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Hipster Holy Grail: UFO Abduction (aka, "The McPherson Tape") (1989)

The Hipster Holy Grail is my ongoing quest to review an obscure movie before it becomes cool to talk about it. Good, bad, doesn't matter.  It just has to be at least 10 years old and have less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Even at a scant 60-minute runtime, UFO Abduction feels a bit long.  I can forgive that, though, as the tricks it introduced to cinema are executed perfectly and, despite filmmakers having almost thirty years to practice this shit, still aren't replicated very often.

My Rating: 4 / 5

The Plot Summary

So... not to be too repetitive, but this week I'm also going to be light on the plot recap.  But unlike last week, where the movie just bored me to shit, the recap for UFO Abduction is light because the movie just really is that light.  The value here isn't in the plot, but in the legacy, which I'll get to later.

This is a found footage movie.  Accordingly, it opens, as almost all of them do, with the main protagonist, Mike (Dean Alioto, who also wrote / directed / produced / conceived the movie), turning on his video camera and screwing around with all the features.  Ostensibly he's recording his niece's birthday party, but you get the impression he's mostly just excited to try out a new toy, as he spends the first few minutes zooming in on random shit and just generally poking around, prompting heckles from his family.

The first eight minutes or so lull us into the moment.  None of the individuals in the story are particularly three-dimensional, so I don't want to say that you "meet the characters."  Instead, it's just a quiet way to become familiar with the setting; you see how big the family is (three brothers, their mom, one of their wives, and two kids), how big the house is, how semi-remote the location is.  You also get a nice fly-on-the-wall feel of the familial love, complete with trash talk and passive-aggressive bitching.

They turn off the lights so they can light a cake for Mike's niece, then sing and applaud when she blows the candles out.  But when they try to turn the lights back on, nothing happens; the power's out.  Mike and his brothers go outside to fiddle with the breaker box and change a fuse, but when they check it out, they find that it's in perfect shape.  They're about to just go back inside and chalk it up as a weird evening when they get distracted by a strange sound and red light in the distance, somewhere in the forest that surrounds them.

The guys decide to investigate.  They light a couple of lanterns and head out into the woods, shit-talking each other the whole time because they are, after all, brothers.  Eventually they come to a ledge where they can see something in the distance that seems to be the source of the light.  They can't quite make it out, but Mike zooms in on it with his camera and identifies it as some kind of spacecraft.  They're about to write him off, but then Mike sees two alien beings walking around and he starts freaking out.  When a third alien shows up and looks directly at them, all the brothers panic, and they run as hard as they can back to the house.

Inside, they relay what they've seen and monger a little bit of fear.  Their mom tries to get them to chill, so for a little while they try to just go back to the birthday party and put the images out of their head.  They plan to revisit the woods in the morning and explore when they have daylight on their side.

But then they hear something approaching the house, and some of them see aliens out the window.  The brothers grab shotguns to defend themselves.  They hear an alien climbing on the roof, and one of them shoots at it.  Then they go outside and find a dead alien.  In a moment of panic, they take the body back inside the house and shove it in a back room, ostensibly to show it to the authorities later.

Some of the family start hearing weird telepathic messages telling them to open the door.  At least one of the brothers does, and he runs out into the woods and disappears.  Even worse, Mike goes to the back room and finds that the body is missing and the back door has been unlocked.

The remaining family locks up the doors again and huddles in the living room.  Since they can't call the police and they don't want anybody else to go missing, they decide the best thing to do is just stick together, try to keep their spirits high, and wait until morning.  Mike sets the camera down and joins his family off screen.

While they play cards and try to calm themselves, the door quietly opens, and three aliens walk inside.  The camera glitches and the footage suddenly warps, then cuts out. The movie puts up a phone number along with photos of the family, and asks you to call if you've seen any of them.

A Little Bit of Context Before I Go On

There are a few important things you ought to know about UFO Abduction, if you don't already know what it is.

1) This is, for all intents and purposes, the first ever found footage horror movie.  (Technically there were earlier movies that used found footage as a gimmick either in part or in whole, like Cannibal Holocaust or the Guinea Pig series, but UFO Abduction is the first movie to build a narrative around the idea that some average folks recorded something, and that you, the audience, are watching the footage they shot long after the fact.)

2) UFO Abduction was never widely released, although its 1998 remake, which was made by the same writer/director, was.  Both movies predated The Blair Witch Project and were direct inspirations, so regardless of your opinions of found footage, UFO Abduction deserves a special place in the Museum of Film History.

3) The original version of UFO Abduction was going to be distributed on VHS, but the distribution company's warehouse burned down, and the master copy and all promotional materials were destroyed.

4) The film mainly survived history because a hoaxer took a bootleg copy and edited out the credits, then shared the edit with conspiracy theorists by claiming it was actual video of a real alien abduction.

It's important to know all this, because an honest review of the movie would be... less than stellar.  The movie's merits all come from its legacy and its innovation, and absent that context, it's frankly just kind of a so-so movie.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

For being the first found footage movie (at least as we currently understand that term), UFO Abduction is appropriately a microcosm of all things good and bad about the genre.  In other words: all the stuff that's good about found footage are handled amazingly, and all the stuff that's bad is pretty dang bad.

As a movie, I can't say I'd want to revisit it often.  There's a substantial amount of downtime, even considering that it's only about an hour long, and the characters are all pretty interchangeable.  It does a lot of that frustrating "See, it's just a guy learning how to use a video camera" stuff where the person shooting the movie plays with the zoom feature and screws around.  Significant chunks go by where the immediate conflict - i.e., that there are HOLY SHIT FUCKING ALIENS outside - is put totally in the background while the cast tries to go back to their evening as usual.  And honestly, there just really isn't a plot.  A family gets abducted; that's about it.

But the actual filmmaking itself is wonderful, and stands head and shoulders about countless entries in the genre made since.  It's mind-boggling that Dean Alioto could have knocked it out of the park back in 1989 with a four-digit budget, and yet dozens of imitators since haven't gotten anywhere close.

Much of the credit has to go to the lo-fi quality.  UFO Abduction is grainy and dark as hell.  Its filled with video artifacts and the copy I watched had a bunch of tracking errors, which may or may not have been intentional.  (I'd like to presume they were.)  You truly feel that it's found footage - nothing feels clean or edited or glossy.  This is the creepy, unmarked videotape you found in a serial killer's garage.  It's chock full of noise, both visual and aural, that block you from getting a full grip on what you're seeing, so your brain fills in the gaps with terror.

And while the characters may be interchangeable from a plot perspective, they're terrific from a found footage perspective.  The family is mundane, sure, but they also feel genuine.  Nobody gawks at the camera for attention or tries to be overly witty.  You just see a bunch of nobodies hanging out for a family meal and being average.  Tragically, most found footage directors since have decided to trade in "average" for "irritating fuckwits."

More than any other found footage movie I've seen, UFO Abduction absolutely nails that tone of discomfort and grotesquery that should come with discovering a forbidden video.  And that means it deserves a watch, even if there's a lot of downtime.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

This is the most shocking thing to me about this movie: it actually qualifies for obscurity cred.  I don't know how that's possible.

Under its alternate title, "The McPherson Tape" is one of the most infamous and widely circulated underground videos in history.  It and its much better-known and more widely-seen remake are notorious for being held up for decades by alien hunters and other fanatics as evidence of aliens' visitation to Earth.  Even now, there are people who are receiving and watching doctored copies of this movie with the credits taken off and thinking, "Holy shit, this proves it!"

And yet, despite the infamy, it only has a measly 390 ratings on IMDb, which technically gets it 10 points for obscurity.

I'm baffled.  And conflicted.  A movie with a reputation like this being called "obscure"?  That's... not quite right.  And yet, the stat is there.  I suspect it's a case where the reputation far outpaces anybody actually watching.

Which puts me in a bind for how to distribute cred.  On the one hand, you could easily milk a shitload of cred out of this since it was remade later on and both it and its remake are the lesser-known precedents for the entire found footage genre.  So if you're looking to pull a, "Well, actually" at a party, this one's your baby.  On the other hand, it seems UFO Abduction is best known specifically as a piece of trivia, which means any other hipsters who want to shit all over your cred are going to be all too prepared to rip it apart.

So, let's do it like this.  If you're trying to show off your hipster cred and you feel reasonably assured that nobody else in the room has seen it, then this movie's worth a total of 60 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  If you feel like you're surrounded by hipsters already, then don't throw this one out as something you discovered on your own - instead, just assume that everybody's seen it.  And then, only if they tell you they have no idea what you're talking about, you can go ahead and claim an additional 20 point bonus (for a total of 80 hipster cred) for being King Hipster for the night.

Where You Can Watch

Per the trivia noted above, the movie was never officially released, so the only way to see it is to find a bootleg copy.  Or, y'know, use Google.  There were like twelve versions of it streaming on various sites the last time I checked.  This is the one I watched.