Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Poughkeepsie Tapes: Whoever Fights Monsters

My next Halloween post concerns a popular figure in horror movies - one who can apparently change shape, turn into mist, command hordes of wild animals, kill without mercy or conscience, and elude his pursuers to an almost unnatural degree, all while planning elaborate, ritualized displays of bloodshed.

I am, of course, talking about serial killers.

No, not Dracula. Honestly, he'd be more plausible than some of the portrayals of serial killers in fiction and film. Criminal masterminds, whose genius is matched only by the baroqueness and ferocity of their kills. The myth is practically fable at this point, and serial killers (as we see them in our entertainment) are practically monsters as it is - less people than slavering wolves waiting to devour Red Riding Hood. My favorite was actually from a book, not a movie - a deeply disturbed man obsessed with a dead nun, who murdered women who looked like the nun by tearing their throats out with a custom set of fanged dentures, and who did so while wearing a hazmat suit to keep the blood off of his clothes. He did this in New York City while…get this…being a successful movie actor. This shit is ridiculous.

I have no problem with the ridiculous, necessarily - there's definitely a place for it in horror - but serial killers aren't werewolves or vampires, they're quite real, and what they do is horrible. Treating them like some kind of folk figure, commodifying them the way we have Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers is a little offensive to me. It makes them not an actual threat, the tragedies suffered by their victims and the victims' families less real. I think that if you're going to make a movie centered around a serial killer, it should make people queasy and uncomfortable.

I think this is what The Poughkeepsie Tapes is shooting for - I think it is - but its inability to settle on a tone ends up making the experience more confusing than anything else. Which is too bad, because when it's on, it is dead fucking on.

Loosely, it's a verité movie in the tradition of The Blair Witch Project. Actually, it's sort of a double-verité movie - the framing device is that we're watching a crime-television documentary about the discovery of a cache of videotapes in a rented house in Poughkeepsie, NY. Within that documentary, we see excerpts from the videotapes, which appear to be compulsively filmed documents of a serial killers' evolution. We're there for his first foray into murder, and watch as he becomes increasingly more cruel and his behavior more bizarre.

These excerpts from the collected tapes are arguably the most effective parts of the movie - they're mostly a mix of the killer stalking his victims and torturing them in his basement. There's a lot of watching him play cat-and-mouse with unsuspecting people, either who don't realize his true intentions or who don't even know he's there, and these are the tensest, scariest parts of the movie. It's not an especially gory film, with a few quick exceptions. Its stock in trade is the horror of what we don't see. The videotape is, as often as not, degraded and twitchy, with color and tracking artifacts all over the place. It obscures some of what is happening to good effect and lends these segments a raw, ugly feel that works very well at making the viewer feel really uneasy.

Unfortunately, a couple of things get in the way. The first is that the killer, over time, becomes more and more of a movie serial killer, rather than the actual thing. His plans become more complicated, his behavior theatrical (literally - complete with Venetian mask, cape and frilled collar), and his cruelty, depravity, and ability to avoid capture almost superhuman. He's described as a genius, impossible to catch. He does unspeakable things. His behavior with his victims becomes histrionic. He threatens to become a monster, not real at all. It clashes with what starts as a frighteningly plausible portrayal of a withdrawn nobody, whose kinks and compulsions spiral out of control.

The second problem is the dissonance between the footage from the tapes and the surrounding crime-drama framework. Part of it can be chalked up to amateurish acting, but not all of it. The acting does vary wildly, making some characters convincing and others almost comedic. It's hard to tell if the filmmakers were trying to parody crime documentaries - maybe the borderline-goofiness of some of the characters was supposed to be in contrast to the ugliness of the footage, and although this was the case, I'm really not sure it was deliberate. The overall feel is wildly uneven, especially since a couple of the documentary moments - especially a brief, haunting interview with one of the killers' surviving victims toward the end - are downright chilling, but many aren't. Intrusive special effects also show up in places you wouldn't expect them to, blurring the line between the footage, the documentary, and the film we're actually watching. Again, there's the possibility this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but if so, they didn't follow through consistently enough. As it is, there's no clear aesthetic brief, and what could have been (based on it at its most successful) could have been a powerful, terrifying antidote to the surfeit of unrealistic serial killer films ends up mythologizing them the way other films do. There's a really strong film in here somewhere, but it's trapped under a layer of aesthetic missteps. The last thing this film needs is a monster, let alone one where the zipper is visible.

IMDB entry
Available on Netflix


  1. I saw the trailer for this and was interested a little. I'd see this if it came my way, but unfortunately movies like this don't crop up at "Friday night, hey, what's in your Netflix queue" occasions.

    This movie and 8mm and maybe also The Ring are about horror films within horror films. Maybe there's a post in there about the distance between viewer and screen...or something?

  2. Maybe, although I tend to think of the Ring as more of a ghost story than these others - it and Pulse (which I think got kind of a raw deal) are this interesting technology fear thing.

    I know I'll get to horror films within horror films at some point, because at some point I'm going to talk about John Carpenter's "Cigarette Burns" and how disappointed I was in it.

  3. I support your disappointment regarding "Cigarette Burns": trashy, pedestrian and so on