While it is not by any means entirely successful, at least with The Black Tape writer/director Ramone Menon has attempted to move away from the most overused clichés which have made the phrase “found footage” synonymous with amateur, derivative and repetitive. Instead of the most common tropes of tiresome teenagers obsessively filming their every action and its variations – documentary student filmmakers, news teams on location – by using hidden cameras, the subjects filmed without their knowledge or consent, it transmutes the usual narcissism to the potentially more interesting sin of voyeurism.
This avoids both the near-ubiquitous scenes of discussing the various cameras, lenses and settings which almost invariably occurs in found footage and the too-frequent “why do they keep filming?” moments, the question here becoming “how do they not notice there are cameras all over their house or that there are cars following them on empty country roads at night?”
Introduced by a masked, black clad figure with captions written in black marker on cardboard – “shot by me, cut by me, music by me, now watch me” – the footage has been edited by the mysterious “me” to create a narrative and at least an attempt at atmosphere, a welcome alternative to the uncut shakycam rushes of moronic teenagers stumbling aimlessly through the forest which have come to typify the sub-genre.
Opening in May 2011 in South Hill, California, the first scene is of a girl talking on the phone with her mother, waiting for her father to get home, when conversation turns to the deaths of a family in their neighbourhood some years before, when there is a persistent knocking on the door…
Switching back to December 2009, the Christmas decorations fail to offer any cheer to the middle class suburban home of Alana and Robert Wilson (Elina Madison and Allen Marsh), waiting by the phone for news of their kidnapped daughter. “Have you got the money?” the voice on the line demands before forcing them to listen to the panicked screams of Stephanie (Melanie Thompson), proving that she is still alive.
The jumping dates soon making it apparent that what is shown did not occur in this sequence, and what follows is the different threads of the lives of the Wilson family, Alana, Robert, Stephanie, son Paul (Parker Coppins), youngest daughter Mary (Viktoria Paje) and grandpa Earl (Oto Brezina), sickly and bedridden, resentfully cared for by Alana who nevertheless won’t allow him to be tended by anyone else.
These strands are woven together by the masked figure, each segment introduced by a scrawled intertitle as the Wilsons are nudged and manipulated, secrets and indiscretions captured and items displaced or moved from room to room around their home, preludes to the substitution of Stephanie for a ransom note which her family handle and pass among themselves, the possibility of obtaining latent fingerprints from the paper never considered.
Filmed from concealed cameras, the characters are necessarily always at a distance, the audience never able to see their faces or feel as though they are getting to know them, and similarly the actors are never allowed subtlety in their performances, everything geared towards cameras which they are pretending not to know are there.
There are moments of interest such as the scene of the ransom drop at the old Bailey farm which starts well but ultimately becomes little more than shots of the killer’s shoes as they shuffle around by torchlight, while conversely the interminable carpet warehouse scene is dull from the outset. Like all found footage horror, there is a tendency for The Black Tape to be disjointed, and it is meandering and overlong for what is a simple story of blackmail and deceit, though at least it has a story which is more than can be said of many other found footage films in the first place; at any rate, it is better than spending A Night in the Woods.