Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Poughkeepsie Tapes

I rarely see a film which gives me the kinds of heebie jeebie's that I'm making sure my windows and doors are locked. This one did.

I just sat through my first viewing of The Poughkeepsie Tapes which was directed by John Erick Dowdle and written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle.

This film takes the "faux-documentary" idea very seriously, as the entire film plays out exactly like a documentary would. It's supposed to be documenting the hunt for, exploits of, and the eventually found videotapes of The Water Street Butcher, a serial killer who prowled Poughkeepsie, New York during the nineties. The thing is, these guys did an incredible job of creating the documentary feel. This is actually poor in all the places so many of "true crime" documentaries we've come to be so familiar with are poor. They have almost perfectly written the parts for the police they've interviewed, and certainly did a great job with casting. I've read a few reviews in the past which took some of the performances to task, but now that I've seen it, I honestly don't think the reviewers in those cases fully understood the intent. If you watch the kind of "true crime" documentary this film is supposed to recreating, you will find a number of the people interviewed for them are not at all used to being on camera, and that's exactly how this comes across. I don't know if it's just a product of poor acting or something the Dowdle brothers specifically tried to get in the movie, but for me, it worked in service of the film.

Then there's the "found footage", which isn't the most graphic thing I've ever seen by a very long shot, but still manages to be downright creepy and weird because of the very bizarre nature of it. Some of the degree of truly creepy and unsettling nature might just be the degree to which it isn't all that shocking. I think it got to me because it really did come across in a way which really suggested that if some serial killer had recorded all of his exploits, this is exactly what we, as the general public, would be allowed to see. A documentarian has considerations a narrative fiction film maker doesn't have, especially if they were covering a subject like the one this film is supposed to. If this had been a real documentary, you'd never have seen a shot in which any of the victims were actually killed. It just would not happen, it would be too much, too sensational, too graphic and so on. It would literally become a snuff film, and it would never get made, have a prayer of getting released or distributed or anything. A documentary on the horrors of war, absolutely, you will see people actually die on film. But a documentary on a serial killer or serial killers in general, even if tapes like these actually did exist, the general public would never be shown an actual murder on tape. And if they were, the chances are better than not that it would cause the kind a kind of uproar the likes of which have not been seen in a very, very, long time, possibly ever. As a society, a movie going public, the chances are better than not that we wouldn't accept it. Sure, people bitch and moan and whine about the "immoral nature" of violence in fiction (especially horror films), but this is one of the few ways in which somehow, some way, on some instinctual level, we understand there is a difference between reality and fiction. The Brothers Dowdle know exactly where to stop to keep the film both riveting and also keep the reality of the "documentary" real enough to have kept me deeply uneasy from about a quarter of the way in.

The Pougkeepsie Tapes manages to be disturbing and unsettling without being very graphic at all. There is very little blood, very little on screen violence and very little to satiate the gore hounds who would inevitably be flocking to this. But I'd honestly be less likely to suggest someone let a younger child or someone with more sensitive sensibilities see this film than something like, say, Hostel, because what is in this film is, to me, much more disturbing, unnerving and hard to wrangle with mentally or intellectually. With almost no gore at all, it takes certain ideas and themes which are at the base core of something like torture, and puts them front and center with a spotlight on them.

I can absolutely see that there would be a contingent of the movie going public, especially a few communities in the horror movie going public who would really just crap all over this film because to them, it wouldn't be scary enough or bloody enough. I can see how there would definitely be people to whom none of this would be very effecting. At the same time, for some odd reason, it got me where I live to a degree which after almost thirty years of obsession with horror films is extremely unusual.

Here's the troublesome aspect of The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Like Trick r' Treat and Paranormal Activity, this film hit the festival circuit in 2007 and was picked up by one of the major film studios. MGM is still sitting on this film and are basically refusing to release it. Though I can't offer any explanation with any absolute  conviction, I think I might understand why this film hasn't been released yet. They are in a no win situation as far as the marketing is concerned. There's no way to market this film without setting up public expectation that it will more or less be a "faux-documentary" Saw rip off. If they can't dispel that, the film loses in every way. All of the people going to see a film which they are hoping and expecting to be the same kind of blood soaked festival of gore that something like Saw  is are going to be disappointed. The movie going public who are tired of poor imitations of Hostel and the original Saw, are the people who should be seeing this movie, but it's impossible to put together a trailer and marketing campaign which will tell them that without ruining some of the more important aspects of the film and doing that ever more popular, completely useless and stupid thing of telling the entire story, surprises and all, in the trailer.

There is definitely, definitely an audience for this film. That I have no doubt about. It's obvious a good deal of time, and more importantly, thought, was put into this film. The Dowdle Brothers have managed to create a stirring, disturbing and unusual piece of cinema here. It's the kind of thing which would find it's way into some corner of cinema history which future generations of horror fans would visit in their constant quest to satiate their appetites. I don't know this would necessarily become a "cult classic" kind of film, but more something that genre lovers would respect and enjoy and in the future would definitely talk about as among the best of the "faux-documentary" style horror films. It's definitely the kind of thing any future film makers considering venturing into the "faux-doc" style should be advised to see.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is something I wouldn't have felt cheated to have spent movie theater money on, that I'd recommend to friends with a leaning toward genre films, and I'd give a 7.5 out of 10, possibly an 8.  

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