Tuesday 19 April 2016

The Dark Tapes (2016)

Directors: Michael McQuown and Vincent Guastini
Writer: Michael McQuown
Stars: Courtney Palm, David Rountree, Shawn Lockie, Stephen Zimpel, Emilia Ares Zoryan, Aral Gibble, Brittany Underwood, Jake O'Conner, Michael Cotter and Tessa Munro
This film was an official selection at the 11th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2015. Here's an index to my reviews of 2016 films.
Each year there’s usually one film that screens at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival that I hate with a passion but it’s usually a showcase feature, like Monster Brawl or Betamax, rather than a movie in competition like this one. That means that it was selected from submissions rather than programmed and I don’t get that. Programming showcase features is an art, especially when you’re often working from the buzz a film has generated without actually having the benefit of seeing it, but screening submissions is a little easier because at least you can watch everything in scope. I have no idea why anyone would choose this film for a festival, but that’s just me. I talked to quite a few other festival-goers and some liked it a lot so maybe it’s just my personal taste. I’ve admitted to not being a fan of found footage films as they often give me motion sickness, but part of it is my OCD railing at the logic behind what we see and this one is a notable failure on that front. It makes no frickin’ sense at all and let me explain that.

This is not just a found footage film, it’s a found footage anthology film and, like most anthology features, we’re given something to frame it and a few short stories to sit within it. Now, with a regular picture that’s fine, especially as that framing device usually features a host or a mechanism which ties the short pieces together, but it’s a rather awkward format for found footage, which is defined by a whole slew of inherent rules: something happened that was worthy of note and was recorded, but only the camera survives, left behind for someone to discover and pass on to us. The freedoms of the format allow (even often require) filmmakers to use cheap equipment, shoot in natural light and not worry about crappy sound. However, a bunch of restrictions creep in too, especially in editing, which can break the internal consistency unless it aims to trim down what’s on a recording to what really matters or to collate footage using a documentary approach. As you can imagine, this is paramount in an anthology or the whole thing breaks.
And this film breaks for a whole bunch of reasons, which is sad because there are a whole bunch of ideas that are worth exploring and might even work outside of the framework which breaks them. The framing story is what this clearly should have been, an experiment by a CalTech professor in applied physics who also has a degree in theology. He’s Martin and he’s taking over a theatre with his TA, Nicole, to validate a theory he has about night terrors. He figures that they really exist, merely moving much too fast for us to notice unless we’re operating on time dilation during REM. They’re not demons, even if the tape is called To Catch a Demon; they’re trans-dimensional entities and he wants to catch them on film using a camera that shoots and plays back super slow motion simultaneously. I love this idea, I like the bizarre places and dilemmas into which it takes the experimenters and I appreciate how it plays ball with the found footage rulebook, creating an imaginative means for a video camera to be left for other people to find.

Unfortunately, it’s just the framing story rather than the feature and it’s when it’s combined with the rest of the stories that the internal consistency falls to pieces. How would the folk who share this footage find any of the footage from the other stories, especially when that footage was never left to be found, would need to be compiled from a variety of different sources (most of which would be technically impossible to acquire) and, in most instances, would have been carefully kept away from prying eyes? Even if, in some inexplicable scenario, they did manage to find all this disparate footage, they wouldn’t collate it together in this fashion anyway for reasons that I can’t go into because they would constitute spoilers. Let me just say that only the third of the stories has any real connection to the framing piece or, indeed, is viable for publishing to an audience. I did like one of the other two stories but given that its entire point is to have no business being in a found footage movie, it absolutely shouldn’t be here at all.
That’s The Hunters and the Hunted, the first segment, and it would work rather well as a standalone film as it’s a regular horror short with a twist which merely happens to be shot without conventional cameras. In fact, it would benefit from losing most of its jerky handheld camerawork to rely instead on a collection of cams. The only segments worthy of a handheld camera are the bookends, the first of which has David introducing his blindfolded wife to their new home, only to find that it may be haunted. It’s a neat choice of location with a really nice spiral staircase that I’d love to have in my house and the usual progression of supernatural events is handled well enough. They hear footsteps and stuff moves or falls over and we wonder why we’re watching something so clich├ęd but then David wakes up with a huge handprint on his back and we understand why they call in PIPP. That’s the Pacific Institute of Paranormal Phenomenon (sic) and they bring some welcome humour into the piece before we reach the twist.

It’s a good little movie, if it wasn’t stuck in this framework, with decent acting and some agreeably creepy shots of David and Karen’s dead daughter Ashen. Sadly it is stuck in this framework, where it should have never been put without a further twist on the twist to make it viable. The second short, Cam Girls, isn’t as strong and it makes even less sense for this framework. I’m all for a couple of lesbians doing a cam show and I’m all for one of them rebelling against a devout Christian upbringing. I’m especially for her thinking that she might be possessed as that opens up a realm of possibilities, but none of the rest makes a jot of sense. What sort of cam show gets run like a lottery? Come to think of it, what sort of cam show features girls who don’t get undressed? And why would Jerry not disconnect the moment Caitlin gets too freaky on him, especially as he doesn’t even get to see a pair of boobs for his troubles? Emilia Ares Zoryan is good as Caitlin but absolutely nothing here makes sense and I nearly threw my hands up in despair.
Fortunately, the third and final short, Amanda’s Revenge, returns to the initial concept introduced by the framing story, even if it takes its sweet time about it and adds additional weirdness that doesn’t fit at all. The Amanda of the title is a young lady who attends a party where she’s roofied by a couple of guys. The hosts save her from being raped, or at least I think they do, and they beat up the wannabe rapists, but it doesn’t register on Amanda who doesn’t remember a single thing. She appears traumatised anyway and we run through a whole slew of weirdness that doesn’t make any sense at all, but in the end, she returns to the house so her friends can watch her sleeping. While she wasn’t raped earlier, she now believes that she has been raped every night by night terrors and, to capture it, she has antique tech that doesn’t rely on electricity (a vinyl recording device from the 1920s and a 1950s film camera on a spring load). Finally we get somewhere with Brittany Underwood good as Amanda in Oculus territory, but it took its time!

In between each of these shorts, we return to the framing story of To Catch a Demon and wonder why it’s broken up into sections. As always, with this movie, it falls apart when we think about it. The whole point of found footage is that someone found some footage and showed it to us; how they choose to show it is reliant on what they found and what point they want to make and the point here is clearly that scientists have documented creatures that exist at a different speed to us. Oh yeah, that’s worth showing to us! So why do the unknown presenters think it it’s a good idea to break it up into sections? Why do they think it would be enhanced by the shenanigans of David and Karen or by what cam girls Caitlin and Sindy get up to? I see why they might include Amanda’s revenge on the sort of creatures the scientists explained, but how would they get that footage and why would they wait eight years to do so? I have precisely no idea and I’ve spent some time trying to figure it out.
To my mind, this ends up as nothing but a bunch of interesting ideas presented in a horrible fashion and with no thought to logic or purpose. The man behind the concept is Michael McQuown, who wrote all of it and directed each of the shorts; Vincent Guastini directed the wraparound To Catch a Demon segment. I wonder how he figured it would work. His ideas are good, with the exception of Cam Girls, which needs a lot more than a rewrite to render viable, but his execution doesn’t make any sense. Why name that story for something that the story itself says doesn’t exist? Why keep it brief and broken, when it has potential enough to be something substantial? Why add in unrelated and unrelatable stories to bulk up the running time to feature length instead of building it into a strong short? Why not release those shorts separately, especially The Hunters and the Hunted, which would stand much better on its own? I don’t understand in the slightest how this grew the way it did but I know that it’s a shame.

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