Indie horror anthologies are enjoying a moment of popularity, and with good reason: there’s something for everyone. The segments, like short stories, are bite-sized tales loaded with maximum storytelling. As long as there is a sense of thematic or tonal continuity, the film entire remains cohesive and overall satisfactory. Such is the case with Michael McQuown and Vincent Guastini’s The Dark Tapes, a 2017 found footage genre-straddler presenting four interwoven tales in a single ambitious collection. McQuown’s original screenplay explores the intersection of the paranormal and the rational everyday with an emphasis on scientific framing for everything that occurs.
The film begins with “To Catch A Demon”, an overarching four-part narrative that bookends and plays out between the three subsequent segments. Physics professor Sam (David Banks), his assistant Nicole (Cortney Palm), and amateur filmmaker Jason (Matt Magnusson) set up shop in a theater to conduct and record a series of experiments in an effort to capture imagery of a demon. Sam operates under a two-part hypothesis: that those suffering from night terrors (of which he is one) are actually encountering malevolent “transdimensional entities”, and that, with the proper time-sensitive equipment, images of these entities can be captured if we tune into their dramatically slower dimension. He has conditioned himself to fall asleep quickly, and acts as a sleepy human guinea pig under the watchful eye of super slo-mo cameras. What seems at first to be a pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo explanation for straight-up demons turns out to be Lovecraftian mythos that mortal science can barely quantify, let alone manipulate. Boasting an impressive display of practical effects and an eerie, circular ending, the highly innovative “To Catch A Demon” acts as a darker sister sequence to the “Little Girl Lost” episode of the original Twilight Zone series.
The anthology moves along with “The Hunters & The Hunted”, a classic haunted house tale that follows a fresh-faced couple (Brittany Underwood and Casey James Knight) moving into a new home together. As they settle in, strange things begin to happen: footsteps plod back and forth across their ceiling, and an odd magnetic-like force sets up shop in the downstairs hallway. Eventually, the disturbances become unbearable and the couple brings in a paranormal investigation team to clear the house. The most striking feature of this segment is its display of restraint with regard to atmosphere. While sudden bumps in the night do occur, several of the story’s scariest moments are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it images. McQuown wrote “The Hunters & The Hunted” in the vein of Paranormal Activity, but with a far more clever, subversive ending.
After catching up with the demonic shenanigans of “To Catch A Demon”, The Dark Tapes continues with “Cam Girls.” Caitlin (Emilia Ares Zoryan), a rebellious young woman striving to get away from her squeaky-clean home life, moves out of her hometown and becomes a cam girl, making money through late-night adult performances online. In the course of a video chat with an old friend and medial student Eric (Shane Hartline), Caitlin complains that she’s been suffering from blackouts and a lack of focus, the cause of which is revealed in a shocking, bloody conclusion. What “Cam Girls” lacks in moments of terror, it makes up for in dread-building and strong actors. Though onscreen for only 12 minutes, Aral Gribble steals the show with a heartfelt performance as Gerry, the most innocent cam show customer in the history of the per-per-view trade.
The final core vignette (though the movie continues after the segment’s conclusion) is “Amanda’s Revenge”, a potboiler about a young woman who is out for vengeance after being violated and victimized. Like the other stories in The Dark Tapes, “Amanda’s Revenge” attempts to ground the horror of the supernatural with the scientific method. Even when a rational explanation for strange occurrences can’t be found, the main players employ logic and reason in their efforts put an end to the mayhem. “Amanda’s Revenge” takes a long time to get off the ground following Amanda’s assault, and doesn’t offer much by way of character arcs or tension-building to make up for it. While the ending is a pulse-pounding one, the segment takes its sweet time getting there, making it the darkest tape with the mildest bite.
Guastini and McQuown worked within a micro-budget and minimal locations, and still managed to maximize storytelling potential to the point that even the weakest segment was simply the least memorable one. With a stellar cast of unknowns and an ambitious use of practical effects, The Dark Tapes is a solid addition to horror anthology fare, and proof-positive that no subgenre is dead so long as creative minds have the freedom to explore its limits. The film has enjoyed overwhelming success on the festival circuit, and as of the time of this printing, has won or been nominated for at least 60 awards, including a Rondo Award for “Best Independent Feature”. As such, pre-production for a sequel is already brewing. After witnessing such a bold, utilitarian entry into the horror anthology arena, it’ll be exiting to see what comes next from McQuown.