VHS aficionados and horror podcast junkies alike, I present your next obsession, and its name is “Video Palace.” The most effective horror stories revolving around physical media prey on visual terror, and in the case of VHS-related hauntings, the gruesome imagery of the tapes is generally surreal, abrasive and personal. Sadako may crawl out of your television (“Ringu”), or you may receive a sinister phone call of your final moments (“One Missed Call”), but the malevolent threats of “Video Palace,” Shudder’s first scripted audio podcast, are arguably just as frightening.
If you’re looking for a good spook in quarantine, aside from the daily apocalyptic headlines, then spend some quality time with “Video Palace” in the dark of night with a good set of headphones, and get ready to experience some major goosebumps. The 10-episode series, clocking in at just around three hours, premiered on Shudder, a wonderfully curated horror streaming service, toward the latter half of 2018 to minimal fanfare. As we’re inundated with all forms of prevalent horror media vying for publicity upon their release, it ensures lesser-publicized projects just kind of get left in the dust. And I feel that “Video Palace,” despite its exceptional critical reception, hasn’t really garnered the attention it deserves.
The show revolves around video collector Mark Cambria (Chase Williamson), whose world is turned upside down when a mysterious white VHS lands in his lap. When the tape causes Mark to chant cultish passages in his sleep, he and his girlfriend Tamra (Devin Sidell) launch an investigative podcast chronicling its origin. The tape, which features a blend of cryptic imagery and garbled tones, sets the duo on a sinister path to an out of business Vermont video store, the titular Video Palace, that harbors dark secrets within. What starts as a curious side project becomes a sinister trip through a VHS-inspired occult that guides the couple through many doors that, once opened, can no longer be shut. As the revelations become increasingly more unfathomable, Mark and Tamra must decide whether all of their digging is worth the consequences threatening their loved ones, grip on reality, and the integrity of their relationship.
“Video Palace” was created under the guise of producers Nick Braccia and Michael Monello, with Ben Rock (“Alien Raiders”) pulling double duty as director/co-writer alongside his “20 Seconds to Live” writing partner Bob DeRosa (“Killers”). It’s also worth noting that two of the show’s creative forces have strong ties to “The Blair Witch Project” (Rock – Production Designer / Monello – Producer), which makes sense considering the podcast relishes in the same ballpark of mounting anticipation through the simplicity of auditory terror. The series blossomed out of a collective admiration for the podcast scene, and how it changed the foundation of storytelling. It prompted Rock and DeRosa to channel their enthusiasm for the medium into a season’s worth of episodes (around 16-31+ minutes each) that were written, recorded, edited and released with an impressive five-to-six month span. And the results speak for themselves.
The series opens with Mark establishing his investigation with a round of interviews (many of which can be found as extended bonus features on Shudder) from prominent individuals within the sect of VHS collector culture, including Dread Central’s Steve Barton, director Adam Green (“Hatchet”) and Birth.Movies.Death’s Brian Collins. You’d think that there’s this whole white-tape urban legend phenomenon that somehow passed you by based on how well-versed they are on the fictional subject. Rock’s extensive admiration never carries the condescension of speaking down to the listener. That’s what makes Mark a great character. His enthusiasm, before s*** goes really sideways, shines through in how grateful he is to have the followers he does have on this enigmatic odyssey of his, and how excited he is to provide information as it comes his way.
The tapes have this strange effect where every new person Mark and Tamra speak with have their own interpretations of what these tapes mean, and their connection to the Video Palace. There’s even a montage of local townsfolk, similar to “The Blair Witch Project,” as they recount their impressions of the infamous video store, building upon an incredible sense of world-building. Rock is no stranger to expanding a mythology as the major contributor towards the “Blair Witch Project” mockumentaries (writer – “Curse of the Blair Witch,”
writer/director – “The Burkittsville 7,” etc.) that aired on SyFy and Showtime around the film’s release. “Video Palace” divulges just enough tiny morsels of information from episode to episode to keep you captivated without retaining that looming air of mystery surrounding the strange predicament this couple has landed themselves in.
The show’s greatest strength, like any great audio drama, is in how it implores us to use our imagination and fill in the blanks for the unimaginable. An ominous voice in the distance has the capacity to generate psychological images more terrifying than the potential of visual representation. And while there’s nothing to dispute the series faring well in a visual medium, “Video Palace” plays to this specific format so beautifully with its out-of-this-world sound design, courtesy of the talented artists at Diablo Sound, that it’s difficult to imagine the show having the same effect any other way.
“Video Palace” utilizes the expansive coverage of an omnidirectional microphone to conceive the verisimilitude of its environments, capturing faint footsteps, confronting voices, and other background noise within Mark’s aesthetic. There’s a really tense moment, among many, when Mark is being chased to his car for dear life by the tempered son of an interviewee, and it feels too close for comfort on the ears. Nothing even remotely supernatural transpires, and yet the combo of shouting and banging from behind Mark’s driver’s window is just as startling as if it were.
One of the first things to register in my head when I think about the overall unsettling mood of the show is Michael Teoli’s casually haunting composition. Considering Mark is presenting the body of “Video Palace” as complete, edited episodes (for the most part), he’s thought ahead by having an in-universe character create background music for the podcast at integral moments. You have the Carpenter-inspired synthy theme, of course, and then there’s this ominous ambient tune that I picture emanating from a dusty record player positioned at the end of a dark, Overlook-style hallway. I can’t emphasize enough just how effective this one carefully positioned music cue is at giving me goosebumps every time (the link below provides a small sample).
The tension of listening to “Video Palace” wouldn’t be nearly as effective, however, without Chase Williamson (“John Dies at the End”) and Devin Sidell (“31”) at the center of this stirring VHS pandemonium. The simple authenticity of their performances complement each other tremendously in a manner rarely seen in horror couples. The series remains focused on the subtle terror of this investigation while also remembering that this is a group effort. As things continue to get weirder, it naturally places a strain on their relationship. How could it not? The appeal of this couple is grasping how they uphold the basic necessities of their relationship amid the foreboding backdrop of this investigation and all the hardships it brings.
Sidell balances a stellar sense of humor at the sight of weird s*** while also remaining the voice of reason when it appears that they might be prodding a beast that should be left to rest. Tamra’s the glue that keeps Mark from truly testing the fates. Williamson, on the other hand, brings out the curious, passionate drive that would incur Mark to pursue answers brought on by his bizarre new addition to the collection. He’s self aware enough to validate Tamra’s concerns while simultaneously holding onto the obsession of revelations waiting for him in the deep end of the pool.
Without divulging into any spoilers, let’s just say that the final episode of “Video Palace” leaves off in a place that, if this were to be all there is, concludes on a haunting note. Rock and Monello have expressed in multiple interviews that they have more than enough material for a second season should Shudder be interested in continuing the story. In an interview with Nightmare on Film Street’s Brandy Clark, Monello says “We have some ideas for Season 2 and would love to make it happen!”
Renewals only happen if there’s tangible proof that an audience is on the receiving end, so if what I’ve just described piqued your interest ever so slightly, you’d be doing yourself a favor by checking it out for yourself. If you’ve been won over by the likes of other creepy podcasts such as “The Black Tapes,” “Hollow Public Radio” and “The Truth,” then this will be right up your alley. I could gush about this show to the point where there’d be nothing left to talk about, so I’ll leave it right about here.
If you don’t have a subscription to Shudder, “Video Palace” can be found for free on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify and other podcast streaming platforms. I hope you all have as much fun listening to it as I did writing about it. Remember – be kind, rewind.
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Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.