Written by: Drew Dowdle (story), John Erick Dowdle
Directed by: John Erick Dowdle
Starring: Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, and Samantha Robson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Yeah, there are lots of weirdos out there..."
The Poughkeepsie Tapes arrives thoroughly preceded by its reputation, particularly the decade-long delay that’s only heightened its mystique. Many theatergoers circa 2008—including yours truly—can vaguely recall seeing a trailer promising to unleash the grisly exploits of an upstate New York serial killer, only to see both the promotion and the film itself vanish with little explanation. As the years rolled on, this disappearing act gave the film—which only a handful of folks managed to see in the interim—a somewhat notorious reputation, almost to the point of allowing it to pass into the stuff of urban legend. Just what is housed on The Poughkeepsie Tapes that could possibly keep it under wraps for so long? Given the answer to that question, it’s almost appropriate that this tale about a preternaturally elusive serial killer proved to be itself obscure: in many ways, its own bizarre release is now intertwined with its own lore, which attempts to blur the line between fiction and reality with a documentary approach.
Unlike so many found footage films (that would actually arrive en masse just a few years after this film’s original release date), The Poughkeepsie Tapes doesn’t simply present unedited, raw footage that’s been “discovered.” Rather, it couches the titular tapes into a faux documentary charting the sordid history of a psychopath who terrorized the Poughkeepsie area for two decades. When authorities eventually uncovered his stash of homemade tapes documenting the carnage, they gained a horrific insight into the killer—even if the discovery brought them no closer to actually finding him. “Vintage” news reports and talking head interviews with “authorities” provide commentary around the tapes here, bringing viewers a tale with so much rich texture that you’d swear you were learning about an actual cold case file.
A decade-long wait naturally brings about a question about whether or not The Poughkeepsie Tapes can live up to whatever strange hype it may have engendered over the years. I don’t know that the answer to that is a resounding yes, if only because that implies a sort of enthusiasm that would implore you to check it out immediately. It’s not that sort of film, though, as it’s far to unsettling to be the something you breathlessly encourage people to seek out. Maybe this makes me a weak horror fan, but I couldn’t imagine gleefully recommending this one to everyone because it’s too grim for that. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is so genuinely unpleasant that it’s easy to see now that it never had a chance to play in wide release; quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine how any studio head even had the guts to consider it. After just one viewing, I’m safely putting it into that category of films that I appreciate but can’t imagine watching again anytime soon.
So, in that respect, sure, The Poughkeepsie Tapes lives up to its reputation. Save for a few stilted performances from the talking heads, it’s an utterly convincing account of events that never happened, especially when it plays the enigmatic killer’s own tapes in all their raw, gritty consumer grade awfulness. Few films have ever quite managed to burrow under my skin like this one because it doesn’t shy away from the utter banality of these horrors. With the exception of some grainy security camera footage, the killer’s face is never seen unmasked, leaving viewers to only listen to an unassuming voice prey on unsuspecting victims. You watch as he has some innocent chit-chat with a young girl in her front yard before bludgeoning her and stuffing her dead body into the backseat of his car. Likewise, he sweet talks an oblivious couple into picking him up as a hitchhiker, plotting the whole while to kill them both at the right moment. It’s an obvious cliché, but this stuff is scary in its authenticity: for myself, it’s not hard to imagine this actually happening considering authorities excavated multiple bodies at a serial killer’s house about 15 miles outside of my hometown last year.
Director John Erik Dowdle (and co-writer Drew Dowdle) rightfully don’t completely dwell on this and turn The Poughkeepsie Tapes into an endless parade of misery. The interviews and other documentary footage provide a welcome reprieve from the nastiness and allow the duo to spin a compelling little yarn. For whatever reason, serial killers do manage to capture the imagination, especially one that proves to be completely elusive like this one. Interviews with forensics experts and FBI profilers build up the mystique of a man that largely defies usual conventions. At one point, someone points out that his crimes result in multiple, incompatible profiles, a fact that thoroughly confounded any attempt to track him down. His decision to videotape his own exploits adds a further layer of intrigue, one that leads authorities to suspect the killer was looking for someone to appreciate his work. When an off-screen interviewer asks one FBI official if she does indeed appreciate it, she can only offer a disgusted rejoinder. It’s a small moment but one that captures the general vibe of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a film that’s as unsettling as it is compelling.
The approach here—which vaguely marries the formal structure of The Town that Dreaded Sundown with the grimy seediness of Henry—also allows the Dowdles to embrace an episodic structure for the film’s violence. It’s fair to call these the film’s stand-out scenes, however odd that might sound given how disturbing they are. A home invasion sequence is particularly suspenseful because viewers are left waiting for the guillotine to fall on an oblivious couple that has no idea the killer is holed up in their closet, waiting to unleash a stomach-churning bit of violence (made all the more squirm-inducing by the post-mortem recounting of what mercifully isn’t on-screen). In truth, this scene is evidence that the Dowdles don’t exclusively lean into on-screen gore, as this (and other sequences) are nail-biting exercises in dramatic irony. If I’m being honest, one of the most disturbing scenes in the film doesn’t end with any violence at all, though it’s no less upsetting to watch a couple of girl scouts innocently wander into this psychopath’s home, completely unaware of the horrors lurking inside this otherwise quaint house.
When the killer lets them leave, you can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief, at least at first blush; upon further reflection, though, there’s something disturbing about the utter random and banal horrors of a man who continuously defies any notion of predictability. Maybe you survive a chance encounter with him; maybe you become a sought-after target that he fixates on and keeps chained up in his basement for over a decade. That’s the fate that befalls one of his victims, and if there’s any sort of through-line to The Poughkeepsie Tapes, it’s the unrelentingly bleak saga of Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky), whose abduction and grim fate frames the entire film. Over the course of the film—but only in a handful of scenes, it should be noted—Chbosky crafts the striking portrait of a victim subjected to unholy psychological and physical torments. While the latter will cause you to squirm uncomfortably, it’s the former that really burrows into your brain: watching her degenerate from a lively college student to an utterly broken woman is the most haunting aspect of The Poughkeepsie Tapes.
To be sure, the film takes a bizarre path, including one aside involving an innocent man going to death row after being framed for this horrific killing spree. An even more bizarre intersection with the events of September 11th provide further proof that Dowdles sometimes lean a bit too much on unseemly provocation, but there’s something effective about the “re-enactment” here. Even though the entirety of this “documentary” is fake, this “dramatized” execution footage only heightens the illusion. In a somewhat ironic twist, The Poughkeepsie Tapes feels like a refined take on the found footage genre when it actually pre-dated that genre's boom at the turn of the decade. If there’s ever a resurgence in the form (and history insists there will be), those efforts would do well to take note of how the Dowdles crafted a completely believable, immersive world with this pastiche approach.
While their ordeal with The Poughkeepsie Tapes was obviously less than ideal, the Dowdles have done pretty well for themselves, having crafted a perfectly fine redux in Quarantine, a silly but entertaining thriller in Devil, and an unnerving exercise in existential dread in As Above, So Below. Having said all that, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is arguably their most striking film, as it taps into a primal fear of the banal, unassuming evil that dwells among us every day. One of the more chilling moments in the film comes when an FBI profiler describes the mood of a town haunted by such a terror because it forces you to consider what lurks amongst us in our everyday lives. When another authority figure later goes on to insist that the killer will eventually attend this documentary whenever it hits theaters, it feels like a dark twist on that final shot in The Town that Dreaded Sundown. Where Charles B. Pierce left viewers on an almost playful note, the Dowdles highlight the killer’s elusiveness one last time: he could be anywhere at this point, and even though he isn’t real, he’s still a representation of the various psychopaths that operate unbeknownst to all of us.
Of course, the notion that the killer would one day attend screenings of The Poughkeepsie Tapes now takes on an ironic tenor since the film remained buried for all of this time. At first, you can’t help but chuckle at it; eventually, though, you realize this nearly decade-long ordeal only makes the film even more disturbing. It turns out that authorities were never able to enable their plan to stake out screenings to find suspects because the film never made it to theaters. However unwittingly, the film manages to uphold its mystique even now that it’s been released, as this more low-key, long-delayed home video release years adds one more creepy dimension to its proceedings—not that it exactly needed it considering how unrelentingly nasty it is.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes finally arrives on Blu-ray/DVD courtesy of Scream Factory, who has produced a pair of interviews (totaling 50 minutes) featuring the Dowdle Brothers and Chbosky. That notorious original trailer also appears a decade after it first haunted theater screens, bringing the entire experience full circle.
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