change of pace from the other shorts. Everything seems like hearsay; until it isn’t. The short’s ability to be suspenseful hinges on conversation. While this can at times feel overly expository, the visual simplicity of most of the short makes the climax all the more satisfying.
The most effective short is the frame narrative. Not only is it given the most time to flesh out narratively and features some of the better acting of the film (Cortney Palm arguably gives the second best acting performance in the entire film, under Underwood). But it also has the best visual and sound effects work of any of the shorts.
The Dark Tapes stacks up with some of the more high profile anthology horror films. Films like the V/H/S sequels (the third one, at least) and Holidays seem to use the format as a function of laziness than anything else. The Dark Tapes uses the format to make genuinely novel short films that play around with convention.
The film isn’t perfect, and adding up the minor issues may create a long list, but the film as a whole is a worthwhile addition to the genre. It is a found footage film for found footage fans.
Given its purported micro-budget ($65,000 by IMDb’s estimate), the film is impressive in terms of scope. The visual effects and sound work—crucial to the film’s success—is top notch, making the film look anything but low budget.
In the end, The Dark Tapes is worth the VOD watch for any found footage fan.
The Dark Tapes: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)