The Dark Tapes is writer, director and editor Michael McQuown's attempt a sub-genre so rarely mastered in Hollywood but is seen in increasing prominence since the Paranormal Activity franchise shook audiences to their core (although is seemingly doing so with decreasing effect). His independent, award-winning anthology horror film, in which one story plays out, intercut by a further three tales all featuring a distinct usage of technology (and thus subverting the idea of 'found footage' with more contemporary quirks included), is an effective horror, appropriately tense and surprisingly sophisticated - but its high-concept is also one of the most noticeable flaws.
Split into four stories, 'To Catch A Demon', 'The Hunters and The Hunted', 'Cam Girls' and 'Amanda's Revenge', the high-concept, low-budget The Dark Tapes features these unconnected stories united only by some smart, noteworthy technicalities from McQuown - such as repeated imagery and flashes of different stories breaking through in places they don't belong - managing to forge a genuine uncertainty and intensity that pervades the picture, firmly planting audiences on the very edge of their seats on numerous occasions. However, as with the likes of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story anthology television series - which arguably re-invigorated the idea of the anthology - some ideas work a lot better than others, with The Dark Tapes varying greatly in this way and fraught with an inconsistency in narrative quality.
Nominated for 61 awards across 30 festivals, it becomes transparent very early on that as a found-footage horror, The Dark Tapes really succeeds, excelling in offering genuine jump scares and crafting an atmosphere that becomes almost unshakeable as we venture on into the dark tales. The Hunters and The Hunted is a honest to goodness thrill ride, beginning as your more conventional supernatural found-footage horror film before a bait-and-switch that feels entirely earned and shocking in equal measures. When their new house appears haunted by their past demons, a couple contact local ghost hunters to help contact the beings. It smartly dots its i's and crosses its t's in terms of expectations but becomes more and more destabilised as it progresses; characters are fleshed out even in such a small amount of time and their exists an authentic, horrific tone that conjures the better days of the Sinster franchise tonally. Realistic performances and careful boundary-pushing (without resorting in excess or unnecessary gore) ensures The Hunters and The Hunted works an absolute treat, with horror enthusiasts of all experiences likely to enjoy the work in this one; it would really benefit from a longer run-time to chew on or even a feature-length remake - which would work tremendously well on the big screen and with a willing audience in tow.
Cam Girls is another solid tape in the anthology, utilising the modern invention of webcams to deliver the scares this time, taking its IP and running with it for the third chapter in the story; based around two girls hosting a cam show for a lucky viewer, the sharp, effective editing is what sets this apart from the rest, continually jarring audiences with impressive visuals and the contemporary spin of the premise, offering something wholly original and unique. Once again, the performances are terrific and visceral, disconcerting in their unusualness and refusal to play it straight down the line. It would be very easy to dismiss the 'direction' with films of the sub-genre, yet McQuown understands just how long to keep the camera lingering, just when to cut away and restrict what's on display and just how and when to deliver the promised thrills and chills, positive when he's behind the camera and during the post-production process. His script is great too, conjuring a realistic dialogue that understands when to dial back the language and ramp up the atmosphere instead, letting the imagery and tone do a lot of the heavy-lifting.
To Catch A Demon - the main body of the film - is decent enough and contains more interesting and complex ideas than your average horror turn, but they aren't always delivered as clearly as hoped, disrupted with the pacing and structure of the piece. The acting is still certain and this chapter in particular is great at using the darkness and sub-genre tropes to craft a response effectively though. Amanda's Revenge is probably the poorest story of the anthology, never quite realising what it wants to say and unsure on how to deliver it; anthologies cannot help but inadvertently highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the overall collection simply by their structure and pace, so its unfortunate that The Dark Tapes ends with its weakest of the bunch, somewhat souring an otherwise successful run of stories. Still, don't let that put you off, as the excellent thing about this film is the range of stories it tells, all playing with different angles of the sub-genre efficiently. The set-up and concept keeps things moving and you are almost continually engaged with all that unfolds.
On the whole, The Dark Tapes is a solid horror and an even more assured found-footage horror, delivering one of the most sophisticated and well-crafted instalments in the infamously rocky sub-genre. Brimming with suspense, the cinematic approach to the thrills and chills make for an absorbing watch in which the highs greatly outnumber the lows. As someone who would rarely pick a horror film outright (mainly because the genre's failures seems to outnumber its successes), The Dark Tapes is a searing example of horror done right. It's not without its flaws but we shouldn't expect it to be either: its an assured effort from the first-time creator McQuown and its glaringly obvious that a lot of time and effort has been placed into the project by the entire crew. It's a promising instalment that could kick start a new horror franchise - and, with rumours of a sequel already in pre-production - I'm already prepared for the next chapter of The Dark Tapes.
Summary: The Dark Tapes is one of the stronger found-footage horror films in recent memory, confidently utilising its anthology-structure to deliver bite-sized scares and thrills, anchored by some stories more so than others.
Highlight: My jaw hit the ground with that twist
The Dark Tapes is released on April 18th in the US and can now be pre-ordered on iTunes. It will also be available on Google Play, Vudu, iNDemand, Dish TV, Amazon, Vubiquity, Xbox, Playstation, Sling TV & Vimeo in time for its release.
A UK and Europe pre-order date is tentatively scheduled for April - but don't worry, I'll keep you updated as soon as it is available.