Studio: Scream Factory
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writer: John Erick Dowdle
Producer: Drew Dowdle
Stars: Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Samantha Robson, Ivar Brogger, Lou George, Ron Harper, Kim Kenny, Lisa Black, Henry Dittman, Meredith Cross, Chip Godwin
Recovered videotapes as well as interviews with law enforcement and victims’ families detail the horrific crimes of an unidentified serial killer.
Having already made the film festival and review screener rounds in 2007, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” landed on MGM’s slate of theatrical releases planned for February 2008. Despite trailers in front of movies like “The Mist” confirming such an intention, that release never took place.
Instead, the “found footage” film remained shelved until it arrived with a whisper on DirectTV in 2014. Only one week after genre websites first picked up on the news of its long-awaited availability, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” vanished yet again. Producer Drew Dowdle explained to Shock Till You Drop at the time that MGM was mulling a multiplex possibility once more, prompting a lightning quick pull from the VOD stream.
That rumored theatrical release never happened either. Which is the long and short of how outside of its Tribeca premiere and seven-day window of DirectTV accessibility, Scream Factory’s 2017 Blu-ray became the first legal way to watch the film, a full ten years after its debut.
The deepest shame about this is that if “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” had released when initially intended, the memorable talking point wouldn’t be its decade-long dribble down the distribution pipeline. We might instead put “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” in “Paranormal Activity’s” place, since it predates Oren Peli’s powerhouse, as the effort that reignited the sagging “found footage” surge started by “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999.
Quite simply put, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” is the most frightening “found footage” film I have ever seen. When anyone asks me as a jaded horror junkie if there is any movie capable of rattling me, my first answer is “The Poughkeepsie Tapes.” It isn’t perfect. It isn’t polished. But it is unquestionably unnerving.
Presented as a documentary, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” chronicles the crimes of an unidentified serial killer through interviews with authorities as well as with videotapes intentionally left behind by the culprit. A terrifying portrait of human horror unfolds over 84 minutes as the unknown psychopath abducts children, imprisons women, mutilates corpses, and evolves into a madman the likes of which the FBI cannot comprehend.
“The Poughkeepsie Tapes” should not be mistaken for “torture porn.” While disturbing sequences are definitely included, the film is more suggestive than sensationalistic, which is what makes the experience so psychologically harrowing for a viewer.
One scene shows the killer casually hiding in a home while his target remains unaware. Another has two girl scouts unknowingly courting danger as uncomfortable houseguests. True terror sticks inside these brutally tense moments of quiet anticipation, wondering when, or if, an unthinkably deadly evil may finally spring.
The first footage featured depicts a shocking daylight kidnapping of an eight-year-old girl from her family’s front yard. The killer breathlessly pants his words with simultaneous caution and confidence in genuinely disturbing detail. From this point forward, “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” moves you to the edge of your seat with a warning that this isn’t a cinematically supernatural boogeyman. This is the relatable reality of an unassuming neighbor next-door on the nightly news when a chained child is found captive in his cellar.
Presentation hits a hurdle, and it’s a big one, with the bookending bits. “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” staffs a colossal cast of 85 names, more than half of whom are redundant. In addition to countless faux FBI experts, talking heads include two forensic pathologists, a medical technician, a physician, a psychologist, and a dismemberment expert when one-quarter of these people would work as well, probably better.
Director John Erick Dowdle aims to accentuate his air of authenticity by lengthening the interviewee list. Frankly, the majority of these actors are entirely unconvincing at best, and laughingly terrible at worst. Several cast members don’t come close to selling their supposed professions, and that hits the movie where it hurts most: its immersive fantasy of horror that could be ripped from true events.
With better, perhaps outright reshot interview interludes, there would be less cause to argue against the movie’s case for being one of the greatest “found footage” films of all-time. Because the “found footage” itself is absolutely fantastic.
The videos recorded by the killer while committing his heinous acts are nearly flawless as far as chill inducement goes. While the theatricality of a plague doctor masked-man making marionette movements toward a hogtied woman makes for awful imagery, the late 1990s/early 2000s timeframe adds a VHS veneer of underground snuff to the skin-crawling creeps. Wavy-lined warping and discolored distortions offer organic eeriness that contemporary “found footage” can’t get from digital glitches and sharp audio hisses. This film finds fright in its feel.
Smart scripting adapted from actual serial murderer behavior and trauma survivor mentalities elevates the sense of legitimacy. Subtly haunting music heightens heart-pounding highlights. In terms of leaving an impression capable of creating nightmares, few films command the power “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” packs.
Watch it alone at night with your doors unlocked. See how long you last before pressing pause to turn each deadbolt and flip on every light.
P.S. “Pop it!”
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 90
Sorting Through the Tapes: For the better part of half an hour on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release of the film, director John Erick Dowdle and his brother, producer Drew Dowdle, discuss their filmmaking origins along with the genesis of “The Poughkeepsie Tapes.” Among their revelations is the fact that John had never been to Poughkeepsie when he wrote the script, though he thought the title sounded terrific. 15 shooting were divided between 13 days devoted to the “found footage” and just two days for all of the talking heads, going a really long way in explaining why those segments sag. It’s interesting to hear how “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” led to a quick sale after its premiere, signing with a talent agency for both brothers, and a studio film deal while the movie itself headed for a far different fate. However, both brothers agree that the underground cult status of their movie may have been the best thing for it in the end.
The Willing Victim: Over the course of 22 minutes, actress Stacy Chbosky recounts the story of how she was cast, which coincides with the story of how she married director John Erick Dowdle. Chbosky reveals that she inadvertently created the starring role for herself when she suggested to her husband that his story needed a character for the audience to follow, as Cheryl Dempsey was not part of his original plot. Chbosky also provides insight into why she made certain choices like giving Cheryl a French braid, a seemingly innocuous addition that actually reveals quite a bit to discerning “The Poughkeepsie Tapes” fans.