From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from October 23rd, 2015…
Having been pulled from release after a limited run, The Poughkeepsie Tapes has been for the better part of a decade a very difficult film to get hold of, until recently when it was finally released on VOD.
Now a whole new legion of horror fans will get to see why John Erick Dowdle’s found footage piece was subdued for so long; not that it was ever officially censored, but upon watching it you may be surprised to hear it wasn’t. Taking the found footage format of a collection of tapes left behind by a horrific serial killer upon fleeing the house he committed his crimes, and fusing it with a documentary format of fake professionals from within psychology, police, the FBI etc… Dowdle’s manages to create a picture truly, deeply unnerving and unsettling. The horror here isn’t supernatural, it’s about a purely human monster – dubbed ‘The Water Street Butcher’ – and how, Zodiac-style, he manages to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and keep his identity concealed. The difference being here this man commits nothing short of real atrocities, the nature of his crimes dwarfing most of what traditional horror films these days show you.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes fucks with your mind too.
The key to why, from my perspective, it’s one of the most genuinely terrifying and unnerving horror pictures ever made, is thanks to what we don’t see; sure, Dowdle hits us with plenty of genuine horror (try within the first 15 minutes a woman who has her husband’s head stitched into her womb), but equally he leaves a lot to imagination, supposition and in the minds eye.
You may end up believing one man alone couldn’t have conducted the scale of quite what this killer achieved, arguably one of the most insane & sadistic ever committed to celluloid, but that’s almost the point; without him ever becoming larger than life, he becomes deeply terrifying in how skilled he is at evading capture. It’s not the up front horror mind you that’s the most disturbing; his psychological destruction of Cheryl Dempsey is freakish and harrowing to watch, and Stacy Chbosky deserves applause for just how quietly unhinged she plays the role after her incredibly shocking ordeal.
Dowdle layers this with drifting, haunting music playing over diatribes to camera, which intersperse the horror on the tapes, and even here he gives the talking heads elements of character; be it the FBI analyst who had to watch all the tapes or the old profiler who uses the tapes as teaching methods to upcoming criminal profilers. These moments just help build and enhance the mythos behind the Butcher as his crimes grow, alongside him the intensity of the viewing experience. By the last post-credits sting, chances are you’ll be emotionally and psychologically drained.
Deserving of being seen by far more people, is a horrific gem, one of the great found footage pictures and indeed the faux documentary genre. It produces one of cinema’s most horrifying monsters and, in the finest tradition of horror, leaves everything open ended and out there, for you to draw your own conclusions. It doesn’t necessarily rewrite any books about how to scare people, but it does tailor old horror tricks and packages them into a frightening, modern day concoction.
This stayed with me for years after watching it. Years. How many films can truly boast that?