The Poughkeepsie Tapes


Written by Stephanie | Rated: 1 Star - So. Much. Beef, Horror | Posted on 27-10-2011

Crime rates are dropping all over the Western world , yet the fear of crime has been steadily on the increase for years. Some of the blame for this certainly rests with the media, especially in the UK. A survey back in 2003 showed that readers of tabloid newspapers were almost twice as likely to be worried about crime as those who favoured broadsheets. A child abducted by a stranger is almost guaranteed to be front page news (especially if that child is white, and their parents are well spoken), and the murder of a young, attractive woman also tends to get a lot of publicity. When I was a young ‘un, growing up in central London, I walked myself home from school from an early age, went to the park unsupervised and played outside with friends with no question from any of our parents. All this is changing now, the distance our kids stray from home on their own has shrunk by 90% since the 70s and 43% of adults think a child shouldn’t play outdoors unsupervised until the age of 14. The real risk to children and to women actually tends to come from their own families/friends. Over the past decade, more than 20,000 American children have been killed their own family members – that is nearly four times the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, these stories don’t get on the front pages and often don’t get reported at all. The issues behind them are simply too complicated, and it’s easier to sell papers with a picture of an ‘innocent young angel’ whose life has been ‘snatched’ by an ‘evil monster’. Bearing all this in mind, I find it hard to appreciate a film which opens with the random abduction, rape, and murder of a young girl from her own front garden.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is a faux-documentary about a series of tapes showing brutal torture, rape and murder committed by a serial killer, found in an abandoned house. The film largely concerns itself with interviewing those involved with the investigation. We meet FBI agents, profilers, psychiatrists, ‘dismemberment experts’ and various other talking heads who discuss their various levels of disgust/interest/admiration for the ‘work’ of the killer, and the investigation to catch him. The film is clearly extremely low budget and, considering this, the acting is generally of a pretty high standard (with a couple of notable exceptions). The film is presented as if it were real and, if I didn’t know different (mainly because if it were real, it would have been an enormous news story), I could be convinced into thinking it was. I’ve never been particularly interested in the anatomy of crime, but the proliferation of the CSI franchise and those like it suggest there is a market for this kind of film. One of the characters is a retired criminal profiler, who we see using the tapes to teach a class. He talks of the effect of the work on his mental health and his story and investigation of the tapes, for me, would have been a far more interesting route to take. The only film of this ilk I’ve ever really admired was The Silence of the Lambs, and that’s because it’s about Agent Starling, with Hannibal Lector as a supporting character. We see his actions (and the actions of Buffalo Bill) through her eyes, and the film becomes so much more than a tale of a sick man because of that.

The emphasis is very much on the analysis of the murders and the man who committed them and, unsurprisingly, the other half of the film centres around the tapes themselves. As I’ve said before, I am not interested in torture porn, it holds no excitement for me. I suppose that the tapes were supposed to scare me, but all they did was made me angry that I was being asked to watch the behaviour of such a pathetic little man. There is one particular shot of a murder which is clearly supposed to freak the viewer out, but I just ended up scoffing. I watched another faux-documentary a couple of weeks ago called Lake Mungo. It had a very different feel and subject matter, but similarly didn’t scare me at all while I was watching it. However, for the next few nights I was haunted by one image, which got right under my skin. I saved reviewing The Poughkeepsie Tapes until the day after I watched it, just to check whether the same thing would happen here. It didn’t, in fact, I can feel the details of the film slipping from my mind even as I write this.

The only way I can take anything positive from films like this is if I feel like there is a larger point being made. At one point in The Poughkeepsie Tapes, a news story is kept from receiving any attention by the events of September 11th, 2001. I was hopeful that this thread would be continued and the role of the media, and what is and isn’t classed as ‘news’ would be put into the spotlight, but it wasn’t. One of the talking heads actually says toward the end that the killer would be delighted to have a documentary released about him, after all, the whole purpose of the tapes is for them to be watched (and admired?!). Despite the fact that the events in the film are entirely fictional, the feeling that the film is aggrandising the actions of the killer strikes me as irresponsible. I remain impressed at how well made the film was on a tiny budget. Sadly, I wasn’t scared once, and the only effect I can see this film having is to increase the fear in the viewer of a terrible fate befalling them or their families, increasing the disproportionate fear or crime even further. I wonder if I would have felt differently about the film if the violence wasn’t so squarely directed at women and children, but, as it is, I found it unpleasant and pointless… even if you are a fan of torture porn, the tapes are such poor quality it’s often hard to see or hear what’s happening. Despite being released in 2007, I don’t think The Poughkeepsie Tapes is available on DVD. What a shame.