The Poughkeepsie Tapes: What Happened in Poughkeepsie Should Have Stayed in Poughkeepsie

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The much ballyhooed film has finally gotten a wide release, but is it really worth watching?

It’s almost surreal to see John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes finally get a wide home video release. I do not recall much about it’s initial announcement or trailer, the lukewarm receptions at the Tribeca Film Festival, the angry reception at the Butt-Numb-Athon… none of these are what I think of when I hear The Poughkeepsie Tapes. No, it’s the years after where the movie became something of a cult object, an urban legend that seemed destined to live on as nothing more than rumors and hearsay.

In case you haven’t guessed by now, the film had a rather…rocky path to television screens over the years. It was originally scheduled to hit theaters in February 2008, hot on the heels of the found footage frenzy started by Paranormal Activity, but MGM wound up pulling it from the release schedule about 5 weeks before it was slated to hit theaters. After this it was a long time before the tapes reared their head again, and even then it was only for the briefest of moments: It showed up on DirecTV’s video on demand service for about a month in 2014 before disappearing again for no particular reason.

So here we are three years later, the film up and ready for purchase on Amazon, but… is it actually worth a watch? Is the film crushed under 10 years worth of expectations and hype? Is it really a haunting masterpiece? WILL IT CHANGE YOUR LIFE?? The answers are… eh, maybe, no, and hell no. The film mainly focuses on the tapes of torture and grisly murder left behind by a serial killer, while interjecting with bits of interviews with psychiatrists, law enforcement and the families of the killer’s victims. Our murderer begins as an impulse killer and slowly evolves and changes his M.O. making him harder to track. It’s a pretty interesting setup for a movie, which makes it especially unfortunate that the whole thing is pretty mediocre.

There are certainly interesting bits to The Poughkeepsie Tapes, made all the more so by just how detached and cold they are, but that does not equate to these bits being enjoyable to watch. A scene that I think typifies this comes after our killer kidnaps a woman named Cheryl Dempsey. The killer has Cheryl hogtied in a dark location and slowly circles her in a masquerade mask, asking her what her name is. Every time she says “Cheryl” he strikes her and tells her that her name isn’t Cheryl, it’s slave. It’s an absolutely brutal scene, one that you can’t turn away from, not because it’s gripping and haunting, but more so because it’s just such a thoroughly gross moment that makes you question why you’re even watching it. Between the (frequent) moments like this and the fact that for excessively long stretches it was borderline impossible to tell what was happening on screen (don’t tell me staring at a light for 2 minutes and hearing grunting is building atmosphere), I found myself wishing the film would just hurry up and end. Oh, and did I mention a plot twist that would be kind of cool if it wasn’t laughably dependent on 9/11? That’s a thing, and I found myself groan-laughing quite audibly at it.

Perhaps in a different life The Poughkeepsie Tapes would have come out in 2007, and 17 year old me would have loved it for how raw and edgy it was. Ten years on, though, it feels like just another found footage film, but one that’s brutal and gross just for the sake of being brutal and gross. Of course, if you’re into those kinds of films (and people clearly are, as seen by A Serbian Film), then you’ll probably enjoy The Poughkeepsie Tapes. If you aren’t, though, then your mileage may vary. it may well be worth watching once as a curiosity piece to see what the fuss is about and never again.  

There’s an interesting film buried in here, but the shit that’s on top just doesn’t feel like it’s worth digging through.

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