Review: U.F.O. Abduction (aka The McPherson Tape) (1989)
Horror Movie Mini-Review by Zeus | 2014-05-07
On October 8th, 1983 Michael Van Heese of Northwoods, Connecticut was videotaping his niece's birthday party when the family gathering was interrupted by a series of unexplained events. The power was cut to their home. Red lights appeared in the night sky. Michael and his older brothers Tommy and Patrick climbed a hill to investigate an apparent plane crash, but what they found was no normal plane. They were spotted by three figures that can only be described as alien Greys. The brothers fled home to warn their family and arm themselves. As the night wore on, the family was targeted by a series of increasingly strange attacks. Footsteps scuttled along the roof, something tried to force its way into their home, and one by one, the family members began to fall to a hypnotic state. In 1989, the Van Heese video, part of a government investigation on U.F.O. and extraterrestrial sightings, was made available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. The members of the Van Heese family were never seen nor heard from again.
Or at least, that's what a surprising number of people still believe happened, thanks to the authentic nature of this mockumentary. In 1988, the 25 year old Dean Alioto, who also played Michael the cameraman, set out to direct the most realistic alien abduction movie ever made. In this, he succeed. When U.F.O Abduction was released, there was nothing quite like it. It has more in common with the Patterson–Gimlin footage of "Bigfoot" than Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It wasn't the first found footage horror film. Cannibal Holocaust, Manson Family Movies, the never-mentioned-when-this-stuff-comes-up Japanese faux-snuff series, Guinnea Pig beat it to the punch. But this is the film that set the mold for every Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity to come, from the stark white titlecard opening introducing "unedited" footage, to the cameraman being badgered for continuing to film during horrifying events, and even the final, disturbing image that signals the end of the tape.
The movie was shot in one continuous take on 8mm film, using improv actors. Eldest brother Eric is a family man, who considers himself man of the house now that his father has passed, and worries about his mother's drinking. Jason seems to be closing in on his class reunion and unable to give up his role as high school bully. Michael, the cameraman, lives at home with his mom, and is teased for being a bit of a lazy mooch. Some of the acting is pretty bad, especially when they get over-excited. But I loved how dismayed the grandmother was to hear they'd hit an alien. "Aww, he's shot?" Ma Van Hesse has reactions that could not have been scripted. When her sons carry in an alien body, she's worried about the carpets. And when they discover the body is gone from where they'd left it, she scolds, "Great. Great. What are we going to do? It's loose in the house!"
Reviewing this movie is damn near impossible. Whether or not this thing scares you depends on whether or not you believe the footage is real. U.F.O. Abduction is far less manipulative than modern found footage films. It rarely dips into the usual bag of tricks. It's light on jumpscares, and heavy on scenes of people sitting around their living room, eating and playing cards. Because most of the footage is so dull, it helps create the illusion of reality. By being realistic, it makes people believe. And if you actually believed in this thing, it'd be downright horrifying. But unless you maintain a U.F.O Conspiracy site, you're probably looking for entertainment, and there's not much of that to be found here. Some of the dialog is amusing, but most of it is just worried, ad-libbed chatter. The extended scene of people sitting around playing Go Fish starts to feel like Family Guy riffing on repetition. A thrill ride this ain't. By the time the credits roll, you start to wish they'd reconsidered the whole "unedited footage" thing. This is a script that would never make it past Oren Peli.
Dean Alioto set out to make the most realistic alien abduction movie ever made. Not only did he achieve his goal, he also created the template for every found footage success from Cloverfield to the Grave Encounters. (Even Signs owes much to this movie. The rural family home, besieged by aliens. Footsteps on the roof. Aliens trying to force their way down a chimney. And let's not forget everyone's favorite scene, Joaquin Phoenix reacting to "genuine" home video footage of aliens attacking a family at a child's birthday party.) Long after Dean Alioto went on record that U.F.O. Abduction was not real, debate rages about the authenticity of the tape. His 1998 UPN remake only added fuel to the fire. To this day, some conspiracy theorists believe the remake was aired to discredit the original. While Cannibal Holocaust, Blair Witch Project and the War of the Worlds radio play were able to temporarily fool people, U.F.O Abduction continues to be brought up on paranormal conspiracy message boards and YouTube videos, treated like a real event. That U.F.O. Abduction's contributions to found footage -- the most successful horror sub-genre since slasher films -- have gone unnoticed isn't surprising. But that people still believe in the authenticity of the tape, 25 years later, is damn impressive.
Review Score: As entertainment, 2/5. As a trailblazing, influential piece of history, 4/5.
Want more? Check out 3B Theater's exclusive interview with director Dean Alioto.