Few films have generated as much controversy for horror film buffs as this little-seen and still-unreleased film. Written and directed by the Dowdle Brothers who have gone on to the American remake of Quarantine and M. Night Shymalan’s Devil, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a faux-documentary that mixes clips of FBI agents, cops, victim’s family members, and television reporters with the found-footage genre.
The legend of this film is at least as interesting as the film itself: premiering at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, when found-footage films were still relatively new–or at least not beat entirely to death–word of mouth, both positive and negative, was strong. The film subsequently disappeared, having been show publicly just once, only for MGM to pick up the rights and push a trailer into theaters in early 2009. The trailer became a sensation and again built up quite a bit of excitement amongst horror movie fans who were once again disappointed when the movie failed to appear in theaters. Four years later, The Poughkeepsie Tapes still hasn’t seen the light of day, and no explanation for this is forthcoming from anyone related to the film.
Very few people have actually seen the film which, similar to The Blair Witch Project, was billed as "based on a true story about an actual serial killer" and was purported to contain actual snuff video of a handful of the murders. The few who have seen the film typically fall on opposite sides of the line, with some dismissing it as an amateurish and unrealistic hack job (no pun intended) while others hail it as deeply disturbing and terrifying. The reality is that sometimes a film is built up by word of mouth for so long that it’s practically impossible to live up to its billing. I can distinctly remember the first time I finally saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hearing the legends for so many years, I was terribly disappointed at the lack of gore in the film as I had read and heard for nearly a decade about how violent the film was (just so you know, as I matured I gained a new appreciation for the film and came to understand that the effectiveness of TCM stems from what it makes the viewer think he or she has seen). But I digress…for the record, I’m somewhere in between the lovers and the haters. But regardless of what the lucky few who actually saw the film thought of it, as happens far too frequently on the Internet, many viewers mentioned the snuff elements of the film and detailed the level of violence, blowing it entirely out of proportion. And over time conspiracy theorists began planting the seeds of distrust, claiming everything from the government confiscating the video because of actual snuff footage to the distribution company burying it because it was so poorly done. Again, wrong on both counts…at least I think.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes concerns the "real-life" tale of the Water Street Butcher, a fiend so brilliantly devious that he would change his M.O. and his victimology so as to keep the police at bay. In fact, he was so good at this that it was six murders in before law enforcement even recognized the possibility of a pattern. And it wasn’t until the killer actually led the police to his abandoned home and a closet filled with sequentially-labeled videotapes that detectives and the FBI became aware of just how long this serial killer had been active. At one point, the killer is even able to frame a retired cop who subsequently is convicted of two dozen murders. The killer then patiently waits until the death penalty is applied to the falsely-convicted man before sending a map to the cops with the message "You missed one", an "X" marking the spot of the latest victim.
The film is more about the story of the investigation than it is of the killer himself or the murders. As in any good documentary (or mockumentary in this case), there are plenty of talking heads spouting their take on who the killer is and speculating on his motives. And occasionally there are clips of some of the alleged 2,400 hours (!) of videotapes left behind by the killer, who always appears in a mask on the tapes and who remains unidentified to this day. We see his first abduction and murder of an eight-year-old girl, which seemingly occurs at the spur of the moment and propels this maniac into a life of violence. There are other clips, too: of a husband and wife who pick up the killer who fakes an empty gas tank and then leads the couple to a lonely country lane and an abandoned gas station so he can finish them off; of the two small girl scouts who enter the killer’s home only to be spooked by strange noises coming from the basement and leave the house, never to know how close they came to death; and of a creepy home invasion, Manson-style, that leaves another couple devastated. But the focus of the story becomes one young lady who is abducted after having car trouble and her mother’s agonizing eight-year wait to discover what happened to her daughter. Clips from the tapes are used to construct this part of the story, interspersed with various "authorities" discussing the clips. These clips show the initial abduction, as the girl is duped into thinking her kidnapper is a policeman, to her initial torture in the killer’s hellish dungeon, and her subsequent brainwashing over nearly a decade. One can only speculate, but the killer may have become bored with his plaything, and left her in his house clinging to life in a handmade coffin along with the videotapes. The film then documents the young woman’s re-entry into "normalcy", but she is so devastated by the years of torture and abuse that she suffers from Stockholm Syndrome and constantly asks for her Master, even going so far as to continue to hurt herself in a macabre attempt at maintaining what she now knows as "normalcy".
As the film ends, it seems the killer has again stopped the violence and police now speculate that he has died or is possibly in prison. But in a the final shots, we see yet another young woman tied to a post. The killer makes a deal–she can stay alive as long as she doesn’t blink. Hyperventilating and in hysterics, the young woman valiantly attempts to keep her eyelids open, but the final shot of the film shows that she loses the battle. It is clear the killer is still on the prowl, but he’s gone underground, no doubt surfacing again to torture the public, but on his own terms, not theirs.
One of the most obvious criticisms of the film from the perspective of recent viewers is that The Poughkeepsie Tapes is just another rehash of found-footage and torture porn. But if one realizes that the film was created in 2007 (only two years after Hostel and the same year as Hostel II), one understands that this isn’t necessarily a fair criticism. Yes, when viewed with the perspective the year 2013 brings, it seems like just another imitation in a slew of imitations. But in 2007, the genre was just really beginning to gather steam, so the actuality is that while the film isn’t a pioneering effort in any way, neither is it simply an imitation. Another criticism of the film is the quality of the found footage. Most of this footage has obviously been manipulated and degraded to look like early-90’s video, complete with nearly-black action, highly grainy black-and-white footage, and other footage that rolls as if the tracking was never stabilized. Some critics found this so difficult to watch as to detract from the film while others found it too stylized and fake, arguing that even early 90’s footage wouldn’t typically be this bad. While I can’t disagree with the poor quality of these obviously manipulated images, my theory is simply that the filmmakers determined to make this footage hard to see because of limitations with special effects (the one truly gory scene showing a decapitation is fairly obviously staged) and possibly a way to limit the amount of on-screen violence, the better to secure a possible R-rating (which the film did receive). In other words, it was an artistic choice, and in my opinion the correct choice. While I am not offended by on-screen violence no matter how bloody, just as Tobe Hooper perhaps realized with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, sometimes less is truly more. Other criticisms of the film include horrendous acting across the board and some poor writing regarding the authenticity of some of the forensic statements made in the film. While it’s true there is some questionable acting (see the female FBI analyst who is utterly ridiculous) and some fairly bad choices in writing (the "dismemberment expert" comes to mind as does the fact that the FBI is using evidence from an active investigation to "weed out" new recruits who may not have the intestinal fortitude for the business), for the most part I found the acting palatable and was interested enough in the plot to be able to dismiss, even when I noticed, some of the sillier plot elements. In short, I’ve seen much, much worse.
Strengths include what I thought were interesting plot points such as the framing of the policeman, some genuinely chilling segments of stalking and capturing victims, and some very creepy scenes including one when the killer walks on all fours wearing a double mask and slowly approaches one of his victims who is tied to a pole. The way the killer wore the mask and the way he walked on all fours reminded me of the spider sequence in The Exorcist. Another powerful sequence is the supposed interview with the lone survivor who is merely a shell of her former self: pale, drawn, scarred, and obviously disturbed. Then there is absolute shock on the part of the viewer as the girl reaches up to scratch her head and we realize she has no hand!
So in the end, perhaps the most fatal flaw of this legendary and controversial film is the fact that it hasn’t been seen. Neither the scariest nor the most violent film I’ve seen, it’s also not the worst example of its genre and manages to be unique enough to be interesting and can also generate a few occasions of dread in the viewer. While the film has never been released in any legitimate form, it is remarkably easy to locate online in complete form and excellent quality–making it even more surprising that it is still spoken about with such fervor as a film that remains little seen. Perhaps in years to come as more people discover this diamond in the rough, or it eventually receives some kind of official release, it will be reevaluated. But for now, if your interest has been piqued, hit the Internet and do a quick search, settle in with your laptop, and judge for yourself: The Poughkeepsie Tapes.