Michael McQuown’s collection of eldritch tales may fall a little flat due to its lack of decent special effects and a strange stylistic flow, but the ingenuity in its storytelling suggests that fans of the horror genre may have a new rising star to back.

Much like its name suggests, The Dark Tapes isn’t really a fluid, coherent movie. Instead, it unspools like an anthology à la the differently themed seasons of American Horror Story, telling four loosely connected stories involving a varied cast of characters – two physicists and their assistant, a married couple, a webcam stripper, and a college graduate. But don’t be put off by the seemingly mismatched bunch. If anything, it is the many-faceted nature of The Dark Tapes that, in spite of the occasional pitfall here and there, mostly works to its advantage.

The first tape, To Catch A Demon, documents scientists Martin (David Rountree) and Nicole (Cortney Palm) as they attempt to lure a paranormal creature into our dimension. The story is divided into four parts, to which viewers are returned to in between the other three tapes. This stilted jumping between stories does well to showcase the clever ending of the movie as a whole, but unfortunately lets the tape in itself down by throwing a wet blanket over the tension as soon as it starts to spark. In fact, the first segment of the tape is nothing more than an overly long exposition to the scientific rationale behind the physicists’ shared belief in supernatural entities. While there may be some smart scientific acrobatics behind the tale, being talked at for ten minutes straight is hardly any horror-movie-goer’s cup of tea, and just weakens the film’s opening. And this is a shame, because To Catch A Demon really isn’t half bad. It may not be the strongest story amongst the four, but it certainly plays out better than most other horror movies on the market running with the same themes – story-wise, think Insidious, but with a level-headed heft behind it. Although the climax of the tape may be more than a little cringe-worthy due to the minimal special effects available to the production crew, To Catch A Demon is undeniably special in its construction, and is an excellent showcase of Michael McQuown and Vincent Guastini’s talents as writer and director respectively.

[it] proves that no concept in horror movies is too dated to be revived successfully

The second tape, The Hunters and the Hunted, is arguably the standout story amongst the four. This tale of a married couple, David (Stephen Zimpel) and Susan (Jo Galloway) moving into a new home starts off like every other movie in the genre – it’s all fun and games until things start to go bump in the night and the day. The sound of footsteps running across the ceiling echoes through the house where there is no floor above; light-up novelty balls roll down a corridor only to be repelled by an unseen force; objects move and doors slam of their own accord. At first, everything plays out like it’s supposed to in your run-of-the-mill horror movie. The paranormal happenings intensify. A brigade of ghost-hunters (called, amusingly enough, the Pacific Investigators of Paranormal Phenomenon) then get called in, allowing for the classic money-shots of setting up several varieties of camera that give each shot a differently-coloured hue. And of course, what would a found footage horror story in a purportedly haunted house be without a scene where the fragile, delicate wife sits sobbing in her husband’s arms as the ringleader of these aspiring Ghostbusters explains their work? The whole thing runs like a smoothly-oiled cliché, and will no doubt lull viewers into a smug sense of certainty that they know what’s coming next. But its devastating finale is guaranteed to pull the rug out from under even the more complacent audiences, with a gut-wrenching scene that will have squeamish viewers holding their hands over their faces.

The third and fourth tapes, Cam Girls and Amanda’s Revenge, operate on more unique premises, but only one of them manages to make its refreshingly different storyline work. The former focuses on Caitlin (Emilia Zoryan), who works as a webcam stripper with her girlfriend Sindy (Anna Rose Moore) – yes, with an S! – in an attempt to break away from her oppressive Christian upbringing. But Cam Girls lets down the intriguing basis of its story by careening from a fairly vanilla beginning to a shocking climax, and then a mildly surreal and completely lacklustre finale which substitutes an explanatory dialogue between characters for an actual ending. Depending on your disposition, audiences are bound to see its conclusion as either wholly comical or, well, just weird; an unfortunate send-off for an otherwise interesting start. But the latter tape, Amanda’s Revenge, suffers no such injustice. The twist in its story at the end is once again refreshingly surprising, as is the grounds on which it presents itself – the eponymous college graduate (Brittany Underwood) is raped at a party, but later reveals to her three friends and caretakers that the aftermath of that traumatising event has much farther-reaching consequences than they would have ever imagined. I thoroughly enjoyed Amanda’s Revenge, which proves that no concept in horror movies is too dated to be revived successfully, and ends on a wonderfully ambiguous note that is bound to leave viewers hotly debating its true conclusion.

The Dark Tapes makes a commendable effort with its limited resources

As a whole, the cast of The Dark Tapes do a good job, and nobody overdoes their performance, which adds to the film’s grounded, semi-realistic feel. Admittedly, there are times when the acting becomes exceptionally wooden, particularly Brittany Underwood’s performance as the titular character in Amanda’s Revenge – for all the atrocities her character claims to have been put through from the very beginning of the tape itself, you’d think Underwood would have been able to show even a smidgen of emotion, especially when she’s screaming hysterically for people not to touch her. On the other hand, special mention should go to Aral Gribble as Gerry, whose enthusiastic portrayal of an incredulous patron believing he’s in for the show of a lifetime was nothing less than endearing. The cast of The Hunters and The Hunted should also be applauded for their utterly believable performances, which had me bamboozled as to the tape’s twist right up to the finish line.

Stylistically speaking, The Dark Tapes is a bizarre creature, like Frankenstein’s monster sewn together from two grotesquely different halves. On the one hand, the special effects really aren’t great, and the costumes used for the paranormal entities are almost laughably fake when seen up close. But given its small budget and independent roots, it’s clear that The Dark Tapes makes a commendable effort with its limited resources, and would undoubtedly have been more successful in its various attempts at jump-scares with Hollywood-level funding behind it. On the other hand, the movie is filmed surprisingly well, and the camera quality is fantastic. This would normally work to the filmmakers’ merit, but The Dark Tapes is a self-proclaimed “found-footage” movie, it means that The Dark Tapes hardly feels like “found footage” without the grainy camcorder filter so synonymous with the genre now thanks to The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity. Even then, this is only a minor criticism. The burgeoning potential present in the storytelling’s originality and the attention to detail present in the writing and screenplay (especially on The Hunters and the Hunted) greatly outshadow the film’s rickety indie façade. The Dark Tapes marks, much like some of the camera action in it, a shaky start for McQuown and Guastini. But with the right kind of funding and further expansion of the obvious writing talent bubbling beneath the surface, the duo may even prove themselves the next masters of the scream on-screen.

EJ Oakley

3.5/5

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Image: The Dark Tapes

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