From the filmmakers that brought you Quarantine and As Above, So Below comes a descent into the twisted crimes of a serial killer!
Throughout the 1990s, a serial killer terrorized upstate New York. After a decade-long crime spree conducted largely under the radar of law enforcement, the killer left behind the most disturbing collection of evidence homicide detectives had even seen – hundreds of homemade videotapes that chronicled the stalking, abduction, murder and disposal of his victims.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes examines these horrific tapes at length: what they reveal about the killer, why they were made and how FBI profilers have used them to better understand violent, psychopathic behavior. The Poughkeepsie Tapes combines interviews surrounding the devastating impact of the "Water Street Butcher," with shocking footage from the tapes themselves.
“There is over 100 Hours of weird balloon stuff on those tapes.”
Writer/Director John Erik Dowlde’s (As Above So Below) faux found footage documentary The Poughkeepsie Tapes was prepped for a 2007 theatrical release but was unexpectedly pulled by MGM at the last minute. Said to be the next Blair Witch Project, the found footage genre was in full speed ready for the eventual height of the genre with Paranormal Activity. Due to a confusing marketing campaign and a festival screening gone awry, audiences didn’t really see the film until a brief VOD release years later. These things happen all the time. Films are produced, marketed, and even have a trailer before disappearing with an eventual life on DVD or streaming service. Thanks to Scream Factory we have a chance to see the film, but how does it fare in the sea of found footage horror/thrillers?
The faux documentary opens on an abandoned house in early 1990’s Poughkeepsie, New York where FBI agents have discovered 800 video tapes hidden in a closet and a backyard full of decomposing bodies. FBI special investigators reveal that the tapes are footage of a serial killer documenting himself stalking, torturing, and killing his prey in very unusual and theatrical ways. Erratically jumping between footage from the tapes to interviews with victim’s family members and authorities we’re given a frightening portrait of the crazed killer dubbed the “Water Street Butcher”.
Writer/Director John Erick Dowdle bookends the film with the story of Butcher victim Cheryl Dempsey who becomes the fuel for the film’s momentum. Throughout the “documentary” we are introduced to numerous victims by witnessing their demise on grainy VHS tapes from the killer’s POV. This isn’t some torture porn violence. This is very real looking psychological torture with some costumed theatricality thrown in for added intensity. What The Poughkeepsie Tapes teaches us is that you don’t need elaborate gory violence and effects to generate real scares. Witnessing the sheer emotional violence he thrusts upon his victims through the fuzz of VHS grain is unsettling at best. The reaction of a victim staring straight into camera when she realizes there is no gas station down the road to help. The overexposed video of a hogtied Cheryl is downright terrifying to see. The killer’s videos are more than just a static document of death, but a performance the killer is directing with each one becoming more elaborate.
Some of the most unsettling scenes in the film aren’t the victim’s deaths but the smaller throwaway moments that hint at something darker. My favorite being the “weird balloon stuff”. Peppered throughout the film is an eerie video of a woman in her underwear sitting on balloon trying desperately to pop it. At first, it seems like a silly diversion in the film that humanizes an otherwise inhuman person by administering a common fetish element. However, as the story progresses our focus is forced from the absurdity of the balloon woman footage and onto her terrified expression as the Butcher orders her to keep bouncing. Unlike most found footage horror, this film is rooted in reality rather than the supernatural. No spirits, no ghosts, and no weird girls climbing out of the TV. To me, that is what makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes such an effective found footage horror film.
There is a common thread amongst critics of the film that the weakest parts of The Poughkeepsie Tapes are the interview segments. Unfortunately, I have to agree. So much time and effort was taken to stage and create the Butcher’s psycho sadomasochistic world that the staged interviews nearly sank the ship for me. Segments such as the “Media Expert” interview and the “Dismemberment Expert” unfortunately appear like a high school production of “Unsolved Mysteries”. This is not to say that it’s a bad movie! Not at all. Dowdle’s film puts the money and talent where it counts: the Water Street Butcher tapes. The footage created for those sequences is stomach turning.
Found footage horror is a tough genre to crack anymore and sadly I think this one would’ve turned some heads back in ‘07 if it had the chance. Between the creepy found footage elements having that lovely VHS patina to the escalating tension, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a chilling piece of voyeuristic horror worth visiting.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Poughkeepsie Tapes finally arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to Shout! Factory’s horror label Scream Factory. Produced in a Combo Pack with a Region 1 DVD the discs are housed in a side by side keepcase with a double-sided artwork sleeve. Disc loads directly to a static Main Menu screen with navigation options.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Poughkeepsie Tapes is presented in 1080p with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. During present-day interview segments, colors are bright and costume textures are apparent with good detail and color reproduction. Blacks levels are consistent throughout the feature. The found footage segments of the film are shot on DV and edited to appear like VHS complete with static, color fading, and wobble. The HD presentation looks as good as it should, given the filmmaker’s intent for both the VHS tapes and the present day documentary interview pieces. I’d recommend watching the Blu-ray in low light or complete darkness to catch all the wonderful details hidden in the dark VHS segments.
With DTS-HD MA 2.0 and DD 2.0 Mono audio tracks, The Poughkeepsie Tapes sounds wonderfully creepy and edgy. Dialogue is very clear with effects and downbeat scoring complementing the mix nicely. I suggest keeping the volume up to enhance the experience. English Subtitles available.
Sorting Through the Tapes (HD 33:33) Produced by Shout! Factory this interview with John and Drew Dowdle is where curious fans should start after watching the film. The brothers address everything from the inspirations for the film through the controversy and rumors surrounding its disappearance for 10 years.
The Willing Victim (HD 22:42) Stacy Chbosky, wife of director John Dowdle, speaks at length about her experiences playing Cheryl Dempsey in the film.
Theatrical Trailer (HD 1:39)
DVD Copy of Film
After disappearing for a decade, The Poughkeepsie Tapes finds a fitting home at Scream Factory where underground oddities like this belong. The engaging central story and horrific found footage scenes carry this film beyond the shortcomings and constraints of low budget filmmaking. It’s absence from the horror scene has built up hype that pays off in spades. Dowdle’s attention to the found footage aesthetic is relentless. It’s an unsettling experience that I’d to revisit with the lights on and the doors locked. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray release provides an excellent A/V presentation and a set of special features worth checking out. Highly Recommended for Horror Fans.