The Poughkeepsie Tapes

| October 9, 2017

Originally slated for distribution by MGM a full decade ago, The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007) sat on a shelf somewhere gaining word-of-mouth reputation as a disturbing, maddening experience that we horror fans would simply devour if only we could get our hands on it. Still, it remained ever out-of-reach for reasons unknown to us, and its notoriety and infamy grew. My friend Tyler would even recall in detail the experience of seeing the trailer before No Country for Old Men like it was some sort of folk tale. What ever happened to The Poughkeepsie Tapes? Could it really be so disturbing that we wouldn’t be allowed to see it? Or did the studio just not understand it? Well now’s the time to find out. Because MGM finally took The Poughkeepsie Tapes off the shelf just in time to ruin any one of your pre-Halloween evenings, thanks to the home video from Scream Factory.

A found footage film made during the earliest days of the subgenre’s popularity thanks to the concurrently-produced Paranormal Activity and REC (which the filmmakers behind Poughkeepsie Tapes would remake as Quarantine), Poughkeepsie Tapes presents itself as a documentary. In a style distinctly reminiscent of the works of Errol Morris, the film explores the home video footage of a fictional serial killer: the Water Street Butcher, who filmed every single crime he’d committed on VHS. The Pougkeepsie Tapes combines this heavily-degraded, supposed found footage with re-enactments, staged news footage, and talking head interviews with victims’ families and FBI investigators.

It may sound hokey and parts of it sure are, but the end result is a deeply disturbing experience, escalating rapidly from near-comedic moments (think RedLetterMedia’s Mr. Plinkett wraparounds) to profoundly upsetting. And it gets to that point by combining brief, graphic glimpses into the Butcher’s world with detailed discussions of other off screen horrors in just the right balance. This is to say that the things we’re shown may indeed be incredibly upsetting (i.e. brutal torture, bodily dismemberment, extended scenes of women begging for their lives), but what we’re not shown is often far more disturbing as writer/director John Erick Dowdle leaves our imaginations to fill in some of the most extreme and important gaps—and the human imagination is capable of a lot!

Now, if you’re a fan of extreme horror like A Serbian Film and things of that nature (and I am not, as it happens), you’ll likely find The Poughkeepsie Tapes incredibly tame by comparison. So if that’s your thing, Poughkeepsie Tapes may not. While the film is graphic in places, it really is only graphic in brief spurts, just enough to get you extrapolating on that which you’ve seen.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is instead more conceptually challenging, and in that regard, the film is unrelentingly brutal. And what makes the film most disturbing of all is not so much the individual murders, but instead the prolonged torture and indoctrination of the Butcher’s preferred victim, Cheryl (Stacy Chbosky), who’s forced to aid him in his efforts even as she’s subjected to constant physical and mental abuse. So if you’re looking for something harrowing to watch this Halloween, pick up a copy of The Poughkeepsie Tapes, turn the lights off, and let it ruin your evening in a way that only a great horror movie can.

Special features on the Scream Factory Blu-ray/DVD combo release of The Poughkeepsie Tapes include a pair of interviews—one with John Erick Dowdle and producer Drew Dowdle and the other with star Stacy Chbosky—as well as the film’s theatrical trailer.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).

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