THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES Blu-ray Review
THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES has a very interesting story in terms of how it made its way to Blu-ray. Completed in 2007, shown at the Tribeca film festival, and subsequently picked up by MGM, it seemed that the film was destined for a 2008 release to theaters. The Dowdle brothers were even signed to a contract and offered the chance to create a remake of the Spanish language film, REC. In 2008, they did just that when Quarantine was released to theaters. MGM was going through quite a lot of financial difficulty in the latter part of the decade so POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was removed from the release schedule and fell by the wayside. It popped up briefly in 2014 via on-demand networks but then disappeared again with no home video release even being mentioned. Like some small films that make the circuit rounds, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES took on a bit of a cult following for being a terrifying film that was little seen. In 2017, Shout Factory imprint, Scream Factory announced a home video release which became available on October 10th, 2017, 10 years after the films completion. So the question of the moment…..is THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES a horrifying way to spend a haunting, October night or should it be at the bottom of your unwatched pile for a while longer?
(Please note that there are spoilers in the below comments, so skip this portion if you are going to watch the film yourself and want to remain in the dark about plot elements. You’ve been warned!)
The film opens with an overhead view of some beautiful countryside in the fall, cut with scenes of a hearse arriving at a cemetery. We also see home movies of a young girl smiling and dancing and she is soon introduced as Cheryl Dempsey. We then cut to some “talking head” style interview clips with various members of the FBI, law enforcement, etc. discussing a serial killer and crime scene. The next image we see is a grainy, shaky, video image of someone looking through a camera at a young girl sitting in her front yard. The camera operator begins moving towards the young girl and asking her questions which she is hesitant to answer. We learn the camera operator is male by his voice. The man hits the girl (which we hear on camera but do not see), picks her up, throws her in the back of his car and drives off. The remainder of the film follows the killer as he chooses victims, stumbles into a few, and tortures women in his basement.
We now know that this film is a faux documentary with the basic conceit being that the killer carries his video camera everywhere he goes and documents everything from kidnappings to torture. The TAPES in the title are described as video tapes containing 2400 hours of footage shot by the killer himself. The killer’s camera is a first-person view to see what we need to see of his part of the story while being informed by the various interviewees about the law enforcement investigation that leads to the discovery of the tapes. The whole thing plays out like a more violent version of 48 Hours, the CBS show that documents/re-enacts true crimes with it’s mix of interviews and various video segments.
Cheryl Dempsey, the main kidnap victim, is our window into the world of the killer. She is kidnapped at 19 and spends a lot of time chained up in the basement being tortured by the killer, watching him torture others, and being forced to call him master and refer to herself as “slave”. The highlight of the film for me was the entire scene where the killer enters Cheryl’s home at night, goes upstairs, enters her bedroom while she is showering, hides his camera on a shelf, goes to hide in a closet while she dresses and chats with her boyfriend, all while we look at the closet door that is ajar and wait for the worst. There is a classic, creepy sense of fear and dread throughout this entire scene that is very well shot and developed by the filmmakers. It has a very “Halloween-like” vibe to it that the director even alludes to in a supplemental feature where he mentions his love of the 1978 John Carpenter classic.
Sadly, I found few other moments in THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES that ever equaled this one scene. There are some disturbing scenes in the basement that are often grainy and wavy due to the source being a video tape recorder. Then there are a couple of scenes that are very clear and gruesome including one spooky moment where the killer enters the room on all floors with a Michael Myers type mask on the top of his head, which makes him appear as if he is deformed and otherworldly. There are also some very ingenious uses of shadows as a way to see the killer without actually seeing him. Then there are some trippy shots of a girl on a balloon ball that are clever and odd at the same time. I will stand up and say right now that I have never been a fan of the “torture porn” genre that swept through horror movies several years ago. I like my horror to be more suggestive than obvious and this film plays to that pretty closely. Other than a few, small moments, gore hounds will be disappointed with this film, especially since the R rating comes stamped with “sadistic violence and torture” on the back of the box. That was just fine with me but it all depends on what you’re after in a horror movie.
The whole thing goes by in a brisk, 86 minutes and I was left feeling rather empty? While extremely well made and thought out (which is enforced even more when you listen to the interview with the Dowdle brothers and learn how much time and effort they put into this incredibly short, 15 day shoot), I couldn’t help but feel as if I was still waiting for a plot or a sense of urgency. I didn’t find there to be a driving, thematic element to the screenplay that kept me interested. It was very much presented as a video diary of sorts, interspersed with police talking about the crimes and investigation. I just never believed that the two elements were tightly woven together in a way that gripped me like that one scene mentioned above. I don’t simply want to watch a movie, I want to participate and feel like a part of the chase. The ending was nicely pulled together with a clever/shocking moment during an interview.
It’s hard to grade the video in a “found footage” film so the best I can say is that the disc seems to present the video as it was intended. During the supplements, the director says that they used real film for the interview portions of the movie and shot the killer’s footage on VHS tape to maintain the look. Brightly lit scenes shot outdoors offer a crisp image but the bulk of the action takes place on tape, with the grainy video and tracking troubles that the format is famous for.
THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio with a mono track. In keeping with the documentary style, we shouldn’t expect surround sound and deep bass extension, especially from a VHS tape recorder.
The music is extremely well done in this film. The opening scenes are accompanied by a very 70’s style track that lends a creepy, old movie vibe. There is limited music throughout to help us remain in the right perspective but there are terrific moments where you realize that there is music, often masked as a pounding, heartbeat mass of noise and fury. A lot of restraint was shown to use music at key moments without invading the action on screen by drawing attention to itself.
Extras are limited to the theatrical trailer and an interview with the Dowdle brothers about their experiences during and after the film. They offer some great insight into the way they had to make things work due to lack of money. We are also treated to a very interesting discussion about how and why things are as they are. Both brothers come off as likeable and sincere and, honestly, I came away feeling better about my experience with the movie after watching the interview. They share some candid thoughts about how things happened for them as a result of this film that ring true and bring greater clarity to the production.
The Bottom Line:
THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was not a bad film by any means, I just didn’t find it scary or particularly disturbing. Let me be clear that there are scenes of torture perpetrated against women that many would find objectionable so it’s not for the faint of heart. Perhaps my response is a matter of expectation because I had heard great things about the film for quite awhile? It is certainly obvious that the brothers are talented and know how to get a lot out of a micro budget scene, I just came away with more appreciation than fear. It also should be mentioned that anyone who has seen some of the found footage movies of recent years should remember that this film was made 10 years ago and we’re seeing it after many more incarnations of the style. If there are things in this review that pique your interest then it’s worth taking 86 minutes of your life to check out the film. I always have a backlog of movies to watch so these things often come down to free time for me. I think you should keep the Blu-ray in your pile, just don’t move it directly to the top.
- Eric Presson