Retro-review: Available for the first time on BluRay/DVD from The Shout Factory!
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Written by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle
Starring Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Samantha Robson, Ivar Brogger, Lou George, Amy Lyndon, Michael Lawson, Ron Harper, Kim Kenny, Scott Beehner, Kelli Bielema, Linda Bisesti, Lisa Black, Bill Bookston, William Bookston, Oto Brezina, Jules Bruff, Paul Buxton, Todd Cahoon, Larry Clarke, Blaire Chandler, Bruce Cronander, Meredith Cross, Henry Dittman, Bobby Eskandari, Dennis Garber, Chip Godwin, Jennifer Griswold, David Haack, Keisuke Hoashi, Sean Huze, David James, Ceciley Jenkins, Zale Kessler, Bobbi Sue Luther, Truly Magyar, Sierra Marcoux, James Mathers, Naveen, Philip Newby, Bruno Oliver, Steven M. Porter, Heather Snell, Beth Tapper, David Wilcox, Mark McClain Wilson
There are some films, that I can watch over and over again because I love them so much. There are others that touch me so deeply, that I can only revisit occasionally. Still, there are others that I see and am overcome with such a wave of emotion/fear/disgust that I am glad I saw it, but won’t be returning to it any time soon. THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is one of those movies. If you’re squeamish. If you flinch at the sight of torture. This is not a film for you. But if you are a viewer who don’t mind being taken to the edge of sanity and a few leaps beyond, this is a film that will enthrall, intrigue, and encompass your thoughts for days, weeks, months after viewing.
Filmed in mockumentary format, the film isn’t really a found footage film, though the bulk of the movie is comprised of footage found in the apartment of an unknown serial killer who haunted the area in and around Poughkeepsie, NY, killing in a random and consistent pattern and filming these crimes. The film begins with the discovery of five large boxes of tapes and then moves to the investigators who had to scour these tapes in hopes to find the killer. We then delve into the content of the tapes, showing the abduction of a child from a yard, the killing of a couple who picks up the hitchhiking killer, the death of a few prostitutes, and finally the introduction of Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky), who seems to be a sadistic project the killer had been working his way to.
Let me be completely frank; this film is extremely hard to watch. Much of the middle portion of the film is the killer manipulating, torturing, and completely brainwashing Cheryl. This includes attempted drowning, hogtying, rape, and physical abuse, on top of psychological torture fired at Cheryl on a consistent basis, which results in Cheryl becoming a total slave to the killer. While this is a horrific thing to see, I can’t say that the film doesn’t depict it, narrate it, and describe it by FBI, police, and psychologists in an utterly engrossing and fascinating manner. Seeing the transformation Cheryl goes through from wide-eyed high-schooler to what she becomes in the final moments of the film is something rarely seen on film and something you won’t ever forget. The thing this film is so effective at is that it convincingly and horrifically depicts the complete shattering of the human spirit. While the film goes on tangents about the killer toying with the police and taunting them about not being able to catch him—even going to the point of framing an innocent man for the crimes, the filmmakers know that the Cheryl story is the heart of this film and smartly continue to refer back to her story throughout the film. The final moments of THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES are some of the most harrowing and intensely tragic moments I’ve seen in a long time. What Cheryl becomes is terrifying and the film depicts it with an unblinking lens, lingering long past the point of when most would turn away.
Usually, I would apply my found footage questionnaire towards this film since…that’s what I’ve been doing with found footage films, but since this film hit me on such an emotional level, I decided to review it in the good old fashioned way. The one thing I focus on mainly in those questionnaires is how “realistic” or “authentic” the found footage actually is. While this film is done in a documentary format, it is difficult to complain about unexpected edits, additional music, and production that would take away from the authenticity of a straight forward found footager. That said, the fact that music was added to the found footage scenes does take away from some of the effectiveness of the film for me. It just wouldn’t make sense for someone to add suspenseful music to scenes of torture and death, no matter how manipulative the documentarian wanted to be. Unless it was the killer himself who went in and added the music himself, which is unlikely, the addition of music really takes away from the effectiveness at times.
Still, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is one of the best shockumentary films you’re ever going to witness. Actress Stacy Chbosky puts herself through absolute hell and her performance is soul-crushing to witness. This is a film that grips you entirely from beginning to end and never lets go. While the film was made 7 years ago, it was pulled due to numerous factors and though it was available in bootleg format, it was made available for the first time this year. Because of that, I believe anyone who takes a change on THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES will agree it is most definitely one of the best found footage films you’re going to see this and any year.