Shot in a strict documentary style, The Poughkeepsie Tapes recounts the story of the Water Street Butcher, a serial killer who terrorized Poughkeepsie, NY for over ten years starting in the early 90s. Eventually the butcher made a minor slip-up and several battalions of SWAT came calling, but he was already long gone when they arrived. Instead, what they found in his abandoned house was an enormous, meticulously cataloged library of VHS tapes in which he had documented his entire career in murdering. The Poughkeepsie Tapes winds its way through the killer's story by giving us interviews with cops, FBI agents and the friends and family members of the victims, and also includes extended clips from the actual video library, so we can see exactly what happened to the victims, not just leave it to imagination. Needless to say, this is all bullcrap. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is the new Blair Witch, a carefully constructed piece of faux realism -- the longer it goes on, the more obvious it becomes, but I'm happy to say that doesn't detract from the fun.
The killer's M.O. changes randomly throughout his career -- a calculated move to throw the authorities off the scent -- but torture of some kind is almost always on the agenda. In one horrifying scene, we see -- through the aged, shaky footage of his personal camcorde, as always -- him pickup a woman who needs a lift to a gas station. By the look of his car and his helpful demeanor, she takes him for a plain clothes police officer and agrees to ride in the back seat. Little details like her unexplained British accent help sell the setup, and after they've driven a while, it becomes clear that he isn't taking her to any gas station. "Let me ask you something ..." he finally asks. "What made you think I was a police officer?" Cut to one of the numerous scenes of torture in the killer's dank, greenlit basement hellhole. The victim is usually hogtied or chained and gagged, while the killer toys with them by wearing a scary Comeddia dell'arte mask and asking questions like "Are you happy that I killed your family?"
Much of the film focuses on one victim in particular, called Cheryl. After abducting her and imprisoning her in his basement, the killer takes a special interest in Cheryl and determines to keep her alive as his personal slave. At first this involves nothing more than words, making her call him master and such, but eventually he goes as far as to bring another victim into the dungeon and then unchain Cheryl and order her to kill that new victim. Meanwhile, we cut to family and friends who confirm this all happened years ago, leading us to believe that Cheryl couldn't have been kept alive long, despite being the killer's favorite pet. Right now, you're probably thinking 'this doesn't even sound pseudo-real, let alone real' but director John Dowdle shows a talent for tricking the audience into thinking we're seeing unscripted moments from someone's personal video library. At one point, an FBI agent shows the director the room where the killer's tapes are kept -- the camera has to pan back, back, back to get the entire giant collection into frame.
Where Dowdle falters is actually in the professionally staged talking-head interviews, some of which seem so phoney that they give the whole game away on their own. One FBI employee volunteers that after his wife saw a portion of one of the tapes, "it was over a year before my wife let me touch her again," which doesn't sound credible in the least. Throughout the film, other very scripty lines like that one are sprinkled in to amp up the tension, but they end up draining it. However, Dowdle is smart enough not to bet the farm that people are going to seriously think they are watching a real document -- after all, the film references criminal trials, police departments, and tons of other real-world quantities that make its assertions instantly verifiable -- so instead he eventually makes a smart choice and takes The Poughkeepsie Tapes over-the-top, tacking on a twisty subplot about an arrest in the case that may or may not have been the wrong man and then springing a third act surprise on us.
When you step back and look at it objectively, the film's gruesome violence -- and there is plenty of it -- still has nothing on the average Saw sequel or Eli Roth gorefest. It's all about context, though. By taking us away from the comfortable, predictable beats of a Hollywood production and giving us the same kind of images, such as a woman hogtied like a thanksgiving turkey, the desensitization blinders are removed for a few moments and the film succeeds in keeping the audience engaged and unable to look away. There's one scene in particular, in which we see the killer opening his front door and training his camera's eye piece on a couple of pre-teen girls selling scout cookies that made the audience I saw the film with gasp in collective horror. Where is the movie going with this? For a few minutes, the audience wasn't sure, which is much to the credit of the director. Also, the film's closing moment elicited more honest laughter and applause than I've heard from an audience in a while.