Friday, 14 April 2017

Film Review: Indie horror The Dark Tapes is the best found footage film in years

Originally published on Film Inquiry, here.

Found footage horror is hardly the most respected nor acclaimed film making style on the market. Besides the genre-defining The Blair Witch Project and the more recent successes of the first few entries into the Paranormal Activity franchise, most found footage horror films tend to pass by relatively unnoticed. The Gallows failed to make any lasting impression, As Above, So Below pretty much crashed and burned on arrival. It's one of the riskiest genres to experiment in if you want to leave a lasting impression.

Enter: The Dark Tapes. Not only does The Dark Tapes offer more knowledge of horror film making than every found footage film produced in the last few years combined, but it does so across four individual but quietly linked short stories. Much like the solid V/H/S from 2012 and the borderline masterful V/H/S 2 from 2013, The Dark Tapes is an anthology feature. It is comprised of four different short films that each tackle a different kind of found footage story, all tied around a central narrative that unfolds in the background.

In his directorial debut, Michael McQuown immediately demonstrates an impressive confidence and a deep understanding of how to construct a found footage film. In early scenes, characters question whether they should acknowledge the camera and generally look uncomfortable around it. The film doesn't shy away from humour either, there are a handful of effective one-liners throughout. Everything comes together to craft a sense of realism, something the found footage genre essentially relies on.

The Dark Tapes, like any good anthology should do, allows its short stories to take on varying genres: The Hunters & The Hunted tackles a conventional paranormal haunting of a new home; Cam Girls uses webcams to investigate the demonic dangers of an online porn site; Amanda's Revenge takes a more sci-fi approach to the found footage style; finally, To Catch A Demon offers an inter dimensional story confined to one room. The constant shaking up of horror sub genres prevents the film from ever going stale, retaining your interest from the first frame right the way through to the last.

McQuown's understanding of atmosphere is immediately recognisable: Hunters scarcely relents the paranormal goings-on from the moment they begin, and Cam Girls holds a persistent sense of dread for its entire run time. The latter makes an especially good case for intricate editing - at one point there are over five different live streams within the frame, and the editing cuts them all together seamlessly. Your eyes dart around the screen every time something moves, it's a brilliant piece of horror film making and the feature's strongest short by a wide margin.

While the other films are plagued by small issues, they each have a lot going for them. Hunters feels frustratingly conventional on first viewing but a game changing twist works to change your perspective on everything you've seen. It toys with found footage tropes in very smart ways, creating something I already can't wait to dive back into again. The explanation for the twist might feel a little wordy, but it won't stop your heart rate from skyrocketing.

Amanda's Revenge, the weakest of the four shorts, struggles to find a real identity. It's undeniably ambitious, tackling a handful of intriguing ideas all at once, but the film struggles to balance them. It gets caught up in explaining everything to us rather than actually showing it. Besides one expertly performed moment of the titular character talking straight to the camera for a good few minutes, it's the hardest of the four shorts to buy into.

After the minor disappointment of Amanda's Revenge, though, The Dark Tapes pours everything back on To Catch A Demon for an explosive finale - and boy does it go all out. It's a terrifying final sequence making expert use of framing, sound editing and practical effects, but it's the resolution of this tape that leaves your jaw on the floor when the credits roll. To even hint at how the film connects its stories would verge on spoiler territory and, trust me, you don't want this spoiled for you.

Looking away from narrative and style, the four shorts all have one other thing in common - superb performances. Strong acting seems to be something of a rarity in horror, but not a single member of The Dark Tapes' cast is off key. Emilia Zoryan steals the show for her turn as Caitlin in the heart stopping Cam Girls: she's almost never off screen, and her quietly commanding voice couples with her sweet and seductive body language to form a terrifyingly confident performance. Even the weakest of the films is strengthened by Brittany Underwood's mesmerising performance as Amanda. It's a universally well performed film - one of the strongest casts assembled for a horror film in years.

But the real winner here is McQuown. In his debut film he shows great potential in a number of areas, demonstrating himself as a director of immeasurable confidence in how to craft a variety of sub genres all at once. A lot of the film's missteps can easily be dismissed as inexperience, I'm filled with confidence that his films will grow in strength with every release. The Dark Tapes is fun and scary and consistently tense - there's life in this decaying genre yet.

In A Sentence
While perhaps a little rough around the edges, Michael McQuown's The Dark Tapes is a successful found footage anthology that boasts solid scares, palpable tension and a plethora of first rate performances.

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