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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  • Janitor Jim Duggan

    Yay, a horror movie about my area!

    • Óðinn

      Your “area” is a horror movie?

      • Janitor Jim Duggan

        Basically.

      • more beer

        You aren’t wrong.

  • That GIF always horrified me, but it is so lame that the movie seems to lack of direction. Thanks for pointing everything at this review, you helped me not to watch this flick and just “enjoy” the GIF, jajaja.

  • Rolderathis

    Brutal and gross for no reason? Anybody seen the New Wave of French Horror staple “Martyrs?” Definitely the most excruciating movie I’ve ever seen. There’s legit just scenes of a bound person getting punched in the face on camera for like 10 minutes. I felt terrible during and after it.

    • Bert Banana

      That movie is goddamn masterpiece.

      • Rolderathis

        If the yardstick is being really uncomfortable and extremely difficult to watch (which is probably the point) I totally agree. It certainly had an impact!

        • Bert Banana

          Well, the reason its uncomfortable and extremely difficult to watch is because they developed her character so well that when it came to that point in the movie, you actually cared about her.

          I find that in horror…it’s seems rather hard to develop any sense of empathy for characters and Martyrs is one of those rare cases

          • sweetooth0

            Also Martyrs has a fair bit more philosophical depth than your run of the mill splatter flick. Honestly it’s closer to art film, it just happens to have very brutal and uncompromising subject matter. I agree, it is a masterpiece!

          • CT-12

            Agreed, I loved that movie. While yeah, it’s hard to watch the beating scenes, the symbolism is so much more impactful to me. The complete exhaustion of spirit and hope that you feel in those scenes haven’t been equally replicated to me in any other movie since.

      • Jimmy Calhoun

        Probably one of the best of the New French Extremity (not so new anymore, I guess) along with “Inside” and “Irreversible.” One of the bleakest endings I’ve ever seen.

    • most definitely painful to watch. but i didn’t dislike it for that reason. in general if a film invokes an extreme emotion, i end up being okay with it. some are so horrible that i enjoy watching them, for example Last Ounce of Courage or Theodore Rex!

      • Rolderathis

        I feel the same way…I didn’t dislike it, it just hit me hard because the cinematography was very clear, and the violence felt real.

      • Janitor Jim Duggan

        Now Theodore Rex is real horror with how bad it is.

    • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

      That movie irked the heck out of me. On paper it sounded like exactly my kind of thing, gruellingly nasty horror with real emotional and philosophical resonance, but I just didn’t find any of it well executed. Mediocre to average nastiness, no real emotional connection and a philosophical botch. I’ve been ticked off by fans for calling it mindless entertainment at best but that really was about the extent of what I got from it.

  • Howard Dean

    “…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)…”

    I think everyone is kinda into these types of films for at least a moment or two just out of sheer morbid curiosity. But then you see a real video of a dude getting killed by a hammer and that pretty much cures you of it real quick.*

    *unless you are a psychopath

    • sweetooth0

      I love this shit, but then I’m a psychopath so…

      • Howard Dean

        Hahahaha. You can always call yourself a sociopath instead. It sounds a little softer.

        For real though, I was referencing the videos of actual terrible shit that happens in life, specifically the video of these fellows (link below) that made its way to the interwebz years ago. That was one of the things that made me say, “welp, I guess I don’t have to watch everything.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dnepropetrovsk_maniacs

        There were also a handful of terrible cartel videos that made me say “yeah, I shouldn’t have watched that.” Kinda puts a pit in your stomach when you realize actual people can be crueler than anything these torture fetish films offer.

        • I was like that about 15 years ago (?) when I watched some Al Qaeda beheading videos. One of them the dude was already dead when they cut off his head, but on one of them the dude was still alive. I remember looking at my then-partner and saying “I think I just watched something I shouldn’t have,” haha. That was during my born again Christian days too, so I was particularly lightweight.

          • sweetooth0

            the one that sticks in my mind the most is one where a series of public executions are carried out (by beheading literally with a big ass scimitar) and there’s a crowd of civilians (including women and children) gathered all around watching it laughing and cheering and there’s some much blood on the ground inside the circle of people it’s almost a swamp and they just keep bringing in people and dragging away headless bodies. The dragging away made me think of how the bull corpses were dragged away after a bull fight when I saw that in Spain. Literally treated like nothing more than meat.

        • sweetooth0

          Yeah I saw the hammer murder. The last sick ass thing I saw was some ISIS execution videos they shot in hi-def with a high frame rate camera of people getting shot with a shotgun in the head at point blank range in slow motion. BRUTAL stuff.

          • Howard Dean

            Yeah, pretty crazy that ISIS decided to shoot all of their stuff like Hollywood movies with the HD and everything. Haven’t heard a lot about them lately. They’re apparently getting their ass kicked all over the map, so that’s good.

            The last Mexican cartel one I saw that pretty much cured me of my curiosity (for awhile, at least) was a snippet from what was clearly a torture film. Dude had no hands (they used tourniquets on his arms to keep him from bleeding/passing out) and it looked like they had peeled his face off. Dude was still moving around and trying to fight back as they went in for the beheading. Couldn’t really believe what I was seeing. Nope’d the fuck out of that. Even thinking about that one kinda turns my stomach.

          • sweetooth0

            The cartel vids are sick shit. One of the worst aspects is the people doing the killing are often just little kids who are basically forced into doing it to prove themselves as “soldiers”. Horrid shit.

          • Scrimm

            Dammit Howard, morbid curiousity…

        • FrankWhiteKingOfNY

          Oh boy that hammer murder video fucked me up for weeks. I remember having fits of rage whenever I thought of that video back then. I know some say you shouldn’t cure violence with violence, but if I could’ve tortured those two cretins to death I would’ve.
          I remember that website “ogrish” or something like that. First “real life killing” I ever saw was the Eugene Armstrong one. I wish I could unsee that one as well…but you know what they say…curiosity killed the cat…

          • Howard Dean

            Exactly. Morbid curiosity is like a drug.

          • sounds like one of the overarching themes to Videodrome

          • Jimmy Calhoun

            “Videodrome” is one of my all-time favorite movies (just watched it again and it still holds up) so I definitely get what you’re saying.

          • Thanks dude! Now I don’t seem (so) crazy

        • Scrimm

          Chainsaw decapitation, anyone?

    • tigeraid

      In the early days of the internet when this sort of discussion circulated, I definitely watched many out of curiosity. And I still regret it, if only for the time wasted deadening my reaction to violent images.

      • I remember, for some reason, rotten dot com wasn’t blocked on the computers at my middle school.

        • sweetooth0

          Ah Rotten, fond memories of that site. So quaint by today’s standards.

    • GoatForest

      Remember that one Shining music video? It was all news clips of people being killed.

      • Doc Torluv

        Haven’t listened to those fuckers since.

    • Dubby Fresh

      Man, the thing that did it for me recently was reading about how the CIA tortured dudes at their black sites. That turned my stomach.

    • Jimmy Calhoun

      I’ve seen real “gore” here and there online yet it hasn’t substantially altered my response to fictitious graphic violence. I find it pretty easy to separate one from the other.

  • sweetooth0

    So is this basically August Underground light?

  • KJM, Blood Farmer

    I prefer my Horror to have supernatural elements to it.

    • GoatForest

      Same.

    • GoatForest

      I can also work with over- the- top-couldn’t-actually-happen violence.

    • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

      Increasingly me too actually. Though I can also dig psychologically interesting or effectively suspenseful.

  • GoatForest

    Yeah, this film is gonna be a big “nope” for me. I can’t do torture films. It reminds me too much that that kind of stuff happens too often in real life. I can’t deal with that.

    • Yeah, like KJM, I prefer more standard supernatural movies.

    • Doc Torluv

      With ya. The whole ‘people being mean to people’ premise just doesn’t appeal to me in any way. I’m a quasi-misanthrope but this stuff is what outs me.

      • GoatForest

        I’m pretty damn irked with humanity myself, but that kind of shit is the reason why.

  • frozengoatsheadupanunsarse

    Cool review man! This one was decidedly mediocre I thought, mediocre to bad. As you say, it has some interesting and fairly effectively grim moments. But there’s just very little to it, it’s often unintentionally comic outside of the nastiness and the nastiness isn’t that nasty if you’ve watched much nasty stuff before.

    On more cheery horror matters, I may be going to an all nighter of Suspiria, Re-Animator, The Boogeyman, Brotherhood of Satan and The Killing of Satan on Saturday, depending on what time the gig I’m going to (Akercocke) earlier finishes.

  • more beer

    I saw this a few years ago and wasn’t really impressed. Why even bother releasing it at this point? Since it has been on YouTube for years.

  • CT-12

    This sounds a lot like Philosophy of a Knife, such a fucking terrible movie. I’ll never get that 5 hours back.

  • Jimmy Calhoun

    As a fan of extreme horror, I’m sure I’ll check this one out. Supposed to be available from Netflix soon.