Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Review: The Poughkeepsie Tapes

My Edition: There has never been a proper DVD release for this in any region. My copy is an "on demand" printing thanks to the good people at Twistedanger.

History: There is very little to be found on this movie. Even the IMDB and Wikipedia pages are quite empty. Not too much of a surprise considering how difficult it is to get the movie in the first place. What I do know is that the movie's trailer had a wide release but not much buzz outside of that. The Wiki page suggests that it was released in April 2007 which was probably the film fest release date, however the official theatrical poster suggests it would be released in February of 2008. When and where it was released I'm still not sure but I know it was never released where I was at the time (like it would be released in Mankato, MN, psst). It did only wind up with a limited release. This leads me to believe it had also a limited return as well. Hard for me to say if this was a success or not because of how hard it was to see it theatrically and now how hard it was to get a DVD of it. It does appear to have been made on the cheap so it doesn't have to be Titanic in order to make money. I just wish I knew more on the history of this because of how much general interest I have in it. But maybe that's what makes it so interesting. The mystery.

Personal History: This is my first viewing but have had my eyes on it for a long time. Especially after the disappointment of it only being released very limited as well as never having a proper home video release.

Review: You ever wait and anticipate something for ages upon ages (slight exaggeration), only for it to not be as easily available as you hoped? A very specific question that you probably haven't experienced. Because of the internet and the nerds taking over the earth it feels like everything is available everywhere. Well this particular situation happened to me with The Poughkeepsie Tapes. When the trailer was released back in 2006/2007 I was highly anticipating it. It looks like an excellent and unique horror film. So I waited and I waited and I waited but nothing ever came. I looked up when it was set to release but never could find anything at my local theatre, or anywhere on anything. After a while I checked to see when it was coming out on DVD. Couldn't find a thing. As a matter of fact it's been approx. 6 years since this movie was released and there is still no formal DVD release and no plans for one, either (As I've already stated multiple times if you've read everything up to this point). I wish I knew more on the history to know why there hasn't been a release of it. It just seems so odd especially when even smaller movies get a mass/wide release. So for the last 6 years I've been on again off again trying to get my hands on this one. Luckily within the last month I finally found a website that sold it. So I put in my order right away, got the DVD, popped it in, and finally got to experience it after over half a decade of waiting. Was the hype I built up inside too much for me to enjoy it? Did I put it higher on my expectations than I should have? In short, was I disappointed? Not a chance! I. LOVED. This. Movie.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a combination of a found footage horror and a faux documentary. The story starts off with the police finding enough video tapes at a serial killer's home that hold approx 2400 hours of footage, all shot by the killer. These tapes contain footage of him stalking, capturing, torturing, and killing his victims. The movie goes into it like it's one of those special reports you'd see on TV, like ones about Ed Gein or Dahmer. There are numerous specialists and people who worked on the case while he was still at large throughout Poughkeepsie and the surrounding NY area. Also there are brief moments of re-enactments that are, again, much like stuff you'd see on TV special reports. This approach was something I really appreciated from this movie. Normally with the found footage movies it's about 90 minutes of stiched together footage that tells the story on it's own. However it sometime lacks depth or has a strange way of exposition because of what needs to get on camera but remain spontaneous at the same time. It's tough to do this sub-genre right. That's why I'm glad this crew took an America's Most Wanted approach. It provides insight on the killer. And it's not even necessarily the truth about him, just assumptions based on evidence they found through his tapes and leftover bodies. It brings forward a really, really engaging story. By the time this very short movie (around 82-84 minutes without credits) is over I wanted so much more! I wanted to see more footage, I wanted to hear more theories, I wanted to see more evidence, I wanted more more more!
Something else about it I absolutely loved is the raw feel to the whole thing. The killer shot all his video on old school VHS tapes. And you know what? The playback looked exactly like a VHS tape playback. There was no sense of crispness or cleanliness in the videos he was shooting. It was rough, raw, and improvised. This is something I loved for another reason as well. I love these found footage movies but sometimes the logic of where they're pointing the camera gets lost in the shuffle for the sake of seeing exposition. A few things are established to give the film the kind of shots it did when it goes to the video archive. First, he is always filming it seems. He always has the camera around him so we do get awkward shots where it's facing against a car door while he is driving. Secondly, he's careful in his crimes. There's a scene where he picks up a woman off the side of the road. During this scene he is driving a police car but he has rigged his camera to face the back seat. So for a good couple minutes of the scene all we hear is muffled dialogue while staring into the back seat of the cop car before the woman comes on camera. Lastly, he is very theatrical. Once he has his victim with him in his home he sets up the camera at a distance so he can record his torture sessions. This way he can get a good view while performing. In other words I really couldn't find a moment in his tapes that broke the logic on where it was supposed to be pointed. That's because the camera was his eyes. He saw what he wanted to see on camera, not just what would look good on camera in the heat of the moment.
#$%Oh, yes, the theatrics. The killer in this story is very theatrical. Not so much in how he kills people, more so how he presents them to the camera. When he has his victims in his basement lots of times he'll dress up. There's a scene where he is taking a body apart and is wearing a gas mask among other things. One, I'm assuming, to conceal his identity. But also to put on a character it feels. Then in a few other scenes he is wearing an Eyes Wide Shut, fidelio looking mask with a long black cape. When in this he is usually mentally torturing his victims. forcing them to say things and call him master. Then the last thing that comes to mind is how he'll dress up his victims, too. The poster I chose at the start of this review shows an image of one of his victims in costume. He is forcing her to wear a doll-like mask and the rest of her body is in a French maid outfit. Clear case of sexual violence if I ever did see any. However there is only talk about the sex. There are no actual sex scenes. Just scenes of violence. But they do talk about the sex involved quite a bit especially in regard to the French maid girl.
What I also liked were the interviews they had with the experts and people involved in the case. As always with an independent film having nothing but unknowns it works really well making it believable. Also, one criticism I read online a lot was that the acting in this movie is bad. I disagree to a point. These are supposed to be every day people. Have you ever watched the news where they interview someone off the street or has no theatre background? How awkward and stale does it usually turn out? Pretty stale? Maybe a little hard to watch? I agree. These actors are portraying people who work on cases, are witnesses, etc, they are not going to be stellar to watch. Yes the acting does go in and out every so often but overall I feel that the feeling of everyone's performance was great for what it needed to be. The best and most haunting one by far was very late in the movie. It's just after ***SPOILERS*** they rescue a female victim after finding and breaking into the killer's house. They don't get the killer (Bummer) but at least they were able to rescue this girl from being a sex slave after eight years. He follow up interview was chilling. She had a lot of clear physical damage and her left hand is missing. She has developed a bizarre crush on her "Master" as she was forced to call him when she was in captivity. She is confused most of the interview but does get out how much she loves him. Then at the end of the interview when it goes to a still image and in text it tells us how she took her own life two weeks later it felt very real ***END SPOILERS*** which is what the overall feeling is on this amazing film. It all feels so real. Way more chilling than almost any other found footage movie out there. I would even go so far as say this is in the ranks of The Blair Witch Project.

For how amazing I felt this one is it's a shame that the flaws really stand out. Luckily I only have two major complaints. One is with the style, and the other is with the story.
First is a visual style chosen. As I stated earlier the VHS tape style is wonderful. I love the really raw feel to the whole thing. It truly feels home made instead of attempting to look home made. The only problem I have with it is how worn out all the tapes are, and worn out in the same way. They all seem to have this warped image with a green tint over it. Now as someone who grew up with VHS tapes I know very well how they get worn out. However the only way for it to get this worn out on it's own is if it was taken horrible care of, watched consistently, and/or was copied to a new tape multiple times as you can see in this example. I just find it odd that out of approx 2400 hours of video, almost all if it has this warped image with a green tint. And may I point out for a tape to be that worn out in it's own from constant viewing would take ages. I have home videos from over twenty years ago and they still look amazing after countless viewings. It just strikes me as either really unrealistic, or he is horrible at handling his tapes. And the latter would be odd because of how much he seems to cherish these killings of his.
The other thing was with the story, and I'll requote by saying a specific character in general. In the second half of the movie ***SPOILERS AGAIN*** we find out that a strong suspect on the killings is a cop who has been working on the case. Everything falls together in place enough to convict him and to punish him by death. Later on we find out he wasn't the killer but that's a different part of the story. The character I didn't care for was his son. I felt like his character was a bit shoehorned into the story. He's a depressed guy because of the accusations that were being made against his dad and of course the eventual execution. Even though he was shown as not guilty after the execution the son was still very affected by it and people on the streets still recognize him as "The son of the Butcher." ***END SPOILERS*** I guess I just felt like not only was his role shoehorned in to extend the story, but it was poorly executed. He was the only one who truly felt like a character in a story than a person going through this rough experience. Maybe it was the long hair and the cliche looking set design of his apartment. Hard to fully explain what I didn't like about him. He just didn't perform as well or pull off what everyone else was doing.

All in all this was easily one of the best horror movies I've seen in years. I said something similar with Cabin in the Woods recently but this one was far more chilling than that. Whereas CITW was more of a satire with strong horror elements, The Poughkeepsie Tapes was straight up horror all the way. One thing I will point out (if you can get your hands on it) is it's not for the squeemish. It gets pretty brutal. This isn't like the violence in Hostel or slasher flicks where it is so insanely over the top. I feel much more realistic. Also, even though it's not presented in up close, crystal clear detail it is still hard to watch at times. There are multiple scenes of dismemberment which I can imagine would be unsettling for many people. Not a ton of violence but when it is there it is serious and dark. I wouldn't say this one is overblown at all. It's all very realistic feeling. And it's all really unsettling. This makes for an amazing horror film.

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