From the Archives: The Poughkeepsie Tapes- A Lost Horror Classic

From the Archives: The Poughkeepsie Tapes- A Lost Horror Classic

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally published at Cinema76

In 2007, a trailer for John Erick Dowdle’s The Poughkeepsie Tapes was attached to multiple mainstream horror releases. Being the absolute sucker for found footage that I am, I was pumped to see it. The trailer promised a documentary-style assemblage of tapes capturing the decade long killing spree of a still-at-large serial killer. The trailer also promised that it would be hitting theaters soon. No specific date, just soon. But soon never came, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes disappeared. No theatrical release, no DVD release, and no video on demand. Simply put, The Poughkeepsie Tapes was dead. John Erick Dowdle is not a household name, but his work is generally familiar. With a filmography including Devil, Quarantine, and As Above, So Below, chances are high that you’ve seen at least one of his movies, and if you’re anything like me, you weren’t particularly moved by it. This isn’t to say that Dowdle’s work is bad, but rather that it is unremarkable. Regular genre fare, executed with an acceptable degree of technical competency. Personally, I enjoyed Devil well enough, but I feel no need to revisit it, nor do I have any desire to share it with friends. Quarantine is a perfectly acceptable remake of [REC], but who cares? Just watch [REC]. Well, unless you want to watch Deb from Dexter be tormented by monsters.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes, on the other hand, is one of the scarier and more notable horror entries of recent memory. Not only is it successful in utilizing its faux-documentary format to elicit jump scares and gross-out moments, but it also has a lot to say about criminal/victim psychology, and the influence of media on criminals. The tapes themselves are minimalist and believable, while the talking heads all feel like credible information sources. If this were to air as a television true crime special and not a horror movie, it wouldn’t appear to be fiction, War of the Worlds be damned!

Halloween season came and went, Paranormal Activity established itself as the new seasonal franchise, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes was shuttled of to a studio closet somewhere. Why the release was shelved is anybody’s guess. No official statement was ever made. Certainly it wasn’t a content issue — we were neck deep in torture porn at this point — and it definitely wasn’t a quality issue because this movie is very, very scary. My guess is that it simply wasn’t franchise-able. Sure, the movie does make it clear that the depicted serial killer was never caught, but after even a single sequel, the conceit of “hey, we found more tapes from that guy!” would become much harder to swallow, especially with the original entry making such a show of psychoanalysis.

Another theory is that by the end of 2007, ghosts were trumping serial killers at every turn. Take a look at this (non-comprehensive) list of supernatural horror movies from that year:

– The Orphanage

– The Signal

– Trick ‘r Treat

– 1408

– Paranormal Activity

– 28 Weeks Later

– The Mist

– Dead Silence

That’s a pretty high quality list of horror. Now let’s check out the non-supernatural entries:

– Rob Zombie’s (terrible) Halloween

– P2

– The Hitcher (remake)

– The Hills Have Eyes 2 (sequel to a remake)

– Hannibal Rising

– Saw IV

That could easily be mistaken for a list of “DVDs to burn.” Well, I kinda like P2 but it’s by no means notable. I also left Hostel Part 2 off of the list because that movie rules, and I’m trying to make a point. That point being that audiences had simply moved on from serial killers by 2007. After having been battered with years of Scream rip-offs and Saw-like gore fests (both of which can be wonderful things, don’t get me wrong), audiences were ready for something different. And if you look at the last few years, the horror market has been dominated by haunted houses and exorcisms. So perhaps, The Poughkeepsie Tapes fell victim, as many genre releases do, to bad timing.

Don’t fret, however, for all is not lost. You too can see this hidden gem at little to no cost. That’s right, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is newly available on Direct TV’s on demand services, and if you’re not one of the 5 people who uses Direct TV, you can see it in questionably legal terms on YouTube. I say ‘questionably’ legal because the channel has been hosting an HD copy for months with no studio interference, but I can’t be sure, as copyright law is not my forte. You didn’t hear it from me. Enjoy!

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