The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a found footage mockumentary-style film written and directed by John Erick Dowdle. While initially completed back in 2007, due to its subversive nature the film was not released until 2014. The Poughkeepsie Tapes follows the actions of a sadistic serial killer active in the upstate New York town of Poughkeepsie. The film alternates between interviews of police investigators, morgue technicians, as well as the victim’s families, with interspersed pieces of the handheld footage shot by the Water Street Killer, in a somewhat sequential fashion.
The film opens with a police raid on the killer’s now abandoned house, and the discovery of over eight hundred gruesome videotapes shot by an unknown entity. From here, The Poughkeepsie Tapes goes back in time as the killer’s actions are pieced together by investigators, documenting the progression of his crimes.
While not based on true events, The Poughkeepsie Tapes is set in the same part of Poughkeepsie where real-life serial killer Kendall Francois lived. The hysteria following the Francois murders has blurred the line between truth and fiction, and many Poughkeepsie dwellers will swear up and down that The Poughkeepsie Tapes is complete fact. I’ve lived in Poughkeepsie for the past two years, so I missed the film’s initial release. But even as a newer resident of the city, it’s impossible not to recognize familiar scenery from the film, particularly the shots of the iconic Poughkeepsie train station, something I drive past on a daily basis.
While the most illustrious parts of The Poughkeepsie Tapes are the infamous handheld video camera sequences, the majority of the film is shot in the format of a made-for-TV murder documentary. Many found footage mediums are employed here: archival footage, interview footage, even some police procedural reenactments. Initially, it’s impossible to determine whether the mockumentary was created for a limited viewing for teaching purposes or law enforcement, or if the film is intended for a wider audience. Towards the end of The Poughkeepsie Tapes one of the interviewed investigators says that the police will be keeping a close eye on the release of this “documentary,” because they are certain that the killer will frequent as many showings of the film as he possibly can. Here it becomes clear that the intent of the mockumentary filmmakers is to bring awareness of these crimes to the general population.
The parts of The Poughkeepsie Tapes in which the Water Street Killer is filming are where things get surprisingly dark. The majority of these film cuts involve him loudly screaming at bound-up women in the dark and dingy basement of his house, and they are spine-chilling. His reason for filming? To document his legacy of pain and torture, and after we become more familiar with his character, this obsessive, egotistical reasoning seems all the more believable.
The juxtaposition of the frame narrative of the mockumentary and the interspersed pieces of the killer’s footage lend themselves intrinsically to two very different types of camerawork. The mockumentary scenes of the film consist of a combination of professionally shot interviews with handheld and stationary video cameras, archival news footage, and reenactments. These scenes are filmed in the high quality cinematic fashion one would expect from a television documentary. Adding to the realism of the interviews, there are several moments when the video camera needs to be adjusted (one of the most obvious ones being the opening shot when the landlord of the killer’s old house asks the cameraman “are you ready?”) but this is all extremely believable in the face of a seasoned documentary cameraman. The Poughkeepsie Tapes is intended to be a feature film, and it would look silly if it were shot with shoddy camerawork.
As for the found footage sequences, the killer is much less adept at shooting, and it might be assumed that these clips are some of his first camerawork. This all ties in nicely to the idea of found footage, and it calls for a high score in the “believable cinematography” category. Not only are the majority of his shots oddly framed, but the lighting quality is less than stellar, and at times his shaky hands makes it hard to make out what horrors he is enacting on film. He shoots like a man who purchased a consumer grade VHS video camera and started rolling.
Neither of these cameramen employ any outlandishly creative techniques while behind their perspective video cameras, but the idea behind The Poughkeepsie Tapes does not call for anything outlandish. In effect, the audience gets exactly what they are expecting.
Found Footage Purity
The found footage purity in The Poughkeepsie Tapes is believable based off what character is filming – from start to finish The Poughkeepsie Tapes is straight, found footage goodness. However, there are several moments which seem out of character for the film. The first is the title sequence, shots of the picturesque Hudson Valley are overlaid by a haunting song sung by creepy little children. This music choice seems strangely out of place in the face of both the mockumentary and the killer’s footage. There are also several scenes in which music is overlaid over the existing footage, and this viewer is of the opinion that the footage would have been more powerful without it. And finally, there seems an age discrepancy between the mockumentary footage and the killer’s camerawork. The killer’s footage has the appearance of heavily aged VHS tapes in contrast to the mockumentary footage which is both more recent and filmed with professional grade equipment.
However, at the end of The Poughkeepsie Tapes there is a title card thanking the victim’s families, which is a nice touch. This is believably found footage, as it would make sense for everyone interviewed in the film to be thanked, instead of the credits immediately rolling a list of actors and breaking the third wall.
When discussing the acting performed in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, it’s important to first consider the level of improvisation employed in the dialogue of each character. In found footage, the primary concept for dialogue writing is to have it seem completely organic. The interviewees, for example, should not sound as if their responses are rehearsed. The Water Street Killer is perhaps the most natural sounding character. Every word that comes out of his mouth is said in such a way that leads this reviewer to believe that his dialogue is almost entirely improvisational.
Unfortunately, not all of the FBI investigators or technicians speak as freely as the murderer does. In particular, the former FBI agent who is taped while teaching a seminar on this infamous case comes off as very scripted. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the contrived nature of his dialog does detract from the immersion experience that found footage is supposed to bring.
The premise of The Poughkeepsie Tapes is such that it’s almost impossible to not be immediately drawn into the film. Everyone loves serial killers and crime shows, the more disturbing the better! The Water Street killer checks every box on the Murderous Psychopath checklist, and regardless of what the mockumentary scenes contain, the raw found footage of him torturing young girls is seriously captivating. Not in a good way, but in an interesting way.
The plot of The Poughkeepsie Tapes focuses mostly on the step-by-step process that leads the police and FBI investigators on what is essentially a wild goose chase. The raw found footage interspersed with the interview footage is done in such a way that ensures that there’s never a dull moment in the film. Looking past the occasional odd acting choice, as well as the occasional obviously edited section, The Poughkeepsie Tapes makes for a frighteningly entertaining watch.