The Poughkeepsie Tapes. 2007. Dir. John Erick Dowdle. Screenplay by John & Drew Dowdle.
Starring Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Samantha Robson, Ivar Brogger, Lou George, Amy Lyndon, Michael Lawson, Ron Harper, and Kim Kenny.
Rated R. 86 minutes.
I was lucky enough to catch The Poughkeepsie Tapes during its brief stint on VOD. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it’s being released any time soon. There are murmurs of MGM actually releasing it theatrically, however, in light of current events, I don’t see that happening. Maybe it will see the light of day, as John Erick Dowdle has moved on to even bigger things since, we might get lucky enough to see it finally be released on DVD at the very least. I don’t understand why they haven’t at least put it out through VOD more. This is one of the best found footage horror films out there. I can watch this over and over – no matter how disturbing. It’s one of those films which really uses found footage in a unique way while also providing a great reason for the tapes (for instance – one scene actually breaks down how difficult filming one the murders would be and therefore it meant the killer had to be both strong & skilled). There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there flooding the horror market, but The Poughkeepsie Tapes really stands out on its own.
This movie follows a law enforcement investigation into the man who comes to be known as The Water Street Butcher. The police have found a vast number of tapes made by this killer; each one is significantly different. Soon, the police discover this killer is unlike any other serial killer they’ve ever seen before, as he does not stick to any one modus operandi, but instead abducts and kills in different ways almost every single time he murders. Throughout the film, we see various instances of the tapes. They include some horrific scenes. Everything from a chilling meeting between the videotaping killer and some little innocent Girl Guides – but it isn’t what you think.. after the young girls leave, we see the real terror. Then there are dark shots of the killer’s basement where he ties women up and tortures them, both physically and psychologically; for instance, many times he wears a plague doctor’s mask, and skulks around to terrify the women before either abusing or killing them – or both.
The movie is told through many interviews, including one character who seems very similar to John E. Douglas, one of the first criminal profilers in the FBI – pretty much the modern day serial killer guru, him and Elliott Leyton. There are scenes with him and Ted Bundy consulting on The Green River Killer case – these fit really well, and definitely came out of inspiration from Douglas. This gave more of a real life feel to the documentary-style Dowdle was going for in this film.
I hesitate to say too much more about the plot. It’s really great how everything unfolds. There are a couple little twists and turns in here I enjoyed a lot, and they were executed effectively instead of being twists just for twists’ sake. You’ll enjoy them more if I stop here in describing the film’s plot.
Some of the complains about the film I’ve seen have to do with the footage on the tapes themselves. They aren’t high quality in any way, shape, or form. But this is my argument – you’ve got a serial killer, first of all. Think about that. Do you really think a serial killer is going to go out and spend a ton of money on a video camera? Realistically, this guy especially, he has other things to buy. You’ve got to think about that. Second, these videos have a real feel to them. They aren’t overproduced, or produced much at all. There is a super gritty feel to the low-fi look of the tapes. Not only because they’re just probably cheap tapes the killer picked up at some shop, but also think about this – serial killers love to relive their experiences and their kills, so it isn’t very hard to imagine this guy has been flicking back and forth through these tapes every single free moment he has in the day.
So naturally these tapes aren’t going to be in perfect condition.
The quality of the tapes also help with atmosphere, mood, and tone; sometimes seeing things in a bit lesser quality makes it all the more creepy. For instance, one scene has the killer crawling around on all fours with a two-sided mask on (one side is the plague doctor & the other a creepy blank face) and moving towards a victim he has tied up – the low resolution and the faded look of the tape just gets to me more. If this scene had been done in perfectly framed and composed shots it might not have worked as effectively. Who knows. Maybe it would. But I doubt that highly.
The most terrifying scene in the film, for me, is when the killer picks up a woman who thinks he’s a police officer. Clearly, he has some sort of vehicle that looks like an undercover vehicle; there’s even a cage between the front seats and the back seats. So along the way, he casually asks the woman why she called him officer before getting in the car – she replies “that‘s what police like to be called.” He then, casually once more, reveals himself not to be any sort of law enforcement. She gradually realises he’s telling the truth, and finally he tells her he is The Butcher. Things devolve quickly, as the killer lets her know exactly the things he is going to do to her, terrible things, and when he stops the car gives the most chilling line of the film: “To be perfectly honest, I don‘t think either of us are going to want you alive for the things I‘m going to do to you.” After he says this, of course, the lady goes mad, as he gets out to open the back of the car – it’s bone chilling. Along with the sound design, things get very intense.
What makes this film successful is not only the use of found footage, but the performances by relatively unknown actors. There is nobody here I’ve seen before, or that I’ve noticed anyways, and yet the performances are better than most, if not all, the found footage movies I’ve seen to date. I love found footage. There are too many bad movies out there using the sub-genre. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a really great and creepy example of how the sub-genre can be used effectively. It doesn’t have to be all kids in the woods running around scared, or demonic possession transposed into a hundred million different scenarios – this proves you can use found footage in many innovative ways without sticking to the norm. I really like Dowdle, and loved his recent movie As Above, So Below. This really needs to be released. I’d buy it up so fast on Blu ray especially. Let’s shake the place down and demand they get this wonderfully terrifying film out there for more people to get their eyes on!