Monday, October 16, 2017

B-Movie Review: U.F.O. Abduction, a.k.a, The McPherson Tape (1989)

Paying tribute to one of the pioneers of the 'found footage' genre - and quite possibly the greatest backyard horror movie ever made.

By: Jimbo X

By and large, I think "found footage" movies get a bad rap. Yes, there are a lot of formulaic, shitty ones out there, but there are also plenty of all-time great pseudo-documentaries, too, ranging from Cannibal Holocaust to Rec to Snow on tha Bluff. Of course, most normies consider The Blair Witch Project to to be the much-maligned genre's great-granddaddy, but really, found footage horror flicks have been around since at least the 1970s, pending you want to call Faces of Death "found footage," which for all intents and purposes, we probably should.

With newer movies like Unfriended and Paranormal Activity,however, there's no longer an attempt to break cinematic kayfabe, if you will. We all know The Last Exorcism is just Hollywood-produced, big-budget hokum designed to look like it cost zero dollars to make, and there's really no effort by the filmmakers or the film distributors any more to hoodwink audiences into thinking the movies are on the up and up. Nobody, to put it bluntly, ambles into a "found footage" horror movie thinking what they're about to see onscreen is even remotely authentic these days, which is one of those things that really peeves me about contemporary horror flicks. I mean, isn't that the whole point of going the found footage route to make people *think* they've secretly stumbled upon real footage of people getting carved up by maniacs or getting done in by evil supernatural forces? Like pro rasslin', these found footage movies were a whole lot more fun back when the people making them tried to keep the illusion alive, and few flicks demonstrate the appeal of the subgenre's carny roots more than U.F.O. Abduction.

Also known as The McPherson Tape, the hour-long movie first surfaced in 1989. As far as I know, the movie never had a theatrical release, or even a formal VHS distribution deal. Indeed, I'm not even sure the people who made it even had a plan in place to profit off the flick (and we'll get more into the people behind U.F.O. Abduction towards the tail end of the article.) What we do know is that, somehow, someway, the movie wound up at some sci-fi convention or alien truthers get-together and apparently somebody was passing it off as concrete proof of the existence of aliens and from there, the thing became a heavily pirated and traded video among the tight knit ufologist community. So, basically, you could say the video went viral 15 years before YouTube was a thing. 

Now, my first introduction to the movie was on that old Fox TV show Sightings, which dedicated an entire episode to the purported facticity of the movie. Naturally, being an eight-year-old retard, I bought all of the nonsense hook, line and sinker and was terrified that grey midgets from Pluto were going to kidnap me in the middle of the night and stick things up my butthole, and for years - no joke, years - I would try to go to sleep clinging to the side of my bed so if any goddamn Martians tried to tractor beam me out of my Batman: The Animated Series pajamas, that have to kick that fucker into overdrive and waste a lot of space gas in the process.

Of course, the arrival of streaming video in the late 2000s finally allowed everybody to catch U.F.O. Abduction, but by then the makers of the movie had already come out and said it was all a bunch of bullshit but thanks for the compliments. Strangely enough, though, even though the movie had no merit as a documentary anymore, it all of a sudden gained value as one of the earlier efforts as a first person horror movie. Remember, this sumbitch came out a whole decade before the Blair Witch, and it (purposefully or inadvertently) laid the groundwork for practically every "found footage" genre movie that followed. Naturally, the begs the question - does the movie still hold up all these years later, or does it just feel like a throwaway cheapie that was only aesthetically ahead of the curve? Well, kids, how about we boot up this old ass VHS cassette and find out for our damn selves?

A quick message to everybody who complains about the shaky camerawork.

The movie begins with a long scrolling text intro giving us some background on Project Blue Book, a real U.S. Air Force investigation of unidentified flying object sightings. The flick says that the following video is titled "UFO Case 77" and was filmed Oct. 8, 1983 in Northwoods, Conn. Apparently, whoever filmed it was just looking to record his five-year-old niece's birthday, but as fate would have it ... some unannounced guests wound up crashing the party.

The beginning of the video is pretty much every Christmas video filmed in the 1980s ever. Everybody has goofy haircuts and even goofier sweaters and there are big ass plates of mashed potatoes everywhere. Of course, everybody speaks in an intonation that's just a little bit too clear, and their hairdos seem just a wee bit too freshly primped, especially for a get-together as informal as a fucking five-year-old's birthday party. And nobody trips over their words or talks over one another, when in real life hardly anybody ever speaks in complete sentences (which is one of those things you notice and then can't stop noticing when you've conducted enough interviews like I have.) That said, the actress playing granny is absolutely superb - in fact, I don't think I've ever heard anybody playing a character in a movie ever sound less like they were playing a character in a movie than this bitch. It's hard to explain, but within five minutes of the movie, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about and you'll be just as awed as I am of her performance.

So we've got these two brothers who keep talking shit about each other while the camera guy zooms in on the macaroni and some chick's teeth. The banter here sounds pretty scripted, with everybody's voices projected a little bit too audibly. "This isn't a porno," one of the actors (seemingly) ad libs, before adding "this isn't a movie, it's her birthday," in what could be construed as self-referential humor.

The lights go out while the girl blows out her birthday cake candles. The guys think a fuse is blown and everybody runs around trying to find flashlights and more candles in the pitch blackness. Three of the party guests go into the basement and tinker with the breaker, but to no avail. Then they go outside and call each other "dick heads" a lot (really, the entire cast could be lifted from any number of bad 1980s teen sex comedies) and they see this weird flashing light in the woods they initially mistake for a helicopter. "It was bitchin,'" one of the mullet-heads remarks.

After that, they do some more walking around in the woods, telling jokes about lighting farts on fire when they were kids and having wet dreams, then they bemoan the fact their mother is turning into an alcoholic who watches Johnny Carson a lot. And one of them sounds JUST like Matthew McConaughey, which is pretty much the funniest thing in the world ever whenever he refers to his cast-mates as "dick heads." 

And to think - these assholes drove 90 million miles for nothing more than an intergalactic drug deal.

Sure as sugar, they find an alien craft, leading one of the brothers to repeatedly shout "holy shit, it's a spaceship" about 15 times over the course of one minute. I'm not really sure how to describe what the space ship looks like, but I'm assuming it's one of those underground tornado shelter modules with a tent socked over it - regardless, I assure you it looks WAY better on tape than you'd probably expect it to.

So one of the guys keeps asking if it's going to zap them or something, and then three aliens briefly appear on screen. They look pretty much what you would expect them to look like - lanky monsters with big grey heads and huge ass eyes, although for all the rubles in Russia it looks like they're wearing black spandex leotards. So the aliens look at 'em and they get all freaked out and run all the way back to the house, where they do the only sensible thing anybody would in that situation - they break into the rifle cabinet, tell everybody else to duck and get ready, because the house is now surrounded by, and I quote "Martians and shit."

Of course, granny is just chill as fuck, thinking her boys are just pulling her leg. Then something starts banging on the backdoor and one of the guys says, as casually as if he was discussing the weather, "I get really nervous when there's space-things outside." Granny responds by saying "if they can fly, they wouldn't need a space ship" and suggests they all go back to eating cake. And amazingly, that's EXACTLY what they do, as they resume the birthday party festivities like nothing happened.

So they just sit around drinking Pepsi and talking about the extended family for ten minutes (there's an emerging subplot about everybody's watches stopping, but to be honest, it never really goes anywhere) then when everybody is about to leave one of the guys picks up a picture his niece drew of a giant ass alien head and he asks her where he came up with it and she tells him she just drew the thing that was peering in at 'em the whole time from that window right over there. So he reacts about as reasonably as any responsible adult would and grabs the gun and starts shooting at the window.

He goes outside and sure enough, he popped one of 'em right in the friggin' skull. Then he brings the alien corpse into the living room, stating "they've got to come through the house to get him," which prompts one of the other brothers to yell "get that god-man, uh, goddamn thing" outta here. Meanwhile, even though there is an extra-terrestrial homicide victim on the coffee table, the only thing granny's concerned about is finding more candles and making sure everybody puts their coats on before going outside.

If you squint hard enough, you might see an alien life form. Or maybe even a titty, it's hard to tell.

So some of the guys decide to make a run for the truck, but one of the brothers is missing. His wife, naturally, goes nutso and to help relieve the tension, granny suggests they play a game of cards instead of trying to locate her lost adult child, and yep, they play Go Fish for the next ten minutes. 

Then the wife of the missing guy says "fuck this shit" and bolts for the door. She faints, though, and the clan immediately resumes their game of rummy. Then granny says she's being telepathically compelled to open the door, then one of her kids' turns on the radio so nobody else can be brain-possessed by Martians. You know, in a lot of ways, this whole thing is basically just an R-rated alien invasion episode of Mama's Family, the more I think about it.

Anyway, they go back into the living room but oh shit, the alien corpse is GONE. This leads to granny saying not only the best line of the whole movie, but perhaps the greatest bit of dialogue in the history of the motion picture: "Is it loose in the house? The bathroom? Jesus, not the bathroom!" which she immediately follows up with "Michael, put that goddamn camera down before I wrap it around your neck!" All I can say is fuck Jessica Tandy, that best actress Oscar from 1989 went to the wrong old bitch

So Michael does indeed put the camera down, and there's a long static shot with the VHS tracking going to shit. And in the waning seconds of the movie, you can just barely see the aliens creeping into the house, and I'm not gonna lie to you, I found that shit terrifying as fuck. Then the screen fades to black, and we get a stern, somber wall of text asking viewers to call a telephone number if they've seen any of the missing individuals. Then there's a quick slideshow of all the actors in the movie gliding by, and it legit feels like something out of Unsolved Mysteries

And then, we get the real credits, as we learn the whole thing was an elaborate ploy concocted by same asshole named Dean Alioti, who also played the guy holding the camera the whole time (which, uh, makes a lot of sense, I guess.) And for those of you wondering just how proper a film production this was, may I remind you that THE Gary Clayton Shick provided catering services for the movie? Because he totally did, and you KNOW it's big time filmmaking when the producers can actually afford to feed the cast and crew.

Wait a minute. If everybody is named "Van Heese," why is the movie subtitled The McPherson Tape?

Well, you really can't call U.F.O. Abduction a great movie. I mean, pretty much half of it is just long stretches of pitch blackness with guys calling each other "dick heads" over and over again, but that's not to say it is without any kind of merits.

For starters, the pace on this thing is marvelous. You always hear big name movie directors talking about how great a "less is more" approach is, but the folks who made this one really adhered to it. The aliens might be onscreen for maybe a minute, tops, but every time you see 'em it gives you goosebumps. I'm not bullshitting about that ending, either - the first time I saw those aliens slowly slink into the frame, I jumped a tad, and I NEVER succumb to jump scares. Secondly, the acting is by and large better than you'd anticipate, even if the actions of the actors is often downright retarded. Really, how these fucksticks react to being home invaded by Martians is the biggest indicator the whole thing is a great big ruse. Looking back on it, you'd have to be one dense sonofabitch to think anything about the movie is authentic, but as evident by the success of Rick and Morty, there's a lot more retards out there than we'd care to acknowledge.

Which brings us to director Dean Alioto, the mastermind behind the infamous VHS, uh, classic? Anyhoo, his IMDB page says he went to USC and after the surprising popularity of this movie, UPN reached out to him to do a bigger budget remake that was eventually aired in 1998 as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. Since then he's mostly stuck to making TV movies and directing TV shows, most notably Watch Over Me. And believe it or not, a few cast members in U.F.O. Abduction have garnered regular film work, including Tommy Giavocchini, who has since gone on to, umm, "star" in such flicks as American Streetfighter and L.A. Dicks. Alas, this is the only film credit for one Shirly McCalla, whose one-and-done performance as Ma Van Heese in this movie might just be the single greatest one-shot acting job in the history of cinema, and I'm not even being facetious, except a little. 

Alas, U.F.O. Abduction has never really gotten the retroactive respect and appreciation it probably deserves for - unintentionally, for sure - kick starting the whole found footage concept. And while it is predated by stuff like Snuff and Flower of Flesh and Blood, it at least deserves some props for being the first supernatural found footage horror flick to make the tape trader rounds. And the backstory behind the movie is every bit as entertaining as the flick itself, but I'll let you figure that shit out on your own time.

All in all, despite some obvious flaws, U.F.O Abduction still holds up surprisingly well. It feels dated and chintzy and cheesy as shit, but it's undoubtedly effective and engaging from start to finish (although you will probably want to skip past all the card playing scenes.) It's an interesting and historically important film if only for its technical motifs, and if you're looking for a WAY off the beaten sliver of miniature classic proletariat American folk cinema, this one will probably be right up your alley. And if nothing else, it sure is intriguing to catch all the similarities between this movie and M. Night Shama-Lama-Ding-Dong's Signs from 2002. You know, not that he would EVER ripoff obscure pieces of low culture and shamelessly regurgitate it into multi-million dollar box office gold or anything like that ...


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