Warning: This review may contain traces of spoilers, and may have come into contact with spoilers from other movies.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a 2007 film directed by John Erick Dowdle, the director of the 2008 [REC] remake Quarantine and the upcoming, M. Night Shyamalan-produced Devil. This fictional film is presented as a documentary about the strange and disturbing Poughkeepsie Tapes, a series of videos made by a twisted serial killer that document his crimes. Throughout the film we’re treated to amateur-looking clips of the murderer stalking his victims, attacking them, capturing them, and then performing gruesome acts of torture on them, all interspersed with interviews with the victims’ families and various experts. Much like other films of the fake documentary genre (I hesitate to use the word mockumentary, since there isn’t really any mocking going on here), The Poughkeepsie Tapes relies entirely on how convincingly realistic it is, but in this respect, The Poughkeepsie Tapes falls unfortunately short.
Movies made in this documentary style, such as The Blair Witch Project, Quarantine, Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, live and die on the effectiveness of their gimmick. Unlike the aforementioned films, The Poughkeepsie Tapes incorporates other documentary tropes like interviews with criminal experts and reinactments of some of the events surrounding the case of the killer known as “The Water Street Butcher,” but what it really comes down to is the effectiveness of the “found footage” portions of the film – the video shot by the killer that documents his sick and twisted crimes. This footage is presented as grainy, blurry, fuzzy video with poor colour balance that really does look like it was shot on a crappy video camera. Unfortunately, the image in these shots is so distorted that it’s difficult to tell what is even going on onscreen. Thus the film’s greatest strength also becomes its greatest weakness, and were it not for a good final act, I might have written this movie off entirely.
The film opens with an introduction to the premise. We meet the owner of the house where the Poughkeepsie Tapes were discovered and are quickly given a description of what we’re going to be watching. The film often relies on building tension by having characters describe just how disturbing the content of the titular tapes is – one character, the technician assigned to log all the tapes, talks about how after his wife saw what was on one, she wouldn’t let him touch her for over a year. This technique succeeds in building suspense, and you definitely become curious as to what the footage is going to show. The first clip we see, of the killer knocking out and abducting a child, is certainly creepy stuff and does a good job of setting the stage. But already the poor choice of distorting the video footage begins to show, and it only gets worse from here. I should note, though, that the score for this film is actually really solid, and I found myself cringing more from the tension-ratcheting music than from what was going on onscreen.
The film’s structure has a sort of up-and-down quality to it, in that the filmmakers will introduce a character, an FBI profiler for example, who will describe how awful and disgusting a certain portion of tape is, and then we will see the footage. Much like Paranormal Activity, it’s a series of rising and falling actions. As soon as a tape is done, another expert pops up to tell us how much worse the next one will be. The real meat of the movie is the tapes themselves, and unfortunately they are pretty hit-and-miss. The tape of the killer sneaking into Cheryl Dempsey’s house and hiding in her closet, only to creep out, kill her boyfriend and kidnap her is a great sequence. The tape of the killer forcing Cheryl to slit a prostitute’s throat in his basement is not. Thus the film becomes a series of attempts at horror and suspense, and you’ll probably find yourself mentally commenting on each one as it ends. “That was a good one.” “That was a bad one.” “I have no idea what was happening in that one.” Sometimes The Poughkeepsie Tapes is really scary, other times it’s ridiculous, and unintentionally so. Though I should say that there are one or two intentionally darkly comedic moments that I quite enjoyed, such as the “100 or so hours of weird balloon stuff” that was found on several of the tapes, and seems to consist entirely of scantily clad women inflating balloons and then bouncing on them trying to pop them.
As I said before, the final twenty minutes of the movie are its saving grace. After police have been completely unsuccessful in tracking the killer or even finding a single clue as to his identity, there is a break in the case and a suspect is discovered. That suspect is James Foley, a cop with a record of soliciting prostitutes. Foley is promptly arrested, put on trial and executed for his crimes, but shortly afterwards the Water Street Butcher strikes again and it becomes apparent that an innocent man was put to death. One touch that really impressed me in this sequence was the idea that the Foley trial got a lot of press, but because he was discovered to be innocent right around the time of 9/11, public knowledge of his innocence was buried, and people continue to think of him as a killer much to the dismay of his son Hank. The film continues on for a bit after this revelation, and the last moments of the movie are quite haunting (I won’t spoil them here, for that would ruin the shock value).
The Poughkeepsie Tapes isn’t a bad horror film. The strength of its premise carries it through its not-so-great bits, and the final act saves the film from being an exercise in boredom. It’s often a bit cheesy, but there are also some genuinely creepy moments. Ultimately, many of the tapes completely fail to live up to your expectations, but if you’re in the mood for a different style of documentary horror than the kind we usually get, you’ll probably find something in The Poughkeepsie Tapes to enjoy.
Maybe enjoy is a strong word.
3 out of 5