09, November 2011
Directors: Lee Alliston, Scott Bates - Runtime: 80 mins
Review by Bill Harrington
The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project cast long shadows over this British “found footage” film from writer/ director Scott Bates and director Lee Alliston (a veteran of various roles in the film trade, this his first as director). Neither as ambitious as the former or well-crafted as the latter, it nonetheless does well within its tight budget to hold some interest, even for the audience that's seen it all before.
The Tapes certainly holds the record for the shortest amount of time it took for me to take a dislike to a group of characters. They are all heard but unseen with the opening seconds, and that's simply as long as it took. Gemma (Natasha Sparkes) desperately wants to appear on Big Brother. She enlists her boyfriend Dan (Jason Maza), and his friend Nathan (Arnold Oceng), to film her audition tape, somewhere in a snowy Whitstable landscape. They record several unsuccessful attempts, along with some near constant bickering, before retreating to a pub. The barmaid here all too willingly gossips about a local swingers group operating out in the Kent wilderness. Sensing an opportunity for a brief, lucrative career in amateur porn, the group guilelessly set off to find evidence of the swingers party. What they encounter in fact is more sinister than any amount of pot bellied, middle-aged men merely wife-swapping, if only just.
Watching The Tapes it’s possible to tick off its influences continually throughout the running time. The film announces at the start that everything we will witness actually happened. The dynamics of the group echo those found in The Blair Witch Project. These people also argue, accuse, quip and fragment, although they do so in a rather grating London patois. There are brief interview clips with relatives and police, as in The Last Broadcast, although these only feature during the opening segment of the film, as if that artifice was discarded or merely an afterthought. The hideout of the ‘swinger’ party is a collection of derelict, concrete buildings, adorned inside with vaguely familiar ritualistic symbols. In some of the most obvious nods to its forebears the camera is fixed on nothing, with events occurring very audibly off camera.
So yes, the film is derivative, and it is also guilty of the type of clunkiness common to British films that attempt to ape a successful American template. Yet, despite being convinced I would hate it during its opening five minutes, I stayed the distance and was reasonably engrossed. The characters are certainly unappealing, but the actors do unappealing fairly well. Gemma maintains a resolute Vicky Pollard-like ignorance almost right up to the end. Dan and Nathan are simply big kids with brittle, streetwise postures that crumble when confronted by the darker side of society. In a nice touch the lives of these characters are effectively measured by the remaining battery life of the camera. The finale is lent a sense of urgency as the indicator flashes its final bar at the corner of the screen. The film’s one original slant, a nod to post-Iraq terror recordings, is rather fluffed and unnecessary however.
The Tapes won’t scare you. Robed cult leaders wearing plastic horse heads are rarely menacing, unless you live in dread of Rentaghost. Nor will it make you ponder the deeper complexities of life, unless of course you place unsound significance on the quest for a place in the Big Brother house. It’s a cheap as chips British production of limited ambition but a commendable effort by a crew who demonstrate commitment and an honest appreciation of their influences.