Poughkeepsie Tapes, The (2008)
Reviewed by Nomad
Starring Stacy Chbosky, Ben Messmer, Samantha Robson, Ivar Brogger
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Found footage simulation in film is becoming more commonplace now, even in horror. Back at least year’s Tribeca Film Festival, this was a seemingly new idea, and a film called The Poughkeepsie Tapes hit the scene hard. Since then, we’ve seen a trailer drop onto the front of major theatrical releases, but no release date in sight with the year now cutting into the third quarter. What could have gone wrong with a film so insanely hyped? Well, the answer is, a lot.
Ripped from chilling, all too familiar headlines comes a story of a man who stalked the people of New York while moving among them, unnoticed, and beyond the reach of police. The notion that at any time, someone could be waiting in your home around a corner has always been a terrifying one. Now, we are allowed a look into the mind of one such evil entity with the recovery of boxes upon boxes of video footage recorded by the killer himself. The execution of this introduction is handled with the weight of a seasoned “Current Affair” voice over specialist, hoping to punch up the drama while hammering home the seriousness of the situation. Experts line up to tell the story of their exposure to the tapes, ad nauseum.
I’m not certain what the filmmakers hope to accomplish having a string of people and reporters insist that this was the most disturbing thing they had ever seen before you, the viewer, are allowed to see it. It’s the equivalent of having police detectives riding the desk during the Jigsaw murders be interviewed about the evidence they processed, and now you have to watch this footage before the actual film. Granted, this is meant to be a sort of documentary style film, more about what is uncovered than what happened as it happened. Still, I can’t help thinking I would have rather watched events in the moment itself rather than receive information second hand from people trying to convince me that any of this was real.
Now we get into the footage, with a personable serial killer (or so it seems from the reaction of people he confronts with his camera) surveying his prey in the mid day sun. Again, I’m sure the effect was meant to be chilling as you realize that he’s even there in the daylight, as well as the empty darkness. As usual, you just can’t set up terror in the light. Worse than this is the effect laid over each scene to make them look as if a crappy hand held was used with all footage cranked out on videotapes. It seems so forced at times; I could make out people rolling their eyes in the dark theater around me. Not being a filmmaker, I’ll give in that there is probably no way to shoot footage like this on an actual crappy camera and have it be watchable in comparable quality to the rest of the film, but the sad fact is it just doesn’t work. For me, this was the primary problem of a film hinged on the footage as the big reveal.
When the experts talking about their involvement with the tapes don’t pull a reaction from me in the form of chills or, at the very least, building dread, I’m forced to look to the meat of the film … the tapes themselves. The meat here has been under the heat lamps at Burger King, awaiting the masses that have come to grips with the fact that the burger on the poster is not what lies in their pretty little carton. That is to say, the build up outweighs the payoff. Sure, if you awoke in a dark room, tied with your hands above your head and gagged and you heard something moving toward you, you’d probably lose your mind, but the level of over-acting and the tone of these scenes doesn’t meet in the middle. The bottom line is, I have to believe what I’m watching to an extent, be pulled in enough to care and then, hope beyond hope, be scared by it. This moment never comes … and continues not to come as we watch the killer play dress up and torture a young woman until she becomes his unquestioning slave.
This is another example of filmmakers over extending their reach. The notion of the events is horrific and the idea that someone could keep another living being captive, torturing them daily until a pinprick feels like a lover’s caress is beyond imagining, but I just couldn’t buy it. For this reason, I won’t even go into detail on the acting performances of those given grainy screen time individually, because on the whole, the execution was just off the mark. Could this have been salvaged by a better quality of acting? It’s hard to tell without knowing if the performances here are exactly what the filmmakers were going for. Would the actor’s performances have risen to the quality of the film if the tone set were so dark and beyond redemption that they couldn’t help but get sucked into this world? Perhaps, but neither matters at all. It could be that I’m just making excuses for an independent film that, going in, I really wanted to enjoy, but a bad movie is a bad movie.
I also find it hard to speak about cinematography, since most scenes outside the documentary interviews are meant to be from the hand held camera’s POV, so this is the style you are stuck with. It must have been hard to get artistic with little to work with, but the filmmakers do try to bring the horror. That much is obvious. It just falls flat, like a kid in a dollar store mask jumping out from around a corner when you are only half way down the block.
Knowing all this, it is no wonder why this film hasn’t gotten its day on the big screen. I can only imagine a theater full of people who, the week before just saw something like The Incredible Hulk or Hellboy 2, asking how they could have been duped into paying 10 dollars to see a movie that, at the very least, in quality, does not measure up even to other indie releases that get a small art house run. Sometimes, that’s all it comes down to.
2 out of 5
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