The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Serial Killer ‘Snuff” Found-Footage Disturbs

Thought The Hunt had a hard time getting to theatres? Over a decade earlier, the found-footage serial killer movie The Poughkeepsie Tapes premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. But distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) suddenly got cold feet. Given its disturbing content, MGM pulled it from the release schedule. Several years later, The Poughkeepsie Tapes saw a sliver of light on VOD before Scream Factory re-mastered it for Blu-ray. Now horror fans can experience the movie MGM didn’t want you to see. But is it worth seeing?

Synopsis

For several years, a serial killer nicknamed ‘The Water Street Butcher’ terrorizes the small town of Poughkeepsie, New York. When police finally raid the killer’s home, they’re a step behind the ‘Butcher’. All they’re left with is hundreds of videotapes documenting hours of him torturing and killing helpless victims.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is the Rare Horror Movie That Truly Disturbs

Few horror movies are quite as disturbing as The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Though found-footage movies can be divisive, writer and director John Erick Dowdle uses the format almost perfectly. Forget the shaky cam footage that has plagued many a found-footage movie in the past. Instead, Dowdle patterns his story as a true crime docu-series based upon footage from hundreds of a serial killer’s recovered homemade snuff films. Given this premise, Dowdle could easily have allowed things to slip into the generic ‘Torture Porn’ that was so prevalent in the 2000’s. Fortunately, The Poughkeepsie Tapes’ cinéma vérité approach lends itself to the ‘snuff’ film’ narrative making everything you see all the more disconcerting. It’s the rare case of the format fitting the narrative.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a trim thriller that mixes up how it gets under your skin.

In addition, Dowdle finds multiple ways to present his gruesome subject matter. Some of the later ‘Torture Porn’ entries, including Captivity, were overindulgent and repetitive, eventually losing their shock value. Comparatively, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a trim thriller that mixes up how it gets under your skin. Dowdle shocks straight out of the gate with footage that will have you asking yourself if you really just saw what you think. There’s plenty of explicitly graphic footage that’s as shocking as one might expect. But much of what makes The Poughkeepsie Tapes so disturbing is its psychological violence. Its scenes of abuse, confinement, and torture will be too much for many viewers.

Miscasting and Amateur Actors Hurt Docu-Drama Bits

On the one hand, The Poughkeepsie Tapes’ low-budget, DIY found footage format adds to its unnerving feel. That feeling you’re seeing something you shouldn’t be watching is what makes it so scary. But it’s hard not to notice that the unknown cast doesn’t really pull off the ‘docu-narrative’ bits in between the found-footage scenes. In some cases, it’s a case of mis-casting. A few of the actors just don’t convince as FBI profilers or forensic experts. And the dialogue doesn’t always feel convincing for these infotainment scenes. While the infotainment format is clever, The Poughkeepsie Tapes Is least convincing when its characters are providing commentary.

But it’s hard not to notice that the unknown cast doesn’t really pull of the ‘docu-narrative’ bits in between the found-footage scenes.

However, as the long-suffering victim Cheryl Dempsey, Stacey Chobosky is utterly convincing. She conveys an absolute sense of terror that makes the found-footage scenes uncomfortable. Moreover, In her final on-camera scene, Chobosky’s lost, damaged facial expression is heartbreaking. If The Poughkeepsie Tapes has another problem it’s the lack of presence of its killer. This may seem like a strange observation. Yes, Ben Messmer’s ‘Water Street Butcher’ is present and frequently on-camera in his commedia dell’Arte mask, which is effectively creepy. And The Water Street Butcher’s acts are about as vile as anything you’re likely to see in a movie. But as a character, The Water Street Butcher is something of a blank slate. To some extent, The Poughkeepsie Tapes relies too much on its narrators ‘telling us’ about the villain.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes a Raw Viewing Experience Even If It Falls Short of Poignant

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Hollywood released a series of stylized serial killer psychological thrillers following the success of Se7en. Kiss the Girls, The Bone Collector, Fallen, Taking Lives, Along Came a SpiderThe Poughkeepsie Tapes is a much more raw viewing experience as compared to these pop culture confectionaries. On the other hand, it lacks the biting insight of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or Man Bites Dog. Many horror fans will find it to be too much. However, for horror fans with strong stomachs, The Poughkeepsie Tapes may be the intense movie for which you’ve been looking.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: B

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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