By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer and Ivar Brogger
Written and directed by John Erick Dowdle
In the pair of featurettes accompanying THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES on its very-long-in-coming Blu-ray release (from Shout! Factory under its Scream Factory banner), writer/director John Erick Dowdle, producer Drew Dowdle and actress Stacy Chbosky observe that the movie’s cancelled theatrical release, originally a source of frustration, might have been a blessing in disguise. That fate amped up curiosity about the movie, making it something to be sought out and discovered. Now it has finally emerged, and like the titular unearthed VHS cassettes, it’s a creepy yet frustrating experience.
Following its premiere at New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival in 2007, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was snapped up by MGM—which then proceeded to abandon it, with only a one-week airing on DirecTV in 2014 giving the movie any (legitimate) exposure. That left PARANORMAL ACTIVITY to become the found-footage sensation of the late ’00s, inspiring a thousand copycats, which might blunt POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES’ impact for those who see it now. Specifically, to be fair, it’s more about discovered footage than a facsimile of it, structured as a documentary incorporating talking heads, editing and music. Similar actual programs on serial killers continue to draw viewers to this day—and one reason is that revealing what drives such malefactors, and ascribing them concrete psychological motivations, offers a certain level of comfort, taking away the mystery of their crimes in a manner that makes them easier to deal with.
No such rationalizations can be gleaned from THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, in which the actions of one very sadistic kidnapper/murderer are discussed and dramatized for 81 minutes, but never explained. We see what he does and are told how he does it, through both on-camera interviews with people ostensibly involved in his case and snippets from the titular videos, which the killer supposedly shot himself and were discovered when the authorities raided his house. But we’re never given insight into the reasons why he brutalized and slew his victims, which lends the movie a harsh level of uneasy tension even as it ultimately makes the experience of watching it dramatically unsatisfying.
The movie first alludes to the breadth of the villain’s mayhem by having one law officer show us just how large the collection of recovered tapes is. Adding extra punch, we’re informed that a sizable percentage of them are devoted to one victim: Cheryl Dempsey (Chbosky), a 19-year-old abducted from her home, kept captive for years and subjected to agonizing physical and psychological abuse. Over that period, countless other people, from little girls to innocent young couples to prostitutes, became part of the body count, their fates captured for posterity through the lens of the camcorder the killer always carried with him. All the while, he continued to change his m.o., from body-disposing techniques to his choice of victims, so that profiling and thus capturing him proved impossible.
Dowdle, of course, was far from the first filmmaker to apply a literal or figurative subjective camera to a serial-slayer storyline even back in ’07, and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES carries echoes of everything from MAN BITES DOG to HALLOWEEN (one lengthy sequence is a direct homage to the opening of John Carpenter’s classic). Visually, the filmmaker keeps the movie from being a gratuitous exercise in vérité grunge, sprinkling the rough, degraded images from the tapes among “interview” footage that’s clean, slick and colorful. Both the documentary stylings of the filmmaking and the naturalistic central performances are persuasive (a few of the supporting turns are far less so), and the excerpts from the killer’s cassettes, particularly those devoted to Cheryl’s extreme mistreatment, are properly upsetting and horrifying.
What’s missing is a sense that the mockumentary approach is being used to say something fresh about serial killers or, indeed, the tropes of non-fiction filmmaking itself. Both the “recovered” images and the on-camera testimony are relentlessly directed toward a solitary goal—demonstrating just how frightening and unstoppable its subject is—to the exclusion of observations about what might have driven his bloodlust. Not that a horror film necessarily needs a rationalization for its monster’s behavior—HALLOWEEN’s Michael Myers, for example, was scariest when he was simply evil personified—and for a while, one can share in the terror that the “Water Street Butcher” engendered in both his victims and the general populace. But with Dowdle adopting the characteristics of a genre devoted to revealing truths, any such revelations in THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES ultimately become conspicuous by their absence.
Nor is there a protagonist on the side of right given enough screen time to provide a focal point for audience identification; even poor Cheryl, one brief moment excepted, is seen wholly from the remorseless point of view of her abductor’s camera. And given that the murderer is something of a documentarian himself, Dowdle misses a chance to examine or comment on the relationship between the commission of horrible acts, their preservation via video technology and what it means to the various parties to view them after the fact. The result is an objective, rather than subjective, viewing experience that’s sometimes chilling yet otherwise emotionally cold; if it were a real documentary, it could be taken to task for not digging beneath the surface of its subjects and situations, and the same criticism, I believe, applies to it as a fiction film as well.
Conversely, those interview segments in Shout!’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack shed a good deal of light on the movie’s creation. In the 33-minute “Sorting Through the Tapes,” the Dowdles (who went on to have a successful career on studio fare like QUARANTINE, AS ABOVE, SO BELOW and others) offer a full history of THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, starting with their backgrounds, continuing through the tricks they employed to get the film done on a tiny budget and then addressing MGM’s abandonment—which stemmed at least in part from an ill-fated Butt-Numb-A-Thon screening in Austin, TX. The duo remain philosophical about the experience, noting that a decade later, they wouldn’t change anything about THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES. In the 23-minute “The Willing Victim,” Chbosky reveals that (like Harrison Ford on STAR WARS) she started out simply serving as a reader for auditioning actors to play off of, before eventually winning her role (and marrying John Erick Dowdle). She also recalls her intense, disturbing role with a lot more humor than anyone will feel while watching it.