Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Tapes: Shit Happened

I've given found-footage movies a lot of thought. At their best, they can be among some of the most effective horror movies out there because they take advantage of our tendency to see amateur footage as more "real", and eschew a lot of the cinematic cues we've come to associate with horror over decades of moviegoing. However, for this very reason, they're more demanding to make well - people have to act and sound more natural than they would in a conventional film, there are constraints on how you can tell the story through cinematography, you have make allowances for the idea that someone is always filming without stretching plausibility. They may seem easier because you don't need pro-grade cameras and lighting and all of that, but that just means you have to be really good at everything else, or every single mistake will show through. Few things look more stupid and cheap than obviously artificial stabs at naturalism.

Very stupid, very cheap case in point: The Tapes.

First red flag? The opening title card. A black screen fades up to a message in that sloppy-typewriter typeface that's supposed to convey grittiness. The message? "the footage [we] are about to see…is real." No it fucking isn't. Telling us that it is (with a musical sting in case we missed the point) just calls attention to the artifice inherent in a found-footage movie. "11th February 2008: Police find several video tapes at scene of brutal crime [sic]." Oooooh, spooky! There's more in this vein about how the parents of the victims are letting you, the public, see…THE TAPES, but at this point, who cares? It's a stab at reproducing the opening of The Blair Witch Project, but the first reason it worked in the latter's case is that it just presented us with a premise - these students went missing while making a documentary, and now their footage has been found. It suggests authenticity (since what we're going to be watching is documentary footage direct from the source) without calling attention to the suspension of disbelief that accompanies watching a horror movie. It's a nice little bit of sleight-of-hand that lets us forget that we're just watching a movie. On the other hand, opening by saying HEY GUYS THIS IS TOTALLY REAL OKAY? immediately calls attention to the fact that yes, we're just watching a movie.

The second reason the Blair Witch title card worked was because it left open exactly what happened or what we were going to see. There was a mysterious disappearance and hey, the footage might tell us something. So when weird shit happened and bad situations got worse, there was tension and fear and horror because we weren't sure where it was all going to end up, we just knew it was going to be bad. The Tapes tells us that the footage was found at "scene of brutal crime," so there's already some indication of what happened. However, not content with any sort of ambiguity, the introduction (and sporadically throughout the beginning of the first act) intersperses fake talking-head footage with parents, siblings, and police. The parents don't say anything because they break down at the first question they get, the sibling mumbles something about how it's been two years and nobody knows anything, and the policeman is kind enough to tell us that they think "cult activity" might have been involved.

So before pretty much anything else gets started, we know that we're going to be seeing TOTALLY REAL NOT KIDDING THIS HAPPENED footage of a "brutal crime" that involves a cult. So pretty much any opportunity for surprise, uncertainty, ambiguity, you know, things that are scary? Yeah, that shit gets pitched out the window before anything's really even happened.

(Not only are there no real surprises left, then, but given the way the movie ends, it makes the policeman's statement look more witless than anything else - given what we see over the course of the movie, footage this cop has presumably seen, the only logical response to "it might be cult-related" is "oh, you think?")

So what happens? Well, we're basically watching a bunch of home-video footage of Gemma, Danny, and Nathan. They're nominally trying to shoot Gemma's audition tape for the reality show Big Brother. They're doing this because Gemma's entire plan for her future is to be rich and famous. Famous for what? For being famous. She's going to have a line of shoes, perfumes, her own show, all starting with her appearance on a reality TV show. She aspires to be the lowest form of celebrity, and her boyfriend, Danny, is more than happy to encourage her when he's not zooming in on her tits or acting like he knows anything about show business. He's a posturing blowhard. Their friend Nathan is along because the camera is his. Nathan doesn't fare as poorly as the other two at first, but he's also given less to do at first. Basically they're driving around dreary seaside England trying to find places to shoot Gemma when they aren't busy getting into snowball fights or answering their cellphones while the camera is running. They're immediately unlikable.

In the course of their afternoon out, they end up at a pub where one of the locals gives them grief about running their camera inside. Danny has a lot to say about what he was just about to do the guy - you know, if he's said one more thing, oh, the ass-beating he would have gotten, he didn't know how close he was to getting it, shit like that - but one of the waitresses tells them not to mind, he lived up at a nearby farm and was kind of a jerk, and oh you know what? He hosts swinger's parties up at his farm. Our protagonists are suitably skeeved out and go home…

…only Danny decides that he and Nathan should drive up to the farm with video cameras and surreptitiously tape the promised orgy and sell it as a DVD for money. So Danny gets Nathan out of bed so they can do this thing - Danny's even brought along his own shitty camera to supplement Nathan's - and although it would be far easier if it had been just the two of them, Danny decides to bring Gemma along for…reasons? He tells her they're going to make it part of her audition tape. Which, for a reality show? I'm pretty sure that "hi, I'm here videotaping a bunch of lumpy middle-aged people having group sex without their consent" isn't going to get you anything more than a shitload of legal trouble, but it's pretty much a fifty-fifty split at this point between this being a contrivance bent to near-breaking just to get the protagonists out and into harm's way and it being the genuine thought process of three deeply stupid people.

So the three people we already know are going to meet a specific bad end at the hands of a cult traipse out to a shitty, dilapidated farm, and wait for the farmer to leave.  Once he leaves, they find themselves a good hiding place in preparation for the orgy they assume will be taking place that night, (though none of the information they got at the pub included dates and times), and…no, I'm just kidding, they tear through the property, even though they don't know if there's anyone else beside the farmer living there. They break into buildings where they can conveniently discover tarot cards scattered around, mysterious symbols spray-painted on walls, bondage gear, all of the sort of things that might stand a chance of eliciting a sliver of unease in the audience if we weren't primed to anticipate exactly this from the beginning. They throw shit around, run outside and have more snowball fights, play soccer with a ball that they've find, and generally make themselves as noisy and disruptive as you shouldn't be when you're in the middle of breaking into private property.

But again, I'm torn, because it's exactly the sort of idiotic behavior you'd expect from people with no idea of how much danger they're in. These are exactly the sort of people who, in life, meet bad ends. I'm not a big fan of the idea that people in horror movies should be faulted for not behaving rationally - Monday-morning quarterbacking at its worst - but it's egregious here. They don't know who else is there or when the owner is coming back and don't seem to care. Once people do come back, they don't really stop arguing or goofing off - they should be scared shitless, at the very least of getting caught, and instead they're bitching at each other over things like sharing sandwiches - and for fuck's sake, they're in the middle of hiding in a shed from the weirdos who live on this farm and take the time to try and have a sandwich?

These are seriously the most inept protagonists I've seen outside of slasher-movie parodies. Not just slasher movies, slasher-movie parodies. You're not worried or anxious over the thought of them getting caught and tortured or killed (partially because we already sort of know something bad happens to them) because they're so bad at self-preservation that their capture and eventual horrible fates are as inevitable as the death of someone who decides to walk in front of a bus or check to see whether a gun is loaded or not by pointing it at their face and pulling the trigger.

It's a short movie, and all but the last 20 or 30 minutes is these three farting around until someone does something stupid and gets caught. Because of course they're going to get caught. They have to get caught, first because they're idiots, and second because the narrative demands it. You could make the argument that they're idiots because the movie demands it. Then bad things happen to all of them, the bad things we saw coming from the opening title card. Because yes, the farm is a meeting place for cultists, and of course they're going to do bad stuff to the protagonists once the protagonists get caught because it's not a horror movie if bad things don't happen to these people. When the bad guys arrive, it is in minivans, without fanfare, and without any sense of menace or unease. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we're never given a reason to fear these people, and you sort of get the impression that if these three hadn't been there, nobody would have gotten hurt. Which, as evil cults go, makes them a bit crap as well.

The whole thing feels like an exercise in working back from an inevitable conclusion and rigging up decisions and events that justify the conclusion, not the organic outcome of a series of decisions made by autonomous agents. There's no connection, no sympathy, just a sense of "what the fuck did you think was going to happen?" That this occurs in an ostensibly realist setting just makes it that much clearer how comprehensively flawed the whole production is. In conventional horror films, that it's just a movie is beside the point. In a found-footage horror movie, being aware that it's just a movie collapses the whole enterprise.

Ultimately, what we're left with is lots of aimless footage of a shitty, dilapidated farm, interspersed with single-frame shots of things that I guess are supposed to be subliminal attempts to scare us or make us feel uneasy, but instead just call more attention to how artificial the whole thing is. There's no tension, no moment of revelation that communicates how much danger the three are in, just some dudes show up, some things happen, and then some bad things happen. Even the movie's one shot at redemption - a final shot that doesn't rely on the camera getting knocked to the ground - is bungled by the actor's delivery and lousy writing. You can't understand half of what they're saying because they confuse terror with incoherence, and what you can hear is so trite that it doesn't matter. Everything that happens feels profoundly unnecessary. This movie could have never been made, and the world would be no poorer for it.

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Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix

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