For my next film entry in Shocktober, I decided to mix some Sci-Fi with my Horror and watch ALIEN ABDUCTION: INCIDENT IN LAKE COUNTY, or is it THE MCPHERSON TAPE? Wait, no, it’s UFO ABDUCTION. Maybe.
I remember first seeing this film, (well, one of these films) back in the late 90s. The truth was out there, everything was shot in Vancouver, and flashlights were standard issue. My memory is hazy on how I saw this though, the most likely source being a tape of questionable origin purchased at a collectors show, probably in a bundle with the RED DWARF USA Pilot and a variety of Japanese wrestling compilations.
So I watched it, it gave me the willies, and time moved on. Ten years or so later I chanced upon it again on television. It still caused slight willification, but mostly it annoyed me by feeling incomplete. People were referencing sounds that weren’t there and I was unable to tell if it was due to cheap production values or some sort of psychological manipulation of the abductees. Theoretically it could have been the former being portrayed as the latter in an attempt to cover arses.
Now we skip forward in time even further. I’ve seen many more examples of found footage movies, including more alien abduction tales (ALIEN ABDUCTION, AREA 51, and a superb section of V/H/S/2). Recently we’ve seen an unexpected sequel to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which despite positive reviews did not capture the imagination of the public, and that gave me desire to revisit this piece of almost-real fiction, which is unfortunately where the confusion set in.
The version I remember seeing originally must have been the UPN Broadcast ALIEN ABDUCTION: INCIDENT IN LAKE COUNTY, the version I saw years later would have been the extended version of that title, but searching for a copy to watch lead me to discover that it was a remake of a 1989 micro-budget film called simply UFO ABDUCTION, and that was the one I decided to watch.
Costing a mere $6500 to make and shot in the California Hills UFO ABDUCTION is not currently available on commercial release, nor technically has it ever been. Whilst the film was made, edited and primed for distribution the company who purchased it suffered a warehouse fire, and all copies were lost. Almost. A few preview tapes had been sent out to independent video rental stores and sooner or later they found their way into the hands of UFO Enthusiasts, and one of those enterprising souls decided to remove the opening and closing credits, ran off some copies and voila: Genuine home video footage of an Alien abduction. It was shown at a major UFO convention in Las Vegas and people went loopy for it, including various experts who certified that this was the real deal. The films original creator, Dean Alioto was unaware of all of this. As far as he was concerned his little horror film had never made it out of the gate. It was only when he was approached by a number of journalists asking him to comment on what purported to be a real case of alien abduction that he discovered his project had found an audience. A few years later whilst working in Television he found himself presented with the chance to remake it, with a bigger budget, network support and in Vancouver. And thus THE MCPHERSON TAPE was born, and later in 1998 reedited and retitled ALIEN ABDUCTION: INCIDENT IN LAKE COUNTY for broadcast.
Despite a bigger opening and ending titles (including cast listings for Aliens 1, 2, and 3) many people still believed that what they were witnessed was real. The broadcasting network UPN did little to dissuade people even inviting them to go to their website and provide feedback as to the legitimacy of the tape. Even when additional footage was added and it was rebroadcast more clearly as a work of speculative fiction some people still remained convinced. However they weren’t convinced that ALIEN ABDUCTION: INCIDENT IN LAKE COUNTY was real, they were convinced that the film broadcast was part of a coverup to disguise the real nature of the original UFO ABDUCTION. A fiction created to mask a truth. As I soon discovered by a variety of comments on message boards and youtube this conspiracy theory is still alive and well although with the emergence of the full original UFO ABDUCTION it has taken on another layer: UFO ABDUCTION is also a cover up, and the real tape (that many maintain they saw in the early 90s but cannot find now) contains an actual alien abduction.
This wouldn’t be the last time this sort of foil-hat thinking surfaced around a found footage movie: THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT has a subset of fans that believe the actors/actresses involved in the press and marketing were lookalikes employed to cover that it was actually a legitimate snuff movie that documented the supernatural demise of a group of film students. Nor was it the first time as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST had also been accused of containing real murders some 20 years earlier.
But what of UFO ABDUCTION; how does it hold up as a work of fiction and in comparison to its bigger budget remake? In the interest of balance I watched both versions of this film and I think I prefer the original. Its age may make it more effective; even the best copy available is clearly a few generations removed from its source and the fuzzy/blurry picture does give the feeling you’re watching something you really shouldn’t be. Likewise whilst the remake also had a number of ‘expert’ testimonies inserted to give it a slicker more polished finish it does pull you out of the experience. Here you have tension in consistency, gaps in the tape could mean anything, and the awkward silences and uneven sound mix just give a realness to it throughout. Dean Alioto himself pays the cameraman and manages to strike a nice balance between something that’s watchable without causing motion sickness and reassuringly unpolished when it comes to focusing or tracking moving subjects. The use of ‘interference’ to indicate the presence of the entities is a clever one, and is almost an equivalent to the use of the score in JAWS. This is especially fun with the current copy available as the flicker/noise could either be a deliberate move by the maker (and thus indicate an imminent encounter) or just a factor of a
20 year old tape being played. The films biggest strength in presenting a reality is in the chaotic improvised nature of the performances. People shout over each other, dialog is frequently lost as a result and the feeling of the protagonists being frightened translates well. Where it is less successful are in the moments where you can tell they’re trying to follow a specific direction or complete a piece of exposition to further the story, rather than react to the events around them. Also the Aliens as presented are, well, cheap. In the few moments they appear close on camera the plastic nature of the masks is somewhat obvious, but lets go back to the fact this was made in 1989 and for a budget of $6500 dollars. I have seen worse effects, and the director covers for it by avoiding lingering shots or tight focus.
For the found footage enthusiast or UFO conspiracy completist I’d recommend watching UFO ABDUCTION, and whilst not available commercially there are a couple of copies on Youtube or similar sites. It’s just over an hour long, and it acts as an interesting midway point between CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. In addition to watching it I’d also strongly recommend checking out the article over at Found Footage Critic as well as their articles on the remake and interview with the creator. It expands upon the conspiracy theory mentioned here and provides some amazing insight into a film that contained first instances of what are now regarded as tropes of the found footage genre.