Subgenre: Found Footage / Serial Killer
Summary: A documentary chronicles the exploits of a brutal serial murderer.
Review: The Poughkeepsie Tapes differentiates itself from most found footage horror movies by presenting itself as a mockumentary made after the fact rather than the unearthed video of a now-vanished camera crew. It’s a choice that makes the proceedings a bit more believable and removes the inevitability of the standard they’re-all-dead found footage ending. But this (relative) realism proves to be a double-edged sword by the movie’s end.
The tapes the title refers to are the torture and snuff films of the water street butcher, a serial killer active in upstate New York from the 1990s to the present, discovered by law enforcement during a raid on the killer’s former residence. Along with interviews with police, medical examiners, and others, the movie shows brief glimpses of the killer’s twisted home movies and attempts to shed some light his psychology. The narrative also zeroes in on the case of Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky) a woman held captive as the water street butcher’s personal slave.
And that’s about it, as far as plot goes. True to the documentary form it’s aping, The Poughkeepsie Tapes offers a series of chronological developments rather than a tightly-paced structure, and for much of its running time, the decision pays off. The low-key interview scenes add some flavor and context to the killer’s story, and contrast sharply with the periodic returns to the disturbing snuff videos. Special mention goes to the lo-fi visuals; both the bland compositions of the documentary segments and the shaky grain of the killer’s tapes further the movie’s chilly atmosphere. Some of the latter prove to be the horror highlights of the movie, including footage of a child abduction that’s nothing less than bone-chilling. Unfortunately, after the sixth or seventh tape these parts of the movie merely repeat themselves, and the editors have a bad habit of overdoing the distortion effects during otherwise-creepy scenes.
My biggest issue with The Poughkeepsie Tapes is also what arguably makes it work: its refusal to be anything other than po-faced. This self-seriousness helps build tension and immersion in the movie’s first half but becomes stale by the second. The tone becomes particularly baffling when one considers the inherent ridiculousness of its premise, which concerns a nigh-uncatchable killer committing dozens of murders without making a single misstep. With an over-the-top setup like this, why not inject a bit of life into the proceedings? I’m not suggesting transforming the movie into a camp-fest, but a little bit of theatricality – perhaps in the form of an Ahab-like vengeance-seeker – couldn’t hurt. In the end, the filmmakers fail to understand that the reason mockumentaries exist is to be more – more exciting, more entertaining, and more terrifying – than the real thing.
The Verdict: The Poughkeepsie Tapes has its disturbing moments, but they’re not quite enough to offset its drab repetitiveness. I give it five prolific predators out of ten.