Sunday, 9 August 2020
Leader Of The Stack
Created by Nick Braccia and Michael Monello
A Shudder.com Original Podcast 2018 - Ten Episodes
Warning: Some spoilers due to discussion of the structure of the show.
Okay so... I never review podcasts. This is my first time and I’ve even had to create a new section in the index to accommodate it... scroll down on the indexes page and you’ll find it jammed between the TV and the almost empty (and somewhat out of date) Music section. Podcasts aren’t really my kind of thing but this one functions more as a radio or audio drama in the horror category so, in some ways I guess it’s not a traditional podcast although, honestly, I wouldn’t really know.
So there are two reasons why I don’t review podcasts on here. Reason one is because I’m not used to reviewing dramas which are based purely on audio content and I’m not sure if I can talk about one in a relatively interesting manner for more than a paragraph (I’m about to find out I guess). The other reason is... well... who has time to listen to podcasts in this day an age? Life moves too fast and this would just be another distraction to getting my day done. So there’s that too.
Why did I bother with this one then?
Well, all I can say is I was fed up with hearing, for two years on Twitter now, absolutely nothing (almost nothing) but high praise for Video Palace and, since I found that I could download it and listen to it for free on Apple iTunes, I figured I might as well see what all the fuss is about. I’d heard a few people say the ending is not good or, it doesn’t have an ending... well, it does have an ending and, although I feel it has very slight problems in that regard, it certainly is valid as an ending and a natural stopping point for the show. If you wanted to do a follow up using the same kinds of characters, the style and pacing of the audio adventure would have to be totally different from what was explored in this series or more or less a repeat with different characters so... yeah... we’re probably better off without a second season because I’m sure the prospect would have to be a lot less intriguing.
So anyway, I gave it a go and, after finally having to visit Shudder to find out what the running order of the episodes is (because the labelling seems to be completely incorrect on iTunes), I settled down to listen to it. I did two evenings on my headphones in the pitch black of night in bed. Three episodes on the first evening and then I binged the other seven the evening after.
The story is narrated first person by one of the two lead characters for most of the series... Chase Wiliamson playing Mark Cambria, who lives in a New York apartment with is girlfriend Tamra, played by Devin Sidell. It starts off really ‘silly B movie style’ (which is nice and probably intentional) with the sound of Mark sleep talking, which gives the first episode its title, Somniloquy. However, once you’ve heard it a few times in the show it begins to take on a ‘sinister threat’ kind of punctuation as Mark’s investigation into the cause of his strange sleep talking begins.
The cause? Well, Mark is a collector of old VHS video tapes and he buys a job lot where one of them is an unmarked tape in a white clamshell showing TV static footage with shapes and pretty much the exact same chanting that Mark is doing in his sleep. He’d watched what he thought was this bizarre, unmarked experimental film the day before and it was affecting him in this strange way. So he decides to investigate and Shudder, the website putting this podcast out, allow the fictional Mark to publish (if that’s the right word) his podcast on their site as the investigation proceeds. So the narration he gives in each new episode and ‘up to the minute’ from where he was last time.
This, of course, allows the show to ‘have its cake and eat it’ structurally because it’s like reading a book in first person narrative which usually gives the reader the advantage of knowing the narrator can’t die but, if it’s up to the minute in short chunks as this is... and this is kind of also a 'double edged sword' weakness of the show... you know the narrator could possibly be ‘changed’ if he gets in trouble or perish... so the format doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that Mark will die before the end of the last show... although there is music and editing all fully on board in the concept. Something which Mark calls attention to for the listener himself in one of a few charming, fake metatextual moments in the show. Heck, there’s even a fictional composer of the score for the series who helps Mark and Tamra out with certain aspects of their investigation and... oh, wait, I don’t want to spoil it.
Anyhow, Mark finds out about the legend of the ‘white tapes’, spoken in hushed tones among the world of VHS collectors. They seem very rare and people have paid high prices for them but they seemed to originate from a video rental store in another state, called Video Palace, which no longer exists after certain ‘events’ which occurred twenty years prior to this investigation. And, as the mystery deepens, Mark and Tamra are taken deeper into the world of clam-shelled ‘White Tapes’, ‘The Devil’s Tritone’ (or Diabolo as it is also known in musical circles), the eight doorways to ‘The Stack’, the Eyeless Man and various other strange things including dangers and deaths which they weren’t expecting to have a part in. It’s a little bit like John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns mixed with the kind of mystery format of 'M. R. James’ legacy' viral curse movies like Ringu. Which, if you are already familiar with, of course, then you already know that Video Palace is right up your alley.
And as I listened, the series did have some real scares and dramatic moments to it. The second half is a bit of a terrifying climb but, when it came to the last episode... yeah, okay, I can see why some of the audience might have some problems. The format is changed about half way through the episode for reasons which I won’t go into here but which I was fully expecting because of the way the show is presented. The climax of the series seems, to me, to come roughly half way through the final episode and then, the next half seems just to be about explaining and clarifying what the audience saw... or heard in this case. So there’s a lot of explanation posed in the form of questions but much of this just seems like an autopsy of the story because, honestly, the stuff revealed in the final quarter of an hour or so of that last episode seems to be just telling us stuff we already had known or figured out. It’s not really necessary and I can’t really see how you can set up a credible sequel to this thing, to be honest, so... I wonder why the last half of the final episode seems so laboured when compared to the rest of it.
Still, I didn’t feel cheated in any way, that’s for sure and I’ve already recommended Video Palace to a couple of people. Getting to that end point was a lot of fun and, as I said, nicely terrifying if listened to in the right setting (no light source and just letting the darkness work with the audio). It’s certainly intriguing and, although I was expecting to hear a lot more movie talk and to listen to the bizarre minutia of VHS collectors, it tells its tale well and leaves each episode on one kind of cliff hanger or another. Really glad I took the time to listen to this one and, who knows, I might find myself downloading another podcast sometime in the future.
List of Episodes
3. The Piano Tuner
6. The Hidden Basement
7. The Code
8. Life Support
10. The Stack
Video Palace can be enjoyed via Shudder.com and iTunes and a new collection of short stories inspired by the series, Video Palace: In Search of the Eyeless Man, hits Amazon UK in October.