So, it’s Friday night. Nothing’s on TV, no good bands are playing. You take a nostalgia trip to the video rental store and peruse the cheesy VHS library… There you find-
Something like Video Tape Terror, a quasi-horror anthology by Nick Mendoza paying homage to the VHS rental era, where every shelf might contain low-budget cinematic gold. The piece is frame tale composed of two shorts broken up by an overweight movie buff’s feeble attempts at making his own horror movie inspired by the tapes.
The anthology opens with a slow, suburban montage. This sets the pace for the rest of the piece- slow and brooding, again referencing the slower pace of VHS-era movies. The cinematography in the opening sequence calls to mind Tales from the Darkside. Brian finds a batch of mysterious videotapes after taking a detour on his way home. He calls his friend and tells him about the find, expresses his dissatisfaction with modern cinema, and sets up the plot. Brian pops in the tape, and we’re greeted by a classic VHS display, complete with tracking artifacts. Wande
…begins with a black screen and gun shots. The piece follows Lt. Mark Schroeder as he attempts to correct his past mistakes with both his family and failings as a soldier in Vietnam. Lt. Schroeder participated in a psy-ops campaign toying with local lore that the souls of the dead wander in torment if they die away from their homelands. During this campaign, Schroeder lets his comrade die, traumatizing him in the present. He copes by taking a drug concoction he thinks can send him back in time.
The piece relies heavily on a dialogue between Lt. Schroeder and his slightly detached son. The piece maintains a mostly linear progression and uses few flashbacks or cutaways. The actors deliver admirably even without b-roll cover. This works so well that the war reminiscences could stand alone as an audiobook. Minimal, but precise camera work is used, forcing attention to the lines. Wandering Soul references the frame tale when Lt. Schroeder mentions recording Night of the Living Dead or using his own camcorder to tape himself sleeping.
… finds Brian writing his script and beginning his horror production (“Script, murder weapons, camera”). His wife comes home and becomes the newest addition to the film. After cleaning up, he pops in the second tape.
The New Computer
… is a suspense-laden psycho-thriller. Like the other pieces in the anthology, it features one character in one room, with one long phone call setting the premise. Distraught Michael has difficulty setting up his sassy new computer. It stalls, and talks (types?) back to him when he attempts to log in. The computer acts as Michael’s conscience, revealing his flaws and inner demons, but also as a judge and executioner. .. Or is Michael just freaking out?
The piece starts in black and white, introducing color when the computer turns on. The occasional cuts to the tower’s light call to mind HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the menacing, murderous machine.
… the frame narrative ends with Brian encountering the police for noise violations, leading to some personal chaos.
All of the films do well as character studies. Nick Mendoza takes us into the characters’ minds, through the messed up psycho-drama therein, and leaves us with clever twists. The minimal cinematography really stands out. The shots are mostly static, but feel well planned. This appears basic, but provides a refreshing look, referencing Brian’s comment about “cartoony” films. However, Video Tape Terror is an oddball compilation. The individual shorts are strong in their own right, but they feel arbitrarily lumped together. The films all have a similar flavor, but we can’t find any ties or connecting logic. There are few continuity issues in the shorts. The tapes are supposedly “old,” if so, why is there a modern flat screen monitor in The New Computer? During the VHS-golden age, CRTs would’ve been used. Also , the frame tale transitions to the shorts by VHS tracking visuals. However, the shorts are pristine HD quality. We feel this set up would be more believable if the “tapes” had a “tape aesthetic” (ala Blair Witch Project’s ugly, though consistent art direction). There were a few instances of inconsistent white balance between shots, usually cutting to sudden yellows. This could be remedied with a little color correction. It’s a slight oversight, but we find it distracting.
Operation Wandering Soul is the highlight of the anthology. Lt. Schroeder wrangles the viewers with his authentic emotional output. The color palette is composed of mostly reds, whites, and blues, representing the character’s military past. The lack of catch lights in the characters’ eyes make them seem soulless like the psy-ops campaign.
Video Tape Terror works as a compilation, but it would’ve held up better with a unifying theme or with more-yet-shorter pieces (think Tales from the Crypt, Torture Garden, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors). Despite this, with the proper campy box art, this would work great as evening rental store pick up.
For more about the film, check out
Also, you can check out the trailer here!