Thursday, October 13, 2011
The Poughkeepsie Tapes Review: Horrific Homicides Caught on Home Video
Being a horror movie fan requires a bit of effort to get the full benefits that this genre of cinema has to offer. There are the horror classics that everyone knows about (fan or not), classics that are usually easy to find for rental or purchase. Then there are the horror films that are heavily promoted by the big studios regardless of their actual quality; these too are easy to find and most people have heard of them. Yet there's another category of horror films, films that few people know about but are well worth seeking out because they provide shocks and shivers in ways that most mainstream and classic horror films don't. Such is the case of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a found footage mockumentary film that was directed by John Erick Dowdle and written by Dowdle and his brother Drew Dowdle.
I heard about Poughkeepsie Tapes back in 2007 when it was playing the indie film festival circuit. I didn't do much to look for it because on the basis of the brief plot summary that I initially heard, it sounded like the found footage version of a Saw movie (much like how Cloverfield is a found footage version of a kaiju movie or how The Last Exorcism is a found footage version of a demonic possession movie). As I heard more about the film over the years, I found out that Poughkeepsie Tapes is far from being a "torture porn" movie, so I decided to seek it out--except that I couldn't find it. Even though this movie got the Dowdle brothers work in Hollywood, Poughkeepsie Tapes didn't find a national distributor. After finally tracking this title down, I think I found out why: Poughkeepsie Tapes is a very good movie, perhaps too good for its own good. Read on for my complete review.
The story of Poughkeepsie Tapes is simple on its surface. It begins with the FBI finding a discarded cache of video tapes--over 800 of them, each numbered in chronological sequence--that were shot by a serial killer known as "The Water Street Butcher" as he stalked, tortured, murdered, mutilated and disposed of his many victims. The entire movie is structured like a documentary around this found footage, with criminal experts and friends and relatives of the victims providing their thoughts about the killer and the legacy he left behind. Because its plot structure is circular in nature, the movie ends pretty much like how it begins--with a mysterious and insatiable serial killer still on the loose--but just because you know how this film ends doesn't prepare you for what you'll see along the way.
What’s remarkable about Poughkeepsie Tapes is how the Dowdles used the narrative structure and tropes of documentaries to tell a story about a fictitious serial killer. There are times in the movie when the killer seems too perfect to commit as many murders that he has without getting caught and there are some candid scenes that feel somewhat scripted, but the film's strict adherence to the documentary style keeps you engrossed enough that these shortcomings don't shatter the illusion that the documentary is somehow "real". The end result of this storytelling format is reminiscent of Orson Welles' 1938 radio dramatization H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds--which I'm guessing is why you'll never see Poughkeepsie Tapes playing on any TV channel. Just like how some people tuned into Welles' dramatization and assumed that a real alien invasion was happening, it's not too far-fetched to think that someone could find Poughkeepsie Tapes during an afternoon of channel surfing and assume that he was watching a documentary about a real serial killer.
Having Poughkeepsie Tapes structured as a documentary also allowed the Dowdles to play with the audience's expectations of what will happen next. Since documentaries are very formal in how they organize and present information, the movie lulls you into passively accepting the information about the Water Street Butcher as it is given. Yet because this killer is fictitious and his story has never been told before by anyone else, it provides ample room for the Dowdles to throw in a few twists and turns that you'll never see coming. Some of these plot developments lead up to a discovery and an interview at the end that will make your skin crawl and stick with you long after the film is over.
Adding to the film's unnerving tone is the found footage itself. The footage in this movie differs from other found footage films in two significant ways: 1) the footage is only part of the movie, not all of it and 2) this is one of the few found footage horror movies that allows you to see through the eyes of the monster, not the victim(s). The footage itself is not very gory; like David Fincher's Seven, you'll hear more about the gore than see it, which leads your imagination to fill in the blanks provided in the distorted, grainy video footage. The killer's modus operandi is erratic enough that even though you see the footage through his eyes, you're never completely sure when, how and even who the killer will attack next--all you can do is sit back and watch. Furthermore, the poor quality of the video footage serves as an unmistakable suggestion that the killer watched these tapes repeatedly to relive his sadistic experiences.
Poughkeepsie Tapes could be regarded as a found footage slasher flick, but I don't think that categorization accurately captures what makes this film work. Pervious slasher flicks such as Psycho and Texas Chainsaw Massacre have looked to real life examples of serial murder for inspiration, and Poughkeepsie Tapes takes that practice a few steps further by framing its story as a documentary. Yet because the movie expertly emulates what a documentary looks and feels like, you can't help but to be reminded of how the media covers real cases of serial murder, rape, abduction, and abuse. Sure, the Water Street Butcher invites comparisons to real serial killers such as the Zodiac Killer, killers who went on killing sprees but were never caught, but you'll be left thinking just as much (if not more so) about the sensationalized media coverage of such killers. This is why Poughkeepsie Tapes is such an effectively creepy chiller: Even as you're watching this movie for the first time, the real life examples it emulates and that you've seen many, many times before will haunt you, no matter what the film's flaws are. Few other movies, horror or otherwise, use such familiarity so effectively to convey a pervasive feeling of unease.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is difficult to find, but well worth the effort to do so. Also, be sure to keep watching after the credits for a final frightening video clip.