Friday, October 13, 2017


(US - 2014)

For a long time, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES was shaping up to be the DAY THE CLOWN CRIED of found-footage. Filmed in 2007 and screened at that year's Tribeca Film Festival, the film was abruptly yanked from the schedule by MGM just a week before its planned February 8, 2008 release date (for some perspective on how long ago this was, that weekend's other major releases were FOOL'S GOLD, WELCOME HOME ROSCOE JENKINS, VINCE VAUGHN'S WILD WEST COMEDY SHOW, and IN BRUGES), even though a trailer had been out and multiplexes had promo material on display for several weeks. The found-footage genre was still in its post-BLAIR WITCH PROJECT era in 2008, and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES would've preceded the next wave brought in by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY by over a year and a half had MGM released it on schedule. While no explanation was ever given for why the studio buried this like a dark family secret, the filmmakers--writer/director John Erick Dowdle and his producer brother Drew--had a hit later the same year with QUARANTINE, a remake of the Spanish found-footage horror phenomenon [REC], before going on to make the 2010 M. Night Shyamalan production DEVIL, the 2014 Paris catacombs-set found-footage opus AS ABOVE, SO BELOW, and the 2015 Owen Wilson thriller NO ESCAPE. The Dowdles got QUARANTINE on the basis of THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, and while none of their subsequent films were blockbusters, their moderate success still wasn't enough to free POUGHKEEPSIE from the MGM shelf. It eventually got a stealth release on DirecTV in 2014, but just as word got around to horror fans that it was available, MGM pulled it once more without warning. Only now, in the fall of 2017, has the now-decade old film been made widely available, with Shout! Factory's Blu-ray and DVD release rescuing it from oblivion and finally giving it, for all intents and purposes, it's first actual, widespread exhibition.

You'd assume this must be a terrible movie, but the end result is quite surprising. It's unfortunate that the found-footage genre has played itself into overexposed irrelevance, because THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES is one of the best of its kind. There's no jump scares to be had and the gore is minimal, but its violence and intensity are such that it's quite dark, disturbing, and sometimes difficult to watch. It's hard telling if that's why MGM got skittish about releasing it, but the closest comparison I can draw to illustrate just how utterly real and horrifying this film can be is the sad and heartbreaking Australian found-footage outing LAKE MUNGO. Set up as a faux talking-head documentary, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES chronicles the exploits of the east coast serial killer The Water Street Butcher, tracing his murders back to 1991 via a vast collection of homemade snuff videos found in his house in 1996. The madness begins with the abduction and murder of a little girl right from her front yard, escalates to a couple being kidnapped on their way home to Poughkeepsie from Pittsburgh, and soon, he's very intricately crafting the murder sites to deliberately mislead the investigators and misdirect the profilers when the FBI is called in. To throw them off even more, he changes his M.O. and kidnaps 19-year-old Cheryl Dempsey (Stacy Chbosky), holding her captive as a sex-and-torture slave in his basement. He even shows up at Cheryl's house and films himself talking to her mother, laughing and taunting her ("If there's anything I can do...") before running away once the mom realizes she's looking right at the man who kidnapped her daughter. The murders go on, with the killer deliberately leaving DNA behind as if he's trying to get captured, and that's when things take an unexpected and even more horrific turn, with Dowdle even working in 9/11 in a plausible, non-exploitative fashion.

THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES takes full advantage of one of the unsung ringers of modern-era horror: blurry video and garbled audio, which always gets under your skin if done right. This film excels at it, even if you have to cut them some slack that all of the VHS tapes are somehow 1.78:1. The unpredictable patterns of the murders, the rawness of the tapes that make them look like genuine snuff films, the intelligence and the patience of the killer, and the horrific conditions in which he leaves the victims (the couple is found with the man decapitated, his head surgically implanted into the woman's stomach with his face protruding like some demented tribute to TOTAL RECALL's Cuato) are the stuff of nightmares straight from the Hannibal Lecter or SE7EN playbooks. The same goes for the notes read by the investigating agents ("His genitals were removed and placed in the sock drawer of the master bedroom"), and one absolutely chilling scene that rivals the cell phone discovery in LAKE MUNGO, when an exhaustive study of the now-dead Pittsburgh-to-Poughkeepsie couple on surveillance footage from a gas station gives police their first look at the killer, a blurry image of a figure standing on the far edge of the frame, seemingly communicating to the camera in sign language in so subtle a fashion that it takes them a while to figure out that he's telling them where they'll find the bodies. There's a bit of a logic lapse later on involving the killer's fate, but it's a minor quibble in a very effective film that's so bleak and unflinching that it probably wouldn't have done well in theaters. This is grim, bleak shit that makes SE7EN look like the feel-good movie of the year. Maybe that's why MGM had no idea what to do with it.  (R, 81 mins)

(US - 2017)

Fusing elements of a PREDATOR-type actioner with EVENT HORIZON, THE KEEP, and the short-lived, late '80s "haunted prison" craze (DESTROYER, PRISON, SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, THE CHAIR) had some potential for some batshit craziness, but ARMED RESPONSE is a lethargic, drably-shot, ploddingly-paced bore that only comes alive in the last five minutes, by which point it's way too late to care. It's probably going for slow burn, but there's no tension, no suspense, and about 90% of the running time consists of people either walking down dark corridors with flashlights and military weapons at the ready, staring at rows of monitors, or arguing with one another. Gabriel (BROTHERS & SISTERS' Dave Annable) is still in shock over the death of his young daughter (some backstory that has no payoff) when he's visited by Isaac (Wesley Snipes), his old commander in Afghanistan. Isaac needs him to investigate some strange occurrences at "The Temple," a secret compound inside an abandoned prison. The Temple is the next stage in the evolution of the war on terror: a sentient, AI lifeforce whose technological capabilities to weed out the truth trumps all lie detectors and "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Gabriel is a former MIT whiz kid who designed the security system inside The Temple, and he may be needed to get Isaac and his team, among them no-nonsense Riley (Anne Heche) and hothead Brett (WWE star Seth Rollins), in and out of the facility. It seems the last team stationed at The Temple were slaughtered when The Temple went rogue. Security footage shows the team being attacked by unseen and apparently supernatural forces, and soon those forces start coming for them. The Temple is able to detect wrongdoings and buried secrets, and like the last crew, Isaac and his officers committed swept-under-the-rug war crimes in Afghanistan and The Temple intends to make them pay, as illustrated by such dialogue as "There's a presence in the code!" and "The Temple has judged us deserving of punishment!" and "The Temple has reached a tipping point." So will most viewers by that time.

There's potential for some insightful, layered commentary here, but ARMED RESPONSE goes the generic route, offering a bunch of cliched military hardasses in lieu of characters or interesting ideas. The whole idea behind "The Temple" is half-baked and never really clearly expressed, and it only gets remotely interesting when Gabriel has to reboot the system and The Temple slowly regains its power, with its cinder block walls coming to life and reaching out to unlucky victims, yanking their arms out of their sockets. That kind of craziness would've been helpful in the 85 minutes up to that point, but director John Stockwell, a former actor (CHRISTINE, MY SCIENCE PROJECT, TOP GUN) who made some successful movies (CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL, BLUE CRUSH, INTO THE BLUE) before his post-2011 slide into the world of VOD/DTV (CAT RUN, IN THE BLOOD, KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE) just seems to be coasting through, and the end result looks like an updated and slightly higher-end version of something Roger Corman's Concorde would've released in 1989. Snipes and Heche are the big names here, and while they're in the whole movie and don't pull any Bruce Willis or Steven Seagal phone-ins, they're definitely sidelined in favor of the bland Annable. The film was produced by WWE Studios (hence, Rollins' involvement) and upstart Erebus Pictures, a production company formed by none other than KISS icon and NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE villain Gene Simmons, who also briefly appears in either a bald cap or sans wig (looking a lot like late-career Michael Ansara) in a flashback as a suspected terrorist. Simmons is also all over the accompanying making-of featurette, and if you watch that beforehand, you might think that he's the star of the movie. (R, 94 mins)

(Australia - 2017)

After a ten-year hiatus, Lionsgate dusts off the OPEN WATER franchise for another go by taking an Australian shark attack movie called CAGE DIVE and slapping the "OPEN WATER 3" prefix on it. It's very similar to what they did with 2007's OPEN WATER 2: ADRIFT, where they took a sharkless German film called ADRIFT, with a bunch of people stranded in the ocean, unable to get back on a yacht after they all jumped off and no one pulled the ladder down. Neither in-name-only "sequel" has anything to do with Chris Kentis 2004 micro-budget indie hit OPEN WATER, and CAGE DIVE, is more or less a remake, with some added melodrama and the requisite found footage angle, taking advantage of the Trend That Wouldn't Die. Probably hastily prepped for VOD after the surprise success of the long-shelved Weinstein castoff 47 METERS DOWN, CAGE DIVE opens with the remains of a digital video camera found on the ocean floor, its memory card still intact. Faster than you can say "I wonder who the real sharks are," we're watching shaky, handheld footage of Americans--siblings Jeff (Joel Hogan) and Josh (Josh Potthoff), and Jeff's girlfriend Megan (Megan Peta Hill)--traveling to Australia to visit Jeff and Josh's Sydney-born cousin (Pete Valley) before heading off to a cage dive, digital camera in tow since Jeff wants to get them all on a daredevil reality show. They head out on a group excursion, and while the three of them are in the cage, a freak tidal wave appears out of nowhere, capsizes the boat, and the few survivors who weren't killed in the impact are soon eaten by great white sharks until only Jeff, Josh, and Megan remain, treading water. Of course Jeff never stops filming, even as hypothermia and delirium set in, and writer/director Gerald Rascionato (also credited with producing, photographing, editing, and casting) also makes time for turgid melodrama with Jeff finding out what the audience already knows from his camera being left on earlier: Megan is cheating on him with Josh, which really puts a damper on his plans to propose to her on the trip. OPEN WATER 3: CAGE DIVE has some convincing shark action, but relies too heavily on characters doing stupid things (luck sends a lifeboat drifting their way, so of course Megan sets it ablaze when she freaks out and mishandles a flare) to the point where you'll eventually start rooting for the sharks, in which case, you'll get a happy ending. (R, 81 mins)

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