The deluge of found footage films has produced a mixed bag of films over the past decade or so, with highlights including The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchise. This fascination with discovered footage has proved to be a fascinating source of narrative material for a fictional approach to filmmaking and seems to be a fad that will continue for at least another few years. However, in 2007 the Dowdle Brothers released a fake documentary about a psychologically depraved serial killer that has forever changed my understanding of what is possible with not only a found footage film, but also horror movies as a whole. The understanding of the affects proper editing, narrative delivery and cinematic composition can have on the human psyche are apparent in the Dowdle’s work as viewers are both captivated and disturbed by the film. It is a film that truly stands on its own as a psychological thriller on a low-budget, and between its gritty realism and absurdly sadistic killer it will have you checking the corners of your house and behind the shower curtain for many days. Not to mention you will never look at blurry VHS images the same way again.
As noted, the film is set up as a pseudo-documentary in which the police have discovered nearly a thousand tapes shot by a serial killer to recording everything from his sexual fetishes to his grotesque torture and murdering of women. This then fuels the narrative of the documentary which focuses on an unnamed man who begins his serial killing by kidnapping and murdering an eight year old girl and upon doing so he realizes that he is not only excellent and murder and torture, but that he thoroughly enjoys engaging in the behavior. The killer continues on to kill a couple who stop to help him with assumed car trouble and the psychotic killer is so deranged that he takes the husband’s head and places it in the stomach of the woman. These discoveries are intertwined with police, FBI, psychologist and forensic scientists commentaries of the events many of which leave the experts baffled, particularly the killers fascination with a particular woman named Cheryl Dempsey. As the commentators note, the killer takes a particular fascination with Cheryl and stalks her at length before breaking into her parents house to both kidnap her and killer her boyfriend and of course all of these events are shown in the killers recordings. It is then shown that the killer debases Cheryl through torture and mutilation causing her to become almost slave like to his every demand. Realizing the media attention he is receiving the killer decides to change his modus operandi, but manages to have a one-on-one confrontation with Cheryl’s mom, in which he offers help to find Cheryl. Before Cheryl’s mom can stop the killer he flees from the scene chuckling maniacally. The killer now takes up killing prostitutes while continuing to torture Cheryl, which includes making her don medieval garb and a bizarre rubber mask that is only topped by the killer’s own disturbing bird skull mask. The killer becomes so good at killing prostitutes that he is also capable of tricking investigators into believing that the killer is indeed a police officer named James Foley, who while innocent is incapable of providing an alibi and is eventually a victim of the death penalty. Upon the death of James, the killer sends a map to the police labeled with the words “missed one” and the location of another body, implying that James had nothing to do with any of the killings in which he was punished. Tragically, James is cleared of all charges posthumously, however, these events are overshadowed by the attacks on 9/11. The film then cuts to the discovery of the murderers house and his tapes. This seems to be a rather calm incident until the SWAT team opens a crate to find the body of Cheryl clinging to the last threads of life. In perhaps the most haunting scene of the film the documentary interviews Cheryl who is incapable of doing anything but stating “what do you want me to say” to the interviewer, a clear sign of the mental damage caused by her captor. Viewers are then informed that Cheryl killed herself shortly after the interview and within weeks her grave had been pillaged and her body remains missing. The film closes with experts discussing the very real fact that the killer is still on the loose and that of the large collection of footage twenty-seven tapes remain missing and they can only speculate as to the reasons why the killer kept them in his possession. One expert also states that they should keep an eye out as to where the documentary is shown, because he is certain the killer will be unable to resist seeing his own “art” played on screen.
The film is brilliant first and foremost for its fresh and disconcerting approach to horror filmmaking. It is apparent, but subtle, that the Dowdle’s are pulling their inspiration from decades of horror films. When I say this I do not simply mean American films, but foreign horror films as well. It is easy to pick up the influences from such horror films as Rosemary’s Baby, Eyes Without A Face and Audition, as well as an understanding of horrific imagery as it relates to cinema as a whole. Each extreme angle and blurry shot adds an affect of uncertainty that makes the film almost unwatchable due to its blatantly disturbing nature. However, the film is also an incredible stud of the problems faced by investigators and government when trying to catch a killer that works so craftily within a convoluted justice system. The killer, as the experts note in the film, understands that by severing bodies and dumping them in separate counties that it will increase the investigation process exponentially. However, he is also clever enough to pray on victims who already work outside of the law, such as prostitutes, because he realizes that a demand for social justice will be far less for these women than an average person. Furthermore, the killer is so deranged that he is incapable of committing similar murders and often kills out of rage, yet at other times his murders are quite premeditated. This constantly shifting murder streak causes the FBI to fail miserably at profiling the killer, because his methods are so complex that it spurs one agent to state that the man most likely works for them. Finally, and perhaps my favorite factor in this film is its narrative choice. Most found footage films preoccupy themselves with focusing on a paranormal entity, whether it be demonic or spectral and while this is fine, it certainly results in a sense of detachment when viewing. It is nearly impossible to detach yourself from the seeming authenticity of this film and this factor makes the film all the more disturbing, not to mention the multiple layers of criticism in which a feminist theorist like Laura Mulvey could provide. However, that is a heavy bit of theory that I would rather not cloud this review with, but in the future expect an article on it somewhere.
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is currently in a limbo and has yet to be released on any physical format. Netflix currently has a copy in its saved queue, but it could be sometime before we see a mainstream release. However, if you search Youtube or other media sharing websites it should be rather easy to find a copy. My only piece of advice for viewing this one is to stick around after the credits, trust me it is probably the best scene of the entire movie.