Now here’s an odd little movie that’ll likely never see the cinematic light of day!
The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a mockumentary dealing with the discovery of hundreds upon hundreds of videotapes that detail a demented serial-killer’s decade-long murder spree.
It was screened around several film festivals, and received good word-of-mouth as well as some promotion, before being shelved by MGM (apparently this is when they hit budgeting issues, and it’s slipped between the cracks since then). I personally discovered it through enthusiastic reviews from two of the blogs I read (Head in a Vice and Aloha Mister Hand, both of which you should check out) and went on a mission to hunt it down.
It’s a surprisingly effective film, and does a fair bit with its framing device of being a documentary, and for the most part manages to overcome its flaws. One of the most intriguing aspects of the film is just how messed up the uncaptured serial killer is. He has no regular MO or set type of victim, and the only consistency, other than videoing every single thing he does, is that he has a penchant for theatricality, including a sinister Medico della Peste mask. He kills, seemingly at random, although the randomness is a deliberate obfuscation on his part.
What this does, more effectively than many a serial killer film out there, is give him a quite vague and terrifying presence, because he could be literally anyone out there. It won’t necessarily stay with you after the movie is done, but it means that for each new victim (and there are many) that we see on the tapes, they see him as a different person each time. It creates this character of the “Water Street Butcher” but it means that he can be played differently in each new scenario.
There is one particular scene, that is often pointed out as a highlight and has become something of a sensation on the net as a random scene to terrify people, wherein the killer ties one of his victims up, points his camera right in her face on the right-side of the frame, then slowly crawls in from the rear of the shot, but walking on his hands and feet, wearing not one but two masks – it is distinctly odd and unsettling, and is a really strong image to sell the film with.
There are also some interesting beats in the narrative that play with a grim comedy; the serial killer spends years planting evidence against a policeman to throw suspicion from him. The policeman is then executed as the Water Street Butcher, only for the actual killer to then taunt the policeman’s family with a map saying “missed one”, effectively exonerating the policeman three days after his execution. The irony of a serial killer using the justice system to kill a policeman is not lost on a reporter, who says it would’ve been a national sensation – if only the story hadn’t broken on September 10, 2001.
There’s also a sequence, implied to be early on in the killer’s career, where he hires a prostitute to inflate a balloon and bounce on it in her underwear. He tells her not to pop it, and so when she inevitably does, we know he’s about to kill her (we never see this) but the film freezes on her shocked face, and on the surface it’s meant to be scary, but I can’t help but feel that the filmmakers were having a laugh in including it – I know I certainly did.
The film’s biggest flaw, and it is significant, is that some of the acting is atrocious. Now, it’s a low-budget film, so there’s a limit on resources, but the actors they’ve hired to play small bit-parts (news reporters, police chiefs, FBI specialists) are often s wooden and unconvincing that it really distracts from the credibility of the finished piece. Most of the acting is decent, but when it’s not, it’s a major problem, because the film’s success hinges on passing itself off as realistically as possible, especially in contrast with the craziness of the killer. It also doesn’t help that the film could’ve done with some more research into how people in relevant professions actually speak, because it often comes across as how a naive screenwriter thinks journalists, policemen, psychiatrists, forensic specialists etc. all talk.
There are however some particularly good performances, especially Stacy Chbosky as Cheryl Dempsey, the one victim he left alive. The killer abducts her and then subjugates her into being his slave; when the tapes are found, so is she in a wooden box. They try to rehabilitate her, but she has become so traumatised by her torment that the only way she associates to the world is through brutal pain, eventually taking her own life, and declaring her love for the killer in her suicide note. Chbosky’s performance is heartbreaking. Also worth mentioning is Lisa Black as Victoria Dempsey, Cheryl’s mother, who portrays a realistically devastated woman; there’s a particular scene where the killer actually films her, pretending to be a concerned citizen, and she realises he is the one responsible – it’s a contrived moment, but she plays it well.
However, apparently the version of the film that’s been circulating is a workprint of the movie (which also explains some of the crappy fonts used) and the filmmakers had the film shelved before they could get around to re-shoots and finishing touches.
It is a real shame that this movie isn’t more widely available, or that it never got the finishing touches it needs, because it’s an effective and at times very unsettling film. It moves along briskly, and if you can look past the wooden acting of some of the extras, works well with it’s documentary conceit. If you can find it – it’s currently available on YouTube although I imagine it’ll be gone before too long – it’s worth a look for something that’s a bit new and different.
It’s certainly not the greatest horror movie out there – but if you’re sick of the glut of found-footage movies that’s flooding the market, this is a good film to cast your eye over.