This week's Double Feature podcast reminded me that I was once very interested in seeing The Poughkeepsie Tapes. The subject of a brief ad campaign in 2007, the found-footage movie drummed up a lot of buzz in some circles before mysteriously disappearing ahead of release. As show hosts Eric and Michael teased their audience with giddy "too-bad-you'll-never-be-able-to-see-it-like-we-lucky-bastards-did" banter, I jealously clenched my iPod. But only in he moment before I remembered that no film is truly lost in the YouTube era.*
Sure enough, someone posted director John Erick Dowdle's entire faux documentary/snuff film online. The image quality is decent, and the movie hasn't been broken into annoying chunks like many of the site's videos. So, yes, you can now watch The Poughkeepsie Tapes.
But should you?
Read on and find out.
The premise is solid: Dowdle and his co-writing partner/brother, Drew, present their movie as an analysis of a fictitious serial killer who calls himself "Ed" (Ben Messmer). The filmmakers interview FBI agents, cops, forensics experts, victims' families, and every other archetype to ever pop up on CSI. These are intercut with grisly footage from Ed's personal collection of over twenty-five-hundred video cassettes, all found in a closet at his Poughkeepsie, New York home. A former profiler named Moakes (Ron Harper) teaches a course on the tapes, and warns his fresh-faced Bureau cadets that at least three of them won't return to class the next day--will, in fact, give up their dreams of pursuing criminals altogether.
Ed's killings are brutal. But the Dowdles know that their core audience has seen this kind of thing before, dating all the way back to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. So they up the ante and the "ick" factor by making their villain a truly indiscriminate monster. His first victim is an eight-year-old girl, who we see attacked and kidnapped from right off her parents' front lawn. We never see Ed during the whole movie,** but his panicked breathing and uneasy voice during this seduction and abduction reveal the nervous excitement of a first kill. The story follows his evolution into a more self-assured stalker, then a surgically precise butcher and, eventually, a costumed egomaniac.
If none of this sounds appetizing, I'd stay away from The Poughkeepsie Tapes. For most people, it will be a thoroughly unpleasant experience whose psychological horrors are compounded by a hell of a downer ending.
If this sounds like your kind of thing, I still recommend skipping the movie--at least until you've watched August Underground. I've mentioned that film a number of times as the gold standard against which I measure all "disturbing" movies; this may be my most apt comparison. Released half a decade before the Dowdles shot an inch of film, Fred Vogel's masterpiece of a shocking VHS diary did it first and did it better. My biggest problem with The Poughkeepsie Tapes is that the interview subjects are clearly actors, most of whom aren't very good.
The only reason for a movie like this to exist is to provide the viewer with the illusion that they're watching something real. Otherwise, the experience becomes a technical exercise, rather than a truly unsettling and unforgettable nightmare. Sure, I admire Dowdle's mastery of the warbly video distortions that give Ed's stalking scenes a suitably surreal quality (mirroring, I'm sure, the killer's warped world view). There's also a great encounter with a stranded English motorist towards the end, in which the darkness of the car, streaming sunlight from the windshield, and motion of the moving vehicle conspire to give us a strangely beautiful animation of the woman's face as it dawns on her that the helpful passerby will be the last person she ever sees.
It's a beautiful technique. It's also an obvious one. I could probably bring over a copy of August Underground to any one of your houses, plop it in the DVD player and, without any introduction, convince you that we're watching real-life torture footage.*** It's only towards the end that we see evidence of a guiding hand; every other second feels like a lifetime of kind acts being whittled off the soul. It's a filthy, debased movie that pushes the boundaries of what is entertaining--and possibly what is legal.
By contrast, the Dowdles merely blow opportunities left and right. The tension of two young girl scouts soliciting cookie sales at Ed's house is undercut by the actresses' inexperience. The seriousness with which I took the lead FBI agent was lessened by his convention-center-loaner desk. And, I'm sorry, but I don't ask the "What are you filming us for?" question after I've let a hitchhiker into my back seat.
Had I never seen August Underground, there's a chance I might have zipped right past these issues (and the dozen more like them), and been sufficiently freaked out by the Dowdles' movie. If you have the stomach for it, I suggest watching both films and noting why one is ungodly effective and the other feels like student work in comparison. It's not even as convincing as The Blair Witch Project which, ahead of its release, was actually sold to some as a real-life ghost story.
I'm glad I finally got to see The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and I now understand why it might have had trouble getting released. It doesn't scream "mass appeal" on any level, and the few really interesting moments are overshadowed by the rest of the film's eighty mediocre minutes. I'm not offended by the rape, mutilation, hostage-taking, or murder; it's the lack of novelty that really turns my stomach.
*Except for Jerry Lewis' holocaust drama, The Day the Clown Cried--every cinephile's Holy Grail of unfinished business.
**One expert suspects that some of the twenty-six tapes missing in the killer's chronologically numbered stash may have revealed his identity by mistake.
***I don't recommend this.