The Glenarma Tapes

The Glenarma Tapes (2023)

The Glenarma Tapes had its international première on Sat 26th Aug at FrightFest

Near the start of The Glenarma Tapes, a drama class is discussing the lovers’ double-suicide at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “I get it,” suggests Gordon (Warren McCook), “These two are the only good things in either family, and when they finally connect, their families do everything they can to separate them, so yeah, fuck it, pull the trigger, what’s the point?” Facing his own dead-end future on a Mid Ulster estate in a family riven with divorce and alcoholism, Gordy knows something of what he speaks. Yet fellow student Eleanor (Sophie Hill) vehemently disagrees: “Death is the easy way out for these two. If you’re alive, there’s always something to live for.” 

If, as they flirt across the room, Gordy and Eleanor seem obvious contenders for the film’s own Romeo and Juliet, then they are also very much lovers of the star cross’d variety. For the introductory frame to Tony Devlin’s feature debut reveals that what we are watching is found footage, filmed during a fateful day and night when four students and two teachers from the Mid Ulster College of Arts ventured into the Glenarma Forest, only to vanish under mysterious circumstances save for one initially unnamed and severely injured survivor. Two years later, police discover a video recording of what happened.

The reason for that footage is film student Jimmy (Rían Early), whose graduation project is to record a day in the life of his best friend Gordy. When the two of them accidentally overhear Gordy’s drama teacher Mallon (Colette Lennon Dougal) and her married colleague Holmes (Declan Rodgers) arranging an illicit tryst in the woods, they decide, along with Eleanor and her friend Clare (Emily Lamey), to find the couple’s camp and capture their adultery on camera – and so the quartet heads off, despite hearing an elaborate and hilarious Old Man’s Warning™ from a local shopkeeper that the woods are haunted by the lost soul of the maybe mythic ‘Harry Halfahead’.

Even as Jimmy’s slice-of-life documentary is rapidly repurposed as a ‘sex tape’, the situation on the ground switches too, as these four students, armed with night vision headcams lifted from the College store room, find themselves trapped in the middle of something that neither they nor we could possibly have seen coming. Now these dark trees become the stage for a primal social struggle, where folk horror meets small-town conspiracy. 

While The Glenarma Tapes suffers a pitfall typical of found footage from The Blair Witch Project (1999) on – night scenes where darkness and handheld shakicam combine to obfuscate everything that is happening on screen – it more than makes up for this with fleshed-out characters, well-written lines (from Devlin and Paul Kennedy) that seem casually naturalistic but slyly insinuate thematic subtext or ironic foreshadowing, and a series of reveals which, though unexpected, are never incoherent. And in this Verona of Northerm Ireland, innocent lovers, however doomed, will fight to their last to survive.     

strap: Tony Devlin’s found footage feature debut restages Romeo and Juliet as class war in a primeval Northern Irish forest

© Anton Bitel