Back in 1938, filmmaker Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) introduced his adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds as the 17th episode of the CBS radio program, “The Mercury Theater”. Revolving around the concept of aliens arriving on earth and taking over the planet, the broadcast was presented as a series of news broadcasts, and was so shockingly real, that some listeners actually went mad in a panic. People died. That’s the power of radio/audio. A power which Shudder’s Video Palace uses to perfection…
…Created by Nick Braccia and Michael Monello (The Blair Witch Project), and directed by Ben Rock (Alien Raiders) and written by Rock and Bob Derosa (Killers), Video Palace is what I have dubbed a “found audio” story in which a video collector named Mark (Chase Williamson) begins acting strangely and talking in his sleep after viewing a mysterious “white tape”. Determined to uncover the tape’s origins, Mark and his girlfriend Tamra (Devin Sidell) set out to investigate and find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy involving a Lovecraftian cult and sinister video store known as the Video Palace.
Now, let’s be clear here. Video Palace is NOT going to cause people to freak out and start shooting at airplanes the way they did after Orson’s broadcast in 1938. We’ve at least evolved far enough to know the difference between a make-believe story and reality. Well, at least most of us have. But that doesn’t mean that Rock’s Video Palace is any less successful in manipulating the medium to make it seem as close to real as possible. Told through a series of interviews (similar to Welles Citizen Kane, actually), Video Palace carries an air of realism with it achieved by combining fictional characters with a series of guest voices starring themselves. Mark may not be real, but the various video experts which he contacts about the mysterious white tapes are, including Adam Green (Hatchet), Shudder curator Sam Zimmerman, and many more names whom the horror community will recognize. Their “belief” in the tapes becomes our belief in the tapes, to the point where you may even be curious to do a quick Google on “white tapes”. My apologies if it brings up nothing but racist shit.
Of course, where you may quit after unexpected Google results, Mark is quite the opposite. A collector of VHS tapes, Mark has an infectious love for those boxed spools of film left in the rearview mirror in the wake of Blu-rays and now digital streaming. For Mark, there is no greater challenge, or satisfaction, than tracking down a tape thought to be a myth. If it exists, he has to see it. It’s an understandable affinity for the medium. Genre fans will relate to Mark, because we, like Mark, are always searching for that underseen horror film that we can proudly state to our friends, “yeah, I’ve seen it. It was okay”. And even if you were born in the late 90s and have never even owned a VHS tape, Video Palace may have you reconsider, as Mark’s love for tapes is just a piece of a grander expression of appreciation through Rock and Derosa’s script. Video Palace is full of bits of fascinating history relating to the medium. You may not know what “clam shells” are in terms of VHS tapes, but you’ll learn about that and so much more in what is essentially a love letter to the age of tapes and lost palaces like Blockbuster, or in this case, Video Palace.
Often in these sorts of audio plays, the dialogue must be exaggerated and expositional so that the audience has a clearer picture of what is going on, which can lead to what some might think of as “poor” performances by the actors, or at the very least, bad character development, since they’re so focused on informing the audience instead of revealing to us who they really are. So, Rock, Derosa, and the entire cast deserve a major round of applause for creating characters who not only feel genuine, but will have you rooting for each and every single one of them (aside from the villains, unless you’re into world domination). Mark is like a kid in a video store, encapsulating all of us who grew up during that age, and Sidell is wonderful as Tamra, who might as well be an angel for supporting Mark in this venture, no matter how terrifying it gets (and it does, believe me). Rock and Derosa could have easily fallen into the trap of making Tamra that obnoxious significant other constantly telling our hero to quit while they’re ahead, and though you could argue maybe she should, she’s incredibly endearing for sticking by him. It’s this sort of love shared between Mark and Tamra, along with the rest of the cast, that makes it so painful when the proverbial shit hits the fan, because with the way Video Palace is presented to us, these all feel like real people.
Aside from the characters, what works so well with Video Palace is that Rock demonstrates a knowledge of the audio storytelling medium through a clever crafting of scenes and, of course, sound (designed by Jeremy Lee & Jordan Tani). In this type of story, the writers don’t have the luxury of long-winded narrative descriptions as novels do, nor do they have the advantage of visuals that film does. It’s all about the sound. The sound is what creates pictures in our head. When done wrong, the listener becomes disinterested and checks out faster than an atheist forced into a Christmas church service. But when done right, it can be the most terrifying form of horror, because what we create in our minds is much scarier than anything even the most talented creature designer could show us. Beginning with the beyond excellent retro-style theme created by Michael Teoli-I still have it stuck in my head-Rock and his crew pull us deep into every moment with eerie sounds creeping through our ears, whether it be Mark’s strange utterances in his sleep, or the cacophony of nightmarish creatures pouring their way into our world. An old-fashioned form of storytelling that is once again becoming “new”, Video Palace also instills a sense of curiosity in the listener, similar to the curiosity that is driving Mark. We want to hear what’s on these tapes. We want to know what Mark is seeing. And we get what we asked for. Warning: possible side effects of Video Palace may include but are not limited to pissing your pants out of fear.
At a little over three hours long, the one issue with Video Palace is that it can feel a bit overcomplicated at times. Between strange white tapes, brainwashed cults, slimy creatures, sleep talking, an involved investigation, eyeless men, plus some unexpected twists and turns, there is a lot to keep up with in Video Palace, and some listeners may find themselves a bit lost at times, though never to a degree that spoils the unrelentingly strange mood of the story. Due to the intense nature of the concept, Rock and Derosa make the right choice in splitting the show into ten episodes. This allows them the opportunity for Mark to recap every episode, while also advancing the plot in describing what must happen next. And though the mystery of it all may seem complicated at times by often answering one question and then introducing three more, this is again a way to keep the audience engaged, something which Video Palace never once fails to do. We want to continue on this sinister journey with Mark, even if we don’t always fully understand it.
Like The Ring meets In the Mouth of Madness, Video Palace is a demonstration of the new realm of possibilities which have opened to writers and filmmakers alike, without any limitations other than your own imagination. Video Palace shows listeners that with the proper script, cast, and an understanding of sound, there are limitless stories which we can tell. With the ever-increasing popularity of podcasts, audio storytelling is on its way to making a big comeback, and Video Palace is out here showing us all how it’s done.
You can now listen to all of Video Palace on Shudder, as well as iTunes.
By Matt Konopka