The Poughkeepsie Tapes, 2007.
Directed John Erick Dowdle.
Starring Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Ivar Brogger, Lou George, Michael Lawson, Samantha Robson and Ron Harper.
Authorities stumble upon a cache of hundreds of VHS tapes recorded by and depicting the crimes of a meticulous and sadistic serial killer.
It seems not a week goes by where a streaming service releases yet another true-crime documentary about a notorious serial killer. And while it might seem that I’m complaining about this glut of grisly material, I’ll freely admit that I’m a junkie for this kind of stuff. This brings me to The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a morbid film that offers a fascinating and disturbing take on the found footage sub-genre that seems to have been tailor-made for true crime junkies like me.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes, much like the brilliant Lake Mungo, diverges from the usual found footage approach by presenting itself as a pseudo-documentary, with ominous and scary footage intercut with interview sequences, fake news footage commenting on events and the obligatory newspaper close-ups. These elements combine to give you the impression that you are genuinely watching one of those true crime documentaries that Netflix churns out every other week.
The documentary angle is perhaps the part I found most engaging, as it allows me to play armchair criminal profiler and attempt to dive into the mind and motives of a serial killer. Except this is no ordinary serial killer. The killer (Ed, as he names himself in one scene) is one I really hope never exists in the real world. A highly intelligent sadist whose evolution we follow as he changes from an impulsive killer to a psychopathic genius that makes Hannibal Lecter look like a simpleton.
One such example of Ed’s intelligence comes when, after previously carefully choosing his victims, he completely changes his MO and embarks upon a rampage targeting sex workers with such frequency that it seems that he’s lost control of his urges. Instead, as we find out, the opposite is true. And this is a carefully crafted diversion to throw off the authorises from his real targets. While other instances of his increasingly elaborate schemes and intelligence can perhaps stretch their credulity, I was nonetheless thoroughly invested and downright unnerved. I was particularly struck by a scene in which an FBI profiler highlights the near impossibility of creating a psychological profile, going through a list of descriptions of numerous different profiles of varying ages, ethnicity and intelligence who are also somehow all the same person.
Where the film really grabs hold of you in a vice-like grip is when we finally see what is on the titular tapes. Shot as if by an old VHS camera, the footage deliberately distorted to give it an aged appearance, the material shows Ed as he stalks his victims. Creeping into their house, killing them, or kidnapping them before torturing them in his basement lair. These moments are nightmare-inducing, particularly a scene in which Ed creeps into the home of a victim, places the camera on a shelf and then hides in a cupboard. The next few moments leaving a crippling knot in our gut as his unsuspecting victims calmly talk about mundane issues. All the while, our eyes are glued to that cupboard door, left open enough so that we can still see him in his eerie plague doctor mask, lurking.
Where things get tough to watch are when we see Ed torture his victims, specifically a young woman named Cheryl, whom he subjects to increasingly sadistic abuse in an attempt to induce some kind of twisted Stockholm Syndrome. While these scenes aren’t necessarily blood-soaked (although some push it), the distorted camera work, dark lighting, scary masks and unrelenting sadism on display (with the scenes “scored” by near-constant screaming) make these scenes a truly disturbing watch. However, while they initially shock, the tape sequences quickly become repetitive and tiresome, mainly because of the unrelenting misery they instil.
While the film has a fair bit going for it, it’s not without its flaws. The acting, particularly in the documentary segments, is a mixed bag. Some adapt well to the interview segments and manage to deliver convincing performances as their characters. Such as an FBI profiler whose very matter of fact and decidedly undramatic delivery allows him to come across as almost authentic. Others go in a different direction and perhaps put too much emotion into their roles, such as a female FBI agent who puts too much dramatic emphasis on her delivery which makes it very obvious that she’s an actor playing a role.
While I appreciated the surface-level look at Ed’s psychology discussing who and how he kills, I was disappointed that we never find out why he kills. And that’s the main issue with the film, it teases us with little nuggets of information that keep us watching, but it never quite manages to give us a fully satisfying payoff.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is not going to be for everyone. The documentary segments are well put together and effectively mimic the feel of a real true-crime documentary. However, its plethora of torture scenes go on far too long and far too often, resulting in a tediously unpleasant watch. Fans of true crime will likely find The Poughkeepsie Tapes to be a flawed but fascinating watch. Those of a nervous disposition or who like to sleep at night will probably wish they never laid eyes upon it. Check it out if you’re curious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★