Night #4: UFO Abduction AKA The McPherson Tape (1989)

Directed By: Dean Alioto

Is this thing on?

Found footage isn’t a new concept. Though it largely dates back to something like Cannibal Holocaust, it was really popularised with The Blair Witch Project. Though it died off for a while post release of that film it has seen a recent resurgence with seemingly every other film being filmed using the found footage conceit. It’s easy to see why: It’s cheap and you can get away with some amateurish film making. In the years between Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project there was the occasional film scattered in between. And this was one of them.

It’s worth noting the curious history of the film. It was made for a few thousand dollars in 1989 and then traded around conventions etc as ‘proof’ that aliens are real. Though we wouldn’t fall for that now it’s easy to see why people would have done so then. Without the use of the internet, or our knowledge of found footage movies, there are elements to The McPherson Tape that play out as real. Then the film was remade with a bigger budget and some story changes and broadcast on US television. That second film is more polished, more rehearsed and feels like something made for TV. This version of the film plays a little more real, for reasons I’ll get into soon enough.

A boy decides to film his sisters fifth birthday party, while doing so he manages to capture, on tape, an alien encounter. First of all they’re lights seen briefly in the sky, next thing they’re climbing all over the house. One creepy image later and it’s all over (The film runs just a touch over an hour). It’s about as flimsy as a plot could get, but it still works.

The reason the film seems to work is because it’s so amateurish, but in the right way. It seems that the director was adhering to the idea of authenticity, and avoided any of the tricks that make the film easier viewing. For example there’s no real exposition at the start, the film just kicks into action. Compare that to the remake in which not only does it start with the patented “Is this thing on?” scene, wherein we get to see the face of the person holding the camera briefly, but we get introduced to each family member one by one, thus making it seem much more traditional in its storytelling.

Even so, so many of the scenes here have since been oft repeated. Most notably the characters are reacting to things that we can’t quite see as the camera points toward some darkness. That the film is in such terrible shape also doesn’t help (It only exists through oft-duped VHS copies) and so it makes me doubt whether I’m meant to be looking at anything or if it’s just enough to believe that a character thinks they are.

Yet even though I can recognise the tricks and some of the less than stellar acting (Being ‘natural’ is a hard thing to achieve, but the cast here give it a valiant effort) there’s still something about The McPherson Tape that grabs the attention. I think the commitment to the cause works in its favour, and though the final shot is a little too neatly set up – in that a character places the camera down and just the right angle to capture something within the frame – it still manages to get a reaction. And really, that’s all that matters.

Take note: The film can be viewed, in full, on Youtube here

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