STARRING: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews, Clint Jordan, Cyd Strittmatter, Matt Biedel.
DIRECTED BY: Justin Barber
WRITTEN BY: Justin Barber, T.S. Nowlin
It is said that in London you are never more than six feet away from a rat. On the internet, it could also be said that you are never more than a couple of clicks away from a rant. When it comes to rants about movies, they are more often than not about the found-footage technique that has become prevalent in indie-filmmaking ever since Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity turned a $15k budget into $108m at the box office.
From producer Ridley Scott, the auteur behind sci-fi greats such as Alien, Bladerunner and The Martian, comes Phoenix Forgotten, an extra extraterrestrial thriller to add to the swelling number of found-footage horrors.
Phoenix Forgotten is based upon the astounding real-life UFO phenomenon known as the Phoenix Lights. On the night of 13 March 1997, thousands of people from across Phoenix, AZ, reported seeing a strange pattern of lights appear in the night sky blinking intermittently before vanishing completely. It is here that writer/director Justin Barber’s debut feature is focussed. The events of the film take place in the present day, as Sophie (Florence Hartigan) documents her journey retracing the steps of her older brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) who went missing 20 years ago along with his citizen journalist friends (Chelsea Lopez and Justin Matthews) during their investigation of that most mysterious of nights.
What you shouldn’t expect from Phoenix Forgotten, given its associations with Ridley Scott, is a big budget Hollywood production filled with A-lister stars. The cast are mostly a relatively unknown quantity. Barber shoots almost exclusively using freehand cameras aside from a number of establishing shots and moodier pieces, lending key scenes a frenetic pace, stretching its modest £2.7m budget to maximum capacity. Nevertheless, this genre-bender feels like sophisticated filmmaking at its most restrained, abducting elements of mystery, sci-fi and horror before splicing them into a thriller that’s neither one thing nor the other.
The plot blends fictional accounts of events with some quite unbelievable real life accounts of the evening that are only somewhat exaggerated by UFO hunters as the story plays out. The mayor of Phoenix dismissing the reaction in the media by dragging out men in alien costumes during a press conference defies belief, but is in fact archival footage. The filmmakers have gone to great lengths to make their story feel and look authentic, such as using modern HD equipment to shoot the scenes that took place in 1997, with special effects added digitally, before the film was then transferred to real VHS tapes and re-digitised. It is almost impossible to tell apart footage taken at the time from that which was shot more recently.
This is especially important in generating atmosphere for Phoenix Forgotten. If the recovered 90’s tapes looked too modern, it would be jarring. But the extra attention to detail pays off as making it feel believable and authentic – which is vitally important in any film, but particularly when your whole premise rests on asking the audience to accept the possibility that aliens exist within the diegesis of the movie – just gives the whole proceedings an added layer to enjoy that is sometimes a second-thought for its contemporaries.
Although found footage movies have been done to death since Oren Peli’s ghost story swept up at the box office little under a decade ago and The Blair Witch Project became the worldwide phenomenon it did nearly a decade earlier, Phoenix Forgotten stands out as one of the better examples from the last 12 months or so. It will have the propensity to feel derivative of the ample number of other films shot in the same technique that came before it, and that lack of originality will kill some (but not all) enthusiasm for its potential audience; dare I say that it may even feel experimental for a newcomer who worked his way up through the movie business?
However, its target audience is primarily those hardcore fans of the genre. It’s there that this creepy, unnerving and atmospheric supernatural thriller will land most successfully. Character development is minimal, and the storytelling is fairly standard, but the mixing of old crackly VHS tapes of Josh with the more modern high definition footage of Sophie makes the way the plot plays out absolutely riveting. First comes the footage of the event itself with the UFOs interrupting Sophie’s birthday party. Then it’s straight on to an adult Sophie retracing of Josh’s steps 20 years on, intertwining with theories about the likelihood of alien visitors and the debunking of such claims, before reaching the exhilarating final act where things take an unexpected twist.
If you’re a fan of The X-Files, The Blair Witch Project, or just good sci-fi horrors in general, then Phoenix Forgotten, released on Blu-ray, DVD and Video on Demand today, is definitely a movie to add to your watchlist.
Signature Entertainment presents Phoenix Forgotten on, DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD from 18th September 2017.