Monday, September 26, 2016

Scare-a-Con ’16: The Dark Tapes

The original Blair Witch ushered in the found footage phenomenon in 1999 and just when it looked like the sequel-reboot would finally kill off the sub-genre in 2016, an inventive anthology comes along to give it a new lease on life. Of course, the unspoken question surrounding found footage is how it was found. That will definitely be a cause for concern in the wrap-around segments of Michael McQuown’s The Dark Tapes (trailer here)—note the “To Catch a Demon” segment is directed by SFX artist Vincent J. Guastini, to make billing more complicated—which screens this Friday during the Scare-a-Con Film Festival.

In fact, Guastini’s “Demon” and McQuown’s framing sequences are actually part of the same overall narrative. As the film opens, some hipsters find some pretty darned dark tapes, or rather a video camera, outside a theater of some kind. It seems a physicist, his graduate advisee, and a camera guy were conducting sleep experiments hoping to document the existence of the demonic figures seen by those who experience so-called sleep paralysis. Needless to say, they are too successful. However, before their study collapses into bedlam, McQuown and Guastini give viewers some eerily convincing pseudo-science to explain the horrors we are about to see.

Despite its connection to the connective sequences, “Demon” is the second full segment that unspools in DT. The first is arguably the creepiest. In “The Hunters & the Hunted” an attractive young couple finds their new luxurious house in the Hollywood Hills is haunted by a malevolent entity. The distressed Karen and David duly enlist the help of a gung-ho ghost hunting team, but McQuown has a sinister surprise in store for them that will catch all but the most suspicious viewers completely flat-footed. As the new tenants, Shawn Lockie and Stephen Zimpel really make it work.

The third discrete narrative, “Cam Girls” is by far the weakest. Recorded entirely as skype and webcam sessions, much like the Swanberg installment of the original V/H/S, it shows us what a new web chat recruit and her lesbian lover do with and to their customers during her blackouts.

Happily, DT rebounds in a big way with the closer, “Amanda’s Revenge.” Much to her platonic best friend’s distress, the titular Amanda is rufied at their graduation party, but for her, it is not so unlike her regular experiences as an alien abductee. For some reason, she has taken her mother’s place a victim of choice. However, she intends to fight back in ways that circumvent their control over electronic devices. There have been too many poor to middling alien abduction films (looking at you Ejecta and Hanger 10), but Amanda’s cleverness and resiliency are enormously refreshing. Arguably, that makes two sub-genres redeemed by DT.

As a screenwriter, McQuown throws some wicked twists at viewers, while Guastini’s practical effects give them the old school, tactile feeling fans will appreciate. Evidently, there was some gold left to be mined from the found footage vein after all. Highly recommended for horror fans, The Dark Tapes screens this Friday (9/30), during Scare-a-Con at the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, New York.