“The Dark Tapes” is a found footage horror movie anthology written by Michael McQuown and directed by Michael McQuown and Vincent J Guastini (segment: “To Catch a Demon”). Using found footage as a vehicle and told through the lens of four short stories, The Dark Tapes follows four groups of people in different walks of life that face their inner demons, both metaphorically and literally. In a genre that’s besieged with literal “what you see, is what you get” plots, The Dark Tapes is a breath of fresh air, offering intelligent and innovative storytelling, solid acting, well-placed jump scares, and plenty of plot twists.
The Dark Tapes is of the same vein as the popular V/H/S series, but with a decidedly smaller scope and more intimate feel. What the film lacks in size is more than made up for in its creative and tightly woven plot threads. Similar to the V/H/S series, The Dark Tapes has a wrap-around story that is divided into segments that are presented between each short story. Each of the short stories (including the wraparound story) share the related themes of demonic activity, the paranormal, and pure terror.
Review Notes—Update [11/20/2016]
Now that we’ve had a chance to review the final version of The Dark Tapes, we dare say that this amazing film is now even better!
The Dark Tapes screener originally reviewed by Found Footage Critic during June 2016 was a pre-release version of the film that was still in production, with outstanding color correction and sound and visual effects that need to be completed. Our original rating of 9.5 for The Dark Tapes was based on the original screener, while also taking into consideration elements of the film that director Michael McQuown specifically indicated are still under development.
We recently received a final version of The Dark Tapes with completed special effects, refined sound and color corrections, and tighter editing. Now that we’ve had a chance to review the final version of The Dark Tapes, we dare say that this amazing film is now even better! Through screen testing and tireless work, Michael McQuown effectively teased out the few weak spots in the film, and the result is a found footage masterpiece.
Our regular readers should take note that given the anthology approach of this film, we will depart from our standard review format in favor of taking a closer look at each short story separately.
To Catch a Demon – Wraparound Story
To Catch a Demon, directed by Vincent J. Guastini, is the wraparound story that ties together all of the short stories presented in The Dark Tapes, and is divided into chapters that are distributed throughout the film. The story opens with Sam (David Banks) and Marie (Sara Castro) standing outside a building where they find a still-recording handheld video camera sitting on a bench. Shortly thereafter, they enter the building and find a cache of scientific equipment in disarray. All the while the duo are filmed from a series of fixed surveillance cameras both outside and inside the building. Among the scientific equipment, Sam finds a video camera with footage of what was recorded the previous day. From here, the wraparound story transitions to the footage of the events from the preceding day. On its face, this opening scene may come across as uneventful, but by the end of the film, the wraparound story comes full circle and this opening scene takes on an entirely different meaning.
The crux of the wraparound story centers on doctoral student Nicole (Cortney Palm) and professor of applied physics Martin (David Rountree) who are conducting an experiment to prove the existence of trans-dimensional beings that can only be seen by people while they are in a dream state (REM sleep). The team hypothesizes that night terrors are real events where people who are dreaming can catch brief glimpses of these beings (commonly thought of as demons) before awakening. Filming the experiment is cinematographer Jason (Matt Magnusson), who is equipped with a modified video camera that records in super slow motion. Nicole hopes that the new camera will capture proof of these beings while a test subject is in a state of REM sleep. The experiment takes a series of twists and turns as the team uncovers a horrific truth that transcends their worst nightmares.
The tight editing and seamless visual effects during the climactic ending of the film elevate this near perfect narrative to new heights.
Cortney Palm is the standout star in To Catch a Demon, performing wonderfully as the analytically-minded doctoral student. David Rountree is convincing as the lead professor who is obsessed with his research and hellbent on proving his hypotheses. Finally, Matt Magnusson performs admirably as the cinematographer who quickly finds himself out of his element as the experiment enters unexpected and unexplained territory. The found footage cinematography is equally as impressive as the acting, and is comprised as a combination of surveillance cameras and handheld video cameras. The wraparound story also contains a good amount of practical effects by industry veteran Vincent J. Guastini and CGI effects which blend nicely with the found footage approach of the film.
The plot and writing of To Catch a Demon are exceptional, and the concept behind the short story is thought provoking, especially the pseudo-science driving the plausibility of the experiment. Although a far stretch from reality, the pseudo-science is setup in a manner that is logical enough for viewers to briefly forget that what they are watching is pure fiction.
Michael McQuown should be applauded for developing a wraparound story that is an intriguing standalone story in its own right, while also integrating key plot elements that feed into the adjoining short stories throughout the anthology. As mentioned earlier, the ending of the wraparound story (and the film) has an unforgettable plot twist that ties directly back to the opening scene of the film, which is certain to play out as a mind-bending experience for many viewers.
Update [11/20/2016]: To Catch a Demon is one of the beneficiaries of the updated special effects and editing in the final version of the film we reviewed. The tight editing and seamless visual effects during the climactic ending of the film elevate this near perfect narrative to new heights. Of all of The Dark Tapes segments, To Catch a Demon is the one that most closely hearkens back to the classic 1963 series, The Outer Limits—the visuals, pseudo-science story, and tone of To Catch a Demon would feel home in a modern incarnation of the series.
The Hunters and the Hunted
The Hunters and the Hunted follows a happy young couple moving into their new home. To capture this momentous occasion, David (Stephen Zimpel) films the reaction of his wife Karen (Shawn Lockie) as she sets eyes on their new home for the first time. As the couple settles in, they start to hear strange noises and bear witness to objects that seem to move on their own accord. Similar to Paranormal Activity (2007), the couple decides to film everything that transpires in an effort to capture proof of these strange phenomena.
As the disturbances intensify, the couple call in the help of a professional ghost hunting team consisting of lead investigator Susan (Jo Galloway), director Cameron (Clint Keepin), and technician Geoff (Jonathan Biver). Shortly after the investigation gets underway, the ghost hunters realize that they are in over their heads as the situation they’ve entered into escalates to unfathomably horrific proportions.
As the first short story in the anthology, The Hunters and the Hunted succeeds in setting an eerie and unsettling tone that carries through the entire film. Stephen Zimpel and Shawn Lockie are well cast as the love-struck couple who are unwitting victims of paranormal activity. The camerawork during the early scenes with the couple is exceptionally well done, particularly the cuts between scenes where the handheld video camera is often abruptly shut off while the characters are in mid-sentence, further adding to the found footage realism of the film.
The Hunters and the Hunted is sure to be a fan-favorite.
Jo Galloway performs wonderfully as the stereotypical lead investigator one would expect to see on a reality-based ghost hunters television show, her British accent further accentuating her character’s on-screen presence. Clint Keepin and Jonathan Biver are believable in their respective roles as the investigative crew. The found footage presented during the latter half of The Hunters and the Hunted is captured with a combination of fixed surveillance cameras and handheld video cameras. The video cameras used during these later scenes utilize night vision and “full spectrum” mode, specifically designed to capture paranormal activity. Since the fixed surveillance cameras are always recording, everything in the latter half of the story is captured in vivid detail.
Of particular note is the use of video and audio artifacts recorded to video preceding each impending paranormal event. This small nuance effectively raises the level of anticipation and tension without the need to add background music or sound design, which is often responsible for compromising the found footage conceit of many films. While the cinematography feels like a distant cousin to Paranormal Activity (2007), the story and subject matter (at least for the first two-thirds o the story) feels decidedly like Poltergeist (1982).
Update [11/20/2016]: The audio in The Hunters and the Hunted has undergone refinement, resulting in a much more realistic and visceral narrative. With the combination of phenomenal acting and foreboding atmosphere in this segment, The Hunters and the Hunted is sure to be a fan-favorite.
Cam Girls centers on a young woman, Caitlin (Emilia Ares Zoryan), who moves into an apartment with her new girlfriend, Sindy (Anna Rose Moore). We learn through conversation that Sindy (yes, “Sindy” with an “S”) recruited Caitlin to join her erotic online live video chat service, where the couple engages visitors through group and private video chat sessions. All the while, Caitlin mysteriously suffers from frequent memory blackouts that started ever since moving in with Sindy, Concerned for her health, Caitlin contacts her medical student friend Eric (Share Harline), who is also confounded by her condition.
Cam Girls is filmed entirely via recorded online video chat sessions – and when one of Caitlin’s evening erotic online web sessions is played back, we (the audience) are privy to the terrifying and disturbing events that actually took place during one of her memory blackouts.
Emilia Ares Zoryan performs convincingly as the happy-go-lucky Caitlin, who artfully portrays her more conservative side when speaking with her friend Erik, with whom she clearly respects and values her platonic relationship. Share Harline has great synergy with Emilia Ares Zoryan, believably portraying the long term friend of Caitlin who has a not-so-secret crush on her. Anna Rose Moore effectively plays the manipulative girlfriend of Caitlin, who has other motives that reveal themselves as Cam Girls runs its course. Finally, Aral Gribble is exceptional as the lust-struck and equally naive video chat session customer, Gerry.
As mentioned earlier, the found footage in Cam Girls is captured entirely from video chat sessions. Interlaced within the live video chat sessions are random brief video clips which seem to reveal each of the character’s secret inhibitions. These video clips often appear when neither character is looking at their computer monitor, but in some instances, the characters do catch a brief glimpse of the strange video artifacts and look truly confused by what they just witnessed. The genesis of these video artifacts plays beautifully as a transition into the main plot thread of Cam Girls.
Amanda’s Revenge follows a woman, aptly named Amanda (Brittany Underwood), who is experiencing nightly abductions of an unknown origin. Each morning Amanda wakes up with only a vague and fleeting recollection that something bad happened to her the previous night. Not only have the attacks on Amanda taken an emotional toll, but they also changed Amanda, giving her strange abilities that she cannot explain.
All of Amanda’s attempts to stop the abductions are thwarted and all efforts to record her attackers on video also fail. At her wits end, and after much thought and planning, Amanda finally has a plan to exact revenge on her abductors and discover the truth behind the night terrors. With the help of her friend Ryan (Jake O’Conner), Amanda sets her plan in motion – what Amanda discovers is both shocking and terrifying, and will change her life forever.
Amanda’s Revenge contains some of the most unique cinematography and sound to ever grace a found footage film. Since her abductors are apparently able to disable any electronic recording equipment, Amanda captures footage with a 1950s era 8mm spring-driven wind-up camera, which her abductors apparently cannot detect during their nightly visits. To capture sound, Amanda sets up a 1920s Victor Talking Machine phonograph replica, which is spring loaded and records sound using a wax record.
In addition to the retro recording equipment, Amanda’s Revenge also makes use of handheld video cameras and web cameras to capture all of the supporting footage leading up to Amanda’s final showdown with her nocturnal attackers. Amanda’s Revenge contains a good amount of practical effects (by Vincent J. Guastini) and CGI effects which are used sparingly and intelligently during Amanda’s abduction sequences and demonstrations of her new-found abilities.
Brittany Underwood’s acting is exceptional as the emotionally and physically drained Amanda, who will stop at nothing to regain her freedom. Jake O’Conner performs well as the dedicated friend who provides unwavering emotional support during this trying period in Amanda’s life.
Update [11/20/2016]: Amanda’s Revenge, an already awesome segment with exceptional acting, plays out even better in the new version of The Dark Tapes that we reviewed. The new version of the film that we reviewed includes new visual effects and tighter editing during the climactic scene in the segment. Adding to our first review, Brittany Underwood’s energy is truly amazing and we can’t wait to see more of her in this genre.
The Dark Tapes is a film that belongs on every horror fan’s watch list!
The found footage genre was long overdue for a new anthology, and with the arrival of The Dark Tapes, that wait is now over. Director Michael McQuown’s innovative and thoughtful storytelling, exceptional casting, and near perfect found footage cinematography have resulted in a film that is a welcome addition to the found footage genre. We hope that The Dark Tapes is the first of many found footage films to come from the creative mind of Michael McQuown.
Update [11/20/2016]: When we received the final version of The Dark Tapes for review, we couldn’t fathom how the film could have possibly improved any further, but to our dismay, the film did just that. The art of cinematography is a funny thing—very subtle changes in editing, timing, and visuals that may seem trivial to the layperson can completely transform a film. This is precisely the effect the few yet poignant changes had on The Dark Tapes. In closing, The Dark Tapes is a brilliant mashup of modern horror elements with the classic storytelling of The Outer Limits (1963) and The Twilight Zone (1955)—The Dark Tapes is a film that belongs on every horror fan’s watch list!