The Poughkeepsie Tapes (or simply Tapes, as I will refer to it from here on out) is not a movie.
I’ll let that sink in.
“When hundreds of videotapes showing torture, murder and dismemberment are found in an abandoned house, they reveal a serial killer’s decade-long reign of terror and become the most disturbing collection of evidence homicide detectives have ever seen.” -Tribeca Film Festival Synopsis.
It’s a mockumentary, minus the comedy and satire. It’s a mockumentary that houses a two-pronged attack of brutally accurate portrayals of torture, murder and dismemberment seamlessly interwoven with expert analysis and the thoughts and memories of those who were affected by the killers rampage, and those who were hunting him down.
In fact, it’s not too far removed from what the Discovery channel and TLC show on a daily basis. All those shows about FBI profilers and how they catch these seriously deranged serial killers all seemed to be influential to the Dowdle Brothers, who both penned and directed Tapes.
And writing may actually be Tapes strongest assets, although I’m sure it will get lost amidst all the chatter about the lengthy, suspenseful, and downright shocking film the killer shoots himself that is shown at certain intervals throughout. The writing leaps off the screen, as the Dowdle brothers concoct a credible, highly intelligent, innovative killer and sets him loose in the “Anywhere, USA” suburbs of Poughkeepsie, New York. The killer taunts his pursuers and gives cryptic clues for investigators to find, knowing far in advance where exactly the authorities will look to find them. It’s this depth to a nameless, faceless character that brings us closer to him than is comfortable for most audiences. Instead of being bogged down with trite, rationalizing back story about how the killer was beaten as a child or not hugged enough as a baby, we instead get an uncompromising and genius killer, who has found a way to elude the authorities all while documenting his spree.
Direction is also key, not so much in the static look of the interview pieces, (with the exception of the interview with Cheryl which actually made me lose sleep, it’s that fucking clever and disturbing) but in the low-fi, slow burn masterwork of the killers tapes. The camera is almost always in the right position, whether it’s showing you everything that’s going on, or whether it’s showing you nothing, such as the inside of a car door, or an empty room. There are times where the camera will be haphazardly placed, seemingly by accident, and we are left with just the screams and pleads of the victim and the orders of the killer to clue us in of what going on. It’s a time-tested approach that works flawlessly here. Show some gore in full view to screw with audience equilibrium, and then deprive them seeing something later on. It works in two ways. Once you don’t show the audience a scene straight on, it gets their minds working. They create in their head horrible visions of what must be going on. It also works to create a sickening feeling in the viewers, because they have to realize that they WANT to see whats happening, so much so they are willing to create the images in their own heads to replace the ones that aren’t on the screen. It’s a lost art, but it’s a tactic employed by the Dowdle Bros. in exemplary fashion.
With the audio and visual facets of the film firmly in and place grounded in reality, the one area where horror, or should I say terror in this case, goes awry is usually the acting. You can have all your ducks in a row as far as directing and writing are concerned, but if your actors don’t come through in creating these characters in the physical form, than everything is lost. Thankfully, the Dowdle Bros. must have been keen on this, and not only hired no names, but no names who looked liked everyday people. I’m not sure how involved with the casting they were, but from what I’ve read and inferred through the piece itself, it seems fairly obvious they were pivotal in every decision made. The most all inclusive and flattering thing I can say is, and this goes for the whole endeavor, not JUST the acting, if this were played one TV on night, and no one was told it wasn’t real, there would be a legitimate fear and uproar in many communities around the U.S. It’s that believable. So believable that even though I knew coming in it wasn’t real, I still lost sleep over it, and was looking over my shoulder while watching it. It’s orchestrated with the sole intention of, if nothing else, to stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Tapes has a long, uphill battle ahead it. Still having no official release date for theatrical or dvd release, it is caught in release purgatory. And once it is released, it will undoubtedly be met with serious backlash from angry mothers and politicians who won’t even bother to see the flick, but instead just berate both those who created it, and its fans. It will be labeled as the next sick evolutionary step in the Torture Porn sub genre, when it really has a lot less to do with the fantasy world that movies like SAW occupy, and a lot more to do with the gritty, unfair, demented world we live in everyday. There’s no sense of morals, right and wrong, or justification that other horror flicks try to implore. It is just cruel, relentless, remorseless and always 10 steps ahead of you. Just like the killer.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes has, buried underneath it’s tough outer shell, an insane amount of creativity and artistic ingenuity. If an opportunity to see this bound-to-be-lost gem arises, don’t hesitate. Just don’t plan on going to bed immediately afterward.