THE DARK TAPES: Fresh Indie Found Footage

The Dark Tapes. 2017. Directed by Vincent J. Guastini & Michael McQuown. Screenplay by McQuown.
Starring Emilia Ares Zoryan, David Banks, Jonathan Biver, Sara Castro, Michael Cotter, Denise Faro, Brittany Fisheli, Jo Galloway, Aral Gribble, Shane Hartline, David Hull, Clint Keepin, Casey James Knight, Shawn Lockie, Matt Magnusson, Anna Rose Moore, Tessa Munro, Jake O’Connor, Cortney Palm, David Rountree, Katherine Shaw, Wayne River Sorrell, Meredith Thomas, Brittany Underwood, Julian von Nagel, Ryan Allan Young, & Stepehn Zimpel.
Thunder Road Incorporated.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
Dark Tapes 1Director Michael McQuown sent me a screener for his and co-director Vincent J. Guastini’s independent film, The Dark Tapes. I’d heard of it awhile, hearing plenty of good things. Not overhyped; hyped just enough. I’m always ready to dig in on a found footage flick, no matter how tired the sub-genre seems to get with so many low budget efforts being pumped out simply to get a director and some actors a credit to their names.
The Dark Tapes isn’t a perfect movie. There are a few missteps that could’ve been avoided to make the whole thing more effective, certain tapes in the lot aren’t as good as others. Often anthologies suffer from this fate. The lesser tapes are still good. There’s nothing bad here. Each tape, regardless of its setbacks, has an eerie quality to it respectively.
McQuown and Guastini use a meagre budget wisely, choosing to use effects sparingly and, for the most part, they work. This is one of their best moves, because they don’t set the bar too high yet clearly focused on staying creepy. There are standouts in the series of tapes, presented through the narrative of being proof of government conspiracy-type stuff, the truth the powers that be suppress and keep from the people – a couple deserve their own full-length treatments. Certain segments stand up with some of the best of the V/H/S series (no surprise considering Guastini is not only an effects guy, he did work on the third entry, Viral).
Dark Tapes 2My only beef, and I’ll get to this first before discussing what I enjoyed so much, is that the directing is mostly excellent. Then, they choose to show us too much. For the longest time what we only get glimpses of in frame is what drives the pulse-pounding terror. As you can see in the photo above, that’s a startling shot. Love that moment; freezing the frame only compounds the fear. However, the directors lose some of that momentum later when they choose to show this demonic figure up close for too long. They try offsetting this with the use of camera glitches (et cetera). But it never makes up for the undoing of the fright from seeing the creature long enough we can start picking out some of the less stellar aspects of its creation.
The rest of the tapes are presented with brief shots and bits that are framed properly so that the low budget qualities don’t glare. And honestly, it’s only the one main demon in the “To Catch a Demon” segments that comes off as cheesy, which is late in the game. Otherwise, in the “Amanda’s Revenge” tape, the creatures (or whatever you want to call them) look legitimately gnarly, in the best horror sense. Particularly in that tape, we get some wonderfully old school film shots, the rickety frame, catching a presence in the distance, and it’s so genuinely perfect for the type of eeriness for which this segments is aiming.
Dark Tapes 3The tapes have an overall framing narrative, though I think that while there’s a connection between the tapes as a whole, it isn’t as connective as the filmmakers might hope. Mostly, I don’t feel that the connections are tight enough. The writing is interesting, at every turn. I can’t help think McQuown could’ve brainstormed something better to make them all into the cohesive unit the beginning (and mid-credits) speech we hear wishes it’d become. If this were tighter then it would’ve greatly improved the film.
But the stories, they’re fresh. Even in the moments some of them don’t exactly work as intended, they’re innovative. I found “The Hunters and the Hunted” was my favourite because it caught me so off guard once the revelation came, until then I expected a run of the mill bit of paranormal shlock; a proper twist, if there ever were! Also enjoyed “Cam Girls” except the end devolved into a ham-fisted mess. Before that it was wildly creepy, the editing made it feel very kinetic and full of horrific energy; while it falls apart later with absolutely no subtlety and a ton of unnecessary exposition that could’ve been given to us through imagery earlier (a missed opportunity), this segment  was insane.
And “Cam Girls” has an underlying metaphor in it, about our porn-obsessed culture that involves men watching women through their screens performing, some thinking they’re falling in love just by watching. If only the plot of this segment were worked out better, it’d be a devastating short.
Dark Tapes 5For a low budget, non-studio film, The Dark Tapes has an impressive production value. This is one of the things that keeps even the lesser pieces involving, it’s better than the average indie found footage attempt. With so many of these sub-genre flicks saturating the market, incredibly easy to make on a shoestring to non-existent budget, it’s nice to see what’s so obviously a labour of horror love come to the screen from these directors.
Sure, not every segment is perfect. A couple are scary as hell. And like I’ve yammered on, even in those segments which don’t measure up there’s still things to pique your interest. If anything, the effort the team on this film put in is astounding. Kudos to them all, I certainly hope that McQuown and Guastini do more, whether it’s in found footage that’s up to them. Without a doubt they’ve got horror sensibilities.
The Dark Tapes, warts and all, is one of the better found footage movies I’ve seen as of late, running the gamut of horror, thriller, and science fiction with relative ease. Like Tales of HalloweenHolidaysV/H/S, and Southbound, this is an anthology worth dipping into for a fright.

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Chained: The Disturbingly Fascinating Tale of a Journeyman Killer & His Reluctant Apprentice

Chained. 2012. Directed by Jennifer Lynch. Screenplay by Damian O’Donnell & Lynch.
Starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Eamon Farren, Evan Bird, Julia Ormond, Conor Leslie, Jake Weber, Gina Philips, Daniel Maslany, Michael Maslany, & Alexander Doerksen. Envision Media Arts/RGB Productions.
Rated 18A. 94 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★★
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Jennifer Lynch has an even more grim style than her father, whose weirdness pervades each of his works. Her films focus on the macabre aspects of life in a more visceral way than the often existentially eerie style of his approach. With Surveillance, she gave us the story of a bunch of lives intersecting; two of those lives belonging to serial killers. In Chained there’s more serial killing – a cab-driving serial killer named Bob (Vincent D’Onofrio) – and more disturbing still is the fact he’s killed a woman then abducted her son, in order to make him into a slave, to serve and help him while he lives out a life of terror. Up front is the strong performance of D’Onofrio, paired with Eamon Farren who plays an older version of the boy Bob kidnapped. Their growing relationship is the centrepiece of the plot and what makes everything so disturbing, as the boy unwillingly becomes a greater part of Bob’s life and eventually finds himself at a crossroads: to choose getting free, somehow, or becoming an apprentice serial killer.
There’s an excellent, devilish twist which comes late in the game, and changes everything. Only to tumble us further down into the darkness. Such is the name of the game when Jennifer Lynch is at the helm. And that ending? There’s a savage wallop to its impact.
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One of the most chilling scenes to me is the drivers license moment. Bob and Rabbit (Farren) sit together, using the licenses like playing cards. They read the names, as the other must guess information about them. Of course they’re all victims, obviously. And that’s the chilliness. The way Bob gets excited to play, calling for “just one round” and his furthering excitement when Rabbit makes correct guesses; so unnerving.
There are a lot of creepy scenes. Like Bob trying to sleep on his bed, rolling around, remembering the ugly abuse and forced incest he was made to endure at the hands of his father.
Another part that bothered me, for whatever reason, was the one willing woman who walks into Bob’s house gets lured into a scary little room then dispatched casually, her throat slit. I thought there was something else about to happen, so that nasty patch of gore came as a great surprise. Can’t forget part of the finale, either. A few gruesome bits there, too.
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D’Onofrio is, hands down, one of the most underrated actors working in film today. People always tout his early work in Full Metal Jacket, then seem to ignore all the rest of his quality performances along the way. I mean, if it’s not obvious here, I’m not sure where else you can understand it. For instance, the quiet way he watches the man and his son in the backseat of his cab, flinching at the memories of abuse and incest coming back to him simultaneously, it is heavy. He makes you feel every last inch of those nightmares in his head. Plus, he’s physically imposing, not just due to his size. His commanding presence is part of what’s creepy, and terrifying during other moments. He never goes overboard, as some tend to do when they’re portraying someone as crazy as Bob. D’Onofrio teeters on the edge. He seethes. The frustration of this man, with himself and his predilections, with Rabbit, with the world, it’s so evident in how the character comes across. All without resorting to hammy acting. Say what you want about the rest of the film, he provides its entire worth on the performance alone.
There’s also Farren, as the older Rabbit still stuck chained to Bob both figuratively and literally. He makes us feel for the kid, as well as keeps the audience chained to his feeling of despair. Rabbit is lost, he’s scared, angry. There are a bunch of emotions inside him. The helplessness of the character is so tragic. Because you see the younger version, played by Evan Bird, whose resilience is undeniable. Gradually, he’s broken down. Once Farren takes over as Rabbit in his late teens, he is all but a dog on a leash. There’s a shot where he finds himself on the floor after a bit of rumble with Bob, he stares over the top of the dinner table at his captor; the emotion in his eyes, the stare of hatred locked deep in his heart. I can’t get over that one shot. Farren earns his keep alongside D’Onofrio with that scene, among others. I honestly can’t remember seeing this guy in anything else, but he’s definitely got talent.
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The way Lynch directs her film is beautifully dark. Even little moments like HELP across the cab door are kept secretive until characters discover it themselves. Certainly the twist is under wraps until the last 15 minutes, which explode across the screen in all their brutal glory. There’s a great feeling of a twist, yes. What works most for me is the way Lynch presents it, cutting from what we thought we’ve seen to what’s actually happened, then to what happens as a result of secrets uncovered. You’ll definitely be floored by what comes out in the end. A moment right before the credits has you wondering exactly who Rabbit will end up becoming after all he’s endured.
A 5-star horror experience for me. D’Onofrio and Farren are a powerful pair. They each have their own strengths: D’Onofrio is scary in a subtle way yet it’s always clear; Farren is a wounded animal who must discover a strength in himself that may or may not be there. Together they alternate you between fear, repulsion, empathy, disgust. Their performances take you to an uneasy emotional space. Proper show for an effective horror. Another reason why I think, for her few missteps, Jennifer Lynch is a great director to have around in the modern horror genre. This and The Cell make me also want more D’Onofrio in horror, he is downright menacing; if anything you’ll be attracted to his darkness.

Aja Serves Up Gore and High Blood Pressure with High Tension

High Tension. 2003. Directed by Alexandre Aja. Screenplay by Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur.
Starring Cécile De France, Maïwenn, Philippe Nahon, Franck Khalfoun, Andrei Finti, and Oana Pellea. Alexandre Films/EuropaCorp.
Rated R. 91 minutes.
Horror

★★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Lions Gate Films Home Entertainment DVD release)
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Right out of the gate, I’ll say it: I’m an unabashed, huge fan of Alexandre Aja as a director. While I don’t necessarily think he’s as good a writer as he is director, he’s still pretty good at writing when it comes to certain stuff. Honestly, his only writing-directing duel gigs I didn’t enjoy hugely were P2 (which he only wrote) and Mirrors (wrote/directed). Other than that, I am IN LOVE with this movie, I loved his screenplay work alongside Grégory Levasseur on his 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for the remake of Maniac.
But it’s High Tension I continually come back to, the one I always find myself putting on when I want something intense and gory with nice use of practical effects. It’s a fallback every time I can’t think of anything else to put on and I’m looking for a scary flick. A lot of people want to file this one away with a ton of similar films. Sure, the twist itself in Aja’s film is not original, it has been done before. Regardless of that, he does an incredible job taking something slightly familiar and crafting an entirely new, vicious beast. Just a little over 7 minutes in, there’s a moment you realize: this is not like the others. With a very gritty and vibrant look from the cinematography of Maxime Alexandre, High Tension is a modern horror masterpiece with a depraved serial killer, a bad ass female lead, and it announced to the world Alexandre Aja would attempt to carry on the torch of hardcore horror as best he could from the older Masters of Horror from which he learned the craft.
vlcsnap-2014-07-03-02h34m54s173.png~originalHigh Tension is the story of Marie (Cécile De France) and Alexia (Maïwenn), two friends from college heading back to Marie’s house in the country, out in the cornfields, to stay with her family a few days. Arriving late, Alexia’s father (Andrei Finti) welcomes them and they get settled in.
Later that night, Marie in the room at the top of the house witnesses a sadistic killer (Philippe Nahon) break in. First he kills the family dog, then murders the father; even Alexia’s little brother isn’t spared a savage fate at the end of a shotgun. Her mother (Oana Pellea) gets perhaps the worst of it all, while Marie hides in a closet and is forced to watch the woman bleed out in front of her after a slit throat and other injuries.
But when the killer takes Alexia hostage in his truck and is about to speed off into the night, Marie makes a quick and drastic decision to hop aboard in order to make sure her friend makes it out alive.
Beginning as they hit the road with the insane killer driving them to who knows where, Marie and Alexia experience a night of absolute terror and madness, coupled with constant murder.
High_Tension_30Okay, so to my surprise when I looked specifically to see who the special effects makeup artists was for High Tension, I discovered Giannetto De Rossi was the man responsible. And get this – his filmography is out of this world. To start, he worked on Once Upon a Time in the WestZombi 2The BeyondThe House by the CemeteryDune, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900, and Waterloo. So for the work Rossi did with Lucio Fulci alone, I can see why Aja probably sought him ought purposefully.
Because the effects here, the blood and gore and the nasty violence, it’s all classic already. Honestly, even if you don’t dig the movie overall, you can’t say the makeup effects are not well done. It’s ignorant to even say that because they’re brilliant. If you don’t like the plot, the story, fine – you just cannot deny Rossi’s work is incredible. It helps keep with the tone of Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography, which casts everything in this vibrant yet dark light. You get to see everything full on, there’s no shying away from the hardcore kills and violence, but it also fits with that darkness Alexandre sets up through use of the shadow and dark both in interior and exterior scenes. There’s nothing worse than when a horror film with lots of very noticeable makeup effects goes with something that visually sets itself off too much from the lighting and colour of the scene’s shots. In this way, Rossi’s work compliments that of Alexandre and his cinematography very effectively.
f7c559cf28d8f6a42a7c2bc85a0dd83c_largeThe GREATEST EFFECT, even amongst a ton of them, comes so early on when Alexia’s father gets his head cranked off. Some people have said it’s a silly effect, but I think it is incredible! It doesn’t matter to me if it’s totally realistic; the effect itself is so gnarly and amazing, it works beyond how well it should. I remember the first time I saw this, I actually blind bought the DVD years ago after hearing it was a good horror – that moment made my jaw drop and then I was on the edge of my seat, like “Bring it on, Aja!” What a solid horror effect. There are rarely awesome effects involving heads coming off, being blown up, et cetera, but this one is SPOT ON. Nailed it. The blood after the father’s head rips off is wild, too. A very surreal moment, compounded by the fact his wife comes out to see what’s happening not long after and sees him with his body still wedged between the staircase bars, blood EVERYWHERE. Vicious sequence I can’t get enough of, one that ought to go down in classic horror history as time passes.
There are a bunch more effects where that came from, this is merely my favourite of the bunch. Also, there’s the scene where Alexia’s mother has her throat cut savagely by the killer, filmed neatly through the closet as Marie watches between the wooden slits of the door. All around, that entire part is also very well executed and full of nasty, gory stuff. I was continually impressed with how great and realistic the effects looked. Too many moments to list.
clipboard026jeIt isn’t only in the effects department that High Tension succeeds with its horror. There’s a genuine air of tension and lots of suspense. At times, you’ll feel like your skin might start to crawl right up off your bones, as Marie creeps along trying to stay just out of the killer’s reach/eyesight. The first moment to really ratchet up the tension is when the killer stops at a gas station. The attendant, Jimmy (Franck Khalfoun), nervously talks with the killer and Marie, in the background, tries to sneak through the place without catching any attention. Great few moments then a BRUTAL KILL. Always nice to see a good axing in horror.
I think that whole sequence in the gas station is fairly suspenseful, start to finish. It’s similar to a classic slasher horror movie style bit, but Aja directs it well. The smooth and at the same time gritty cinematography of Maxime Alexandre looks marvellous with the dirty gas station bathroom; something about the way everything looks with all the white tiling against those green stall doors, a very raw and vibrant visual. Plus, the steady tight shots of Marie really draw you in. Then seeing mostly the killer’s back as he goes to each stall door, peeking in, sort of gives him a more ominous feeling; we’ve seen his face, but I like the way the camera in these moments sticks to rear shots, as it’s creepier that way.
121c522e23bcffc551a2c886b3eUndoubtedly, though, the most perfect and incredibly effective part about High Tension is its finale. In fact, the entire last 25 minutes is some of my favourite horror, period. The final showdown between Marie and the depraved, sadistic serial killer is beyond fantastic. First off, the makeup effects here just go above what most other slasher horrors achieve; the bits with the barbed wire – savage! I love every second of these scenes. Secondly, when the killer is running around with that big saw – looks like an industrial concrete saw or something – I think that will come to be an ICONIC, CLASSIC horror movie moment when people look back at it 20-30 years on. I truly think this movie in general will find itself that sort of status after a couple decades more pass. The finale cements it in that category.
WARNING: BIG TIME SPOILER AHEAD!
The twist is where High Tension seems to lose people/piss them off. Either you dig it, or you think it’s derivative and foolish. I love it because we’re basically seeing EVERYTHING from the perspective of Marie, that’s why so many things seem impossible if you try and look back at the whole plot and say “Well how did she do that if she was the killer?”. You can’t do that because Aja made everything look the way Marie would’ve been seeing it. Only once she starts to come to her senses and realize what has happened do we, the audience, get treated to her viewpoint, as well. And that is why I think Aja’s film is brilliant modern horror. Because with a familiar twist, he pulls people in and makes them believe everything is real. After the fact, it pisses some people off they were, essentially, fooled into believing Marie was the heroine. When what it is simply equates to good horror filmmaking. That’s just my opinion, but I love this finale so much, from the fight with the killer to those final moments where Marie reaches out towards Alexia who is standing behind two-way glass; very creepy, very cool.
haute_tension_011I’m giving Alexandre Aja’s High Tension full marks; 5 star horror movie. I can’t say any different. You can have your opinion, if it differs from mine, and that’s totally understandable. I get some people just won’t dig this, or they’ll have problems with the supposed movie logic, or whatever the case may be. However, I think this is one of the best savage horror flicks out there, certainly of the last 15 years or so. Aja revealed himself to the world with this nasty feature and as I said earlier I’m sure this will go down as a New French Extremity classic.
The DVD is a pretty awesome bit of work in its own right. There’s a few good hours worth of extras and Special Features included here on the Lions Gate release, which includes my favourite: a spotlight on Giannetto De Rossi’s special makeup effects for the film. He is an incredible artists at work. The featurette is only about 7-8 minutes long, but long enough to get a sense of how much work went into the effects they pulled off. Watching a man Rossi’s age on set with blood all over him, enjoying his work, it is ridiculously enjoyable. It’s so great to see someone still enjoying what they do after all those years. As Aja points out, having him onboard was a way to truly bring this film back to the spirit of the 1970s horror movies from which Aja draws influence.
The Making-Of featurette is all around a good deal of fun. It’s around 25 minutes long and there’s a look at just about every little aspect of the film, accompanied by both Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur giving insight into the entire process. I think they make a good team, which is clear by how they discuss their techniques working with one another, but merely by listening to how each of them talks about different aspects of the film it’s obvious how they came together and made something incredibly horrific like High Tension.
Pag9ui7If you’re ever looking for a bit of shock, some gore and tons of blood, plus an interesting film with a FUN twist and a kick ass lead female performance, then look no further: High Tension has got what you’ve been looking for, friend. See it soon and enjoy all its horrific pleasures. The DVD is an added bit of enjoyment if you’re a fan; I certainly would suggest you pick this up for your collection.
Aja is a gifted talent and though some say otherwise, I think he’s one of the few new, younger horror filmmakers out there with both balls and an old school moviemaking sensibility about him.