If you’re like me (and I am very forgiving), you probably have seen what seems like 100,000 found footage or “documentary style” horror movies. They all enjoy a shaky handheld camera, give no apologies for form or quality, and ultimately it’s up to the writing and acting to convey all of which you cannot see. As you’re aware, it’s very hit and miss (and usually it’s way left). But every once in a blood moon, a film is released that is so well-crafted within the realms of “found footage” that you forget all about the shortcomings that normally attach themselves to the subgenre and can focus on the story. Some good recent examples of well-executed (puns always intended) found footage films are The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015), about a brother and sister who visit their peculiar and estranged grandparents for the first time in their lives which was genuinely creepy AF, and also Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (Gregory Plotkin, 2015), the latest installment in the PA franchise (and arguably one of the better ones) about a family that discovers a video camera that can see spirits and one is targeting their daughter. On the flopside you have movies like The Gallows (Travis Cluff/Chris Lofing, 2015), a death during a school play 20 years in the past haunts a new generation when they try to recreate the same play, and mockbuster “masterpiece” Paranormal Entity (Shane Van Dyke, 2009) which, as you can imagine, is a terrible godawful rip off. The one thing all these movies have in common is that first person, POV, I’m about to vomit style of camera wielding that has become a staple and foundation for the genre. But every once in a while a fresh take on the subgenre is enacted and unfortunately sometimes those films fall through the cracks. That’s the case with The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007).
Instead of writing some words together, casting some decent looking nobodies, and giving one of them a camera and some direction, Dowdle decided to make a horror film in the fashion of an episode of Cold Case Files. In the movie, law enforcement is tipped off to a house that contains boxes and boxes of thousands of hours of homemade videotapes depicting the sadistic violence and torture of a practicing serial killer (kinda sounds like VHS right?). The tapes are analyzed and logged by the FBI and the content is shown and discussed by many “experts” through one on one interviews, archival police footage, narration, and reenactments in order to link these murders with existing unsolved cases. It really feels like a legit TV show (but maybe on HBO or some network they can get away with gore and excess violence). And don’t worry, you still get your up chuck inducing POV shots via the found video tapes (the experts even discuss the way in which the killer “selfies” him and one of his victims).
Let me start by saying this movie is kind of uncomfortable. If you’re not into grainy, hue changing, oddly intimate torture scenes, or creepy stalk and drop then maybe pass on the Poughkeepsie, but if you want to see an original take on a tired and butchered subgenre, with captivity scenes that affect your soul, then give it a try. It’s legitimately terrifying not in the “OMFG my heart is racing what a good kill” type of way, but more in the “holy shit what is he planning, what’s he about to do?” sorta thing. The film centers it’s narrative around the investigation in its entirety but also on a specific case of one of the victims, Cheryl Dempsey who is abducted and enslaved in the basement of the killer. Cheryl’s storyline is the ultimate creep factor when viewing such a film. There are elongated scenes of brutal torture and mental abuse. You see her broken down as a free-willed, proud, human being only to be rebuilt into some sort of Stockholm syndromed sex and murder slave. It’s really diabolical. Another A+ factor is the hyperstylized quality of the film. It’s filmed like you’re watching an early 90s VHS tape or something. It’s grainy, blown out, and even the audio has a scratchiness too it which really adds to the overall tone of the movie (which is dread).
With the kill scenes drawn out and the anticipation tantalizing, The Poughkeepsie Tapes really delivers on a sense of longing terror. The whole movie you feel like an episode of Dexter. Are they gonna realize it’s him? How did he do it? When is the inevitable capture of the killer? Wtf just happened? And just when the law connects two dots, three more appear and the killer is still a step ahead. He changes his MO multiple times to throw off investigators and has a high understanding of beaurocracy within the police force which is made evident through the means in which he discards his victims’ bodies (and is discussed by “experts” in the movie). Unfortunately, this film never got a proper release theatrically or on home video until 2014 when it appeared on DirecTV on onDemand (7 years after completion). I think this is the reason it never really got the justice it deserved–bad marketing (and probably explains why it has yet to receive a critic score on RottenTomatoes). I only have heard of it because I spend my days googling “best shitty found footage” and “horror? I hardly know her!” But if you’re a shameful fan of found footage like I am, let me help you sift through the shit which buries the treasured titles, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes is just that, a treasure surrounded by crap. Give it a watch and if you don’t find it genuinely creepy then comment below and tell me how bad I am at my jobby and we can discuss.
IMDB: 6.1/10 (9210 votes) (⬅anything over 6 for horror on IMDB is generally pretty good)
Rotten Tomatoes: 🍅No Critic Rating 🍿50%
DEAD🐶PUPPY: 3.2 sadistic VHS tapes/5