The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Before John Erick Dowdle made Devil and Quarantine, he made a found footage serial killer film that was on my radar for a helluva long time. This was the #2 movie I wanted to see in 2008.
Think about the fact that in 2008, the found footage flick boom wasn't in full effect. These days we're use to seeing shaky cam/1st POV when it comes to zombies, ghosts, demons, aliens, and monsters. But initially, the shaky cam was all about the serial killer.
August Underground comes to mind as the one flick that made camcorder killer footage look real. But now after viewing The Poughkeepsie Tapes, which blends a mockumentary with found footage, I'll say it was ahead of its time...in 2008. As of this review, it had a limited festival running and no DVD release. A movie that may have revolutionized both subgenres of mock and found hasn't been seen by anybody.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is like a nostalgic look at the beginnings of how the found footage mock subgenre came to be. It has the feel of Toe Tag Pictures's cult film but by adding the documentary aspect which resembles an Unsolved Mysteries ripoff, it reinvents itself into something new. It's this effectiveness of getting back to the roots of this horror genre that I liked. But it isn't without it's flaws. Both the documentary and the real like "snuff" film somehow lose steam midway through the movie. Genuine turns into laughability at times and you feel like they we're adding things to spice things up.
All in all, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is Dowdle's grand attempt to cash in on the mockumentary and found footage craze at the same time. I think if I had seen this in 2008 I would have called it "revolutionary" and "creepy scary". But in 2011, I'll say it is revolutionary and creepy scary but I'll add in one more thing. "Cheaply dated".
When hundreds of videotapes showing torture, murder and dismemberment are found in an abandoned house, they reveal a serial killer's decade-long reign of terror and become the most disturbing collection of evidence homicide detectives have ever seen.
Like I said, in 2008 I may have been blown away by The Poughkeepsie Tapes but in 2011, just 3 years later I've actually seen better mockumentaries that blend found footage. The one that comes to mind is Lake Mungo. It's the best I've seen in quite a long time. So I'm going to break down the review by dividing the mock and found. First up the mock.
I'm not lying when it comes to the Unsolved Mysteries meets Sightings quality. Blending in interviews from police officers, police commanders, FBI profilers, news footage and family victims it compiles different perspectives about the "The Water Street Butcher". Some of the interviews feel genuinely convincing especially with the victim's families others such as a former FBI profiler are desperately in need of acting lessons. In an interview with an FBI agent, she praises the killer for his ingenuity and knowledge of county bureaucracy. It's interesting to hear their take but in no way would the FBI admit they've been duped.
I'll admit, the footage is damn creepy. It has that authentic late 80s early 90s VHS quality to it with the blending colors and grainy footage. At times, the footage is unwatchable but the "realness" has a definite impact. The footage is clearly shocking and disturbing. We can see the killer stalk his victims, most being women and *gasp* children. We hear him talk and you get the feeling he's one of those people a neighbor may say "He didn't seem like the serial killer type".
So what kind of footage do we get to see intertwined with the mock? An odd balloon fetish, a few stalking and murders, a "broke car" trap which leads to a couple's murder, a little girl's demise, and the creme de la creme, a kidnapping of a victim Cheryl Dempsey. Also added the torture of Cheryl and footage of him disemboweling and dismembering his victims.
After that footage, the documentary interviews a "dismemberment expert" which is hilarious. What does it take to be a dismemberment expert? Did he go to dismemberment school? Sigh. But I digress.
Later our killer changes his MO and starts murdering prostitutes to cover his tracks. Cheryl now brainwashed by the killer who calls him "Master" to her "slave" is forced to slice a street walker's throat to save her own life. She's been mentally and physically degraded forced to wear a mask and a medieval type dress.
Our killer is also in the footage at times but obscured as he wears a mask. At one point he taunts the mother by going right up to her and offering his "help" to finding Cheryl, taping the entire "taunt" on tape.
The movie cuts from footage to doc but devotes most of its time to the footage. I found the footage to be the most convincing in it's cleverness. That's not to say both become a little laughable at times. From the unconvincing interviews with law enforcement to the over the top acting of our killer, it felt like we had gone from seeing a "real" footage to having our killer be more creative, cruel and bizarre just so we wouldn't all get bored. The killer's acting of master/slave is clearly corny and contrived as is all his clever traps. At one point, he let's in two Girl Scouts in and asks them questions. It's an uneasy feeling to see children in the same room as this man and I have to admit, I felt kinda scared of where this scene would go.
But soon after, we see a nice clear "moviemaking" shot of our victim reflected in a mirror tied and bound. It's some of these techniques and the "dungeon" basement set that made the movie go from gritty real to gritty fake.
There's a bit of a twist in the film regarding a suspect and his eventual demise that gets you caught off guard but at this point, I was taking anything I saw with a grain of salt. A final interview with Cheryl also packs a punch and I'll admit was sad and mesmerizing at the same time.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is clearly a tale of two halves. The documentary and footage aspects make it feel real and intriguing during the first half of the film. But the second half, both aspects lose steam and you start to feel like they had to add lots of gimmicks to keep you interested. I'm not saying the gimmicks weren't a solid WTF, but they were highly outrageous and kind of unbelievable.
The performances all are clearly respectable aside from a few of the roles I mentioned. The killer is vicious and it shows. His resume is sickly depraved. Rapist, butcher, savage killer and he even goes child-acide. He mentally scars a victim and uses the criminal justice system to kill as well. But we never even get a motivation or reason of why he does it. Not from himself or the police or FBI. Sure we get a profile (which is a mocking of profiling in a edited montage as the FBI has no clue what this man may look like or why he kills) and thus we're left with not knowing. This is a serious no no in serial killer movies. You have to give some sort of reason as to why the killer does what he does. Sure in real life we sometimes have no idea why, but in movies it SHOULD be in there.
The subgenre of found footage has moved away from it's roots of late. Found footage use to be reserved for the tales of pseudo snuff films, lost teens in Maryland or cannibals run amok. These days, shaky cams and HD video cameras record ghosts, monsters and zombies. Hell we're going to get aliens on cam in Super 8.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is serial killer found footage horror with a hardcore edge. It's not the best the genre has to offer but it's creepy scary in that "my neighbor might be evil" sorta way. The mock and found offered by The Poughkeepsie Tapes is an alternative to your now pre-packaged found footage film. That should at least warrant a viewing.
Some grainy dismembering
Corpse nudity..does that count?
Kids in danger
Give a hand to Cheryl
The Jaded Viewer's Final Prognosis
The movie is on the Internet if you wish to see it. You just have to know where to look. Ahem Ahem. MGM owns the rights but even after the success of other found footage flicks, they have yet to do so.
I'd say give it a chance if you like the mock and found genre of horror. It deserves at least a viewing if you want to see early found footage/mockumentary films.
Here's the trailer.