Written by: Justin Barber, T.S. Nowlin
Directed by: Justin Barber
Starring: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, and Chelsea Lopez
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Based on shocking untold true events.
One of The Blair Witch Project’s weirder legacies is that it didn’t really have much of one at all, at least not immediately. As far as cultural phenomena go, it burned bright and expired quickly, so much so that even its own sequel didn’t follow in its found footage footsteps. As such, multiplexes weren’t flooded with quick cash-ins at the turn of the century—we didn’t get the wave of imitators that just about any other landmark genre film would inspire, and the found footage boom wouldn’t hit until years later.
But thanks to Phoenix Forgotten, we can perhaps have a glimpse into that alternate reality where everyone tried to rip off The Blair Witch Project. This is both to its advantage and its disadvantage—on the one hand, it feels like it’s arriving way past its sell-by date, what with the dozens of found footage movies preceding it now. On the other, though, it is one of the rare ones that feels like it’s genuinely taking its cue from Blair Witch instead of Paranormal Activity—it’s more of a mockumentary than a straightforward found footage take.
Somewhat ironically, it borrows the impetus from the most recent Blair Witch sequel, as twentysomething Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is making a documentary concerning the disappearance of her brother Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts). Twenty years earlier, his obsession with the real-life Phoenix Lights incident put him on a quest that resulted in him vanishing without a trace alongside his friends Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). With the help of family, friends, and the footage Josh left behind, she hopes to find some semblance of closure—if not some clue as to what actually happened to the missing teens.
I should probably be upfront about my weakness for both UFOs and the 90s, so any film that joins both is right in my wheelhouse. You’ve been warned if you’re taking my enthusiasm as a recommendation, but I couldn’t help thinking back to the resurgent alien craze during the decade, mostly because the first bit of Phoenix Forgotten really captures its essence. Not only is it piggybacking off of the infamous (and still fascinating) Phoenix Lights, but it also has some nice cultural touchstones: Josh’s room is littered with X-Files VHS tapes, while an “I Want to Believe” poster adorns the wall. One of the earlier bits of footage is Josh’s own little homespun documentary about the Lights, and it’s a delightful teenage riff on those old alien conspiracy shows that aired on Fox (and, yes, of course it’s scored with the X-Files theme). Honestly, the most interesting stuff going on in the early-going here is all the cultural detritus Sophie sifts through. We’re treated to both Josh’s fictional home movies and actual vintage footage of local and national news coverage, including the Arizona governor’s infamous press conference that ended with a man in an alien suit coming on stage to accept responsibility.
In between, Sophie’s interviews reveal more about what will eventually become the film’s protagonists: Josh was a weird but ambitious kid, Ashley was a pugnacious journalist-in-the-making, and Mark was…well, let’s just say Mark was kind of the typical 90s bro of the group, complete with an awesome curtain haircut. More importantly, the film reserves from time for loved ones to reveal just how haunted they are by their loss, so there's a bit more desperation and gravitas than in found footage films that go through the motions. Full disclosure: this beginning stretch of Phoenix Forgotten makes for a somewhat listless film, but I loved being immersed in this world. Much like introduction of The Blair Witch Project grounds the audience in some semblance of a textured reality, so too does this one blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction: we see “vintage” interviews with locals who witnessed the Lights, including a couple of kooky astronomers that give the film just a smidge of color and character that most of these things miss out on.
Plus, I have to respect how director Justin Barber commits to the 90s videotape aesthetic. While the frame story involving Sophie’s documentary is of course shot in pristine, widescreen HD, the 90s sequences—which compose at least 80% of the film—are shot in glorious 4:3 on low-grade 8mm consumer camcorders (or something mimicking them, I suppose). Unlike, say, Paranormal Activity 3, it’s largely faithful to the era it’s been “shot” in, and I kind of love that a film that looks like this somehow snuck its way into hundreds of multiplexes this weekend. Even more, it’s not just in the service of pushing nostalgia buttons (which, to be fair, it surely does); rather, it also adds a subtle layer of authenticity and gives Phoenix Forgotten a distinct vibe setting it apart from most other found footage efforts.
That said, its structure is similarly distinct and results in an odd, almost misshapen final film. Barber and co-writer T.S. Nowlin rightly keep Sophie’s pursuit of the truth just at the edge of the margins, allowing it to essentially grease the story’s wheels by introducing characters and couching the film in its retro atmosphere until the central mystery finally takes over about midway through. It’s at this point some rather convenient plot developments go to work in helping to unravel the truth—did Justin and his friends stumble onto a government conspiracy? Or were they actually abducted by extraterrestrial visitors? Phoenix Forgotten does a solid job of teasing out both possibilities and almost playfully withholds the truth when Sophie discovers a “lost” tape. When she presses play, we’re initially not privy to its contents, as an abrupt cut finds a shaken Sophie who’s now even more determined.
Eventually, she realizes her last recourse is to actually share her discovery, at which point Phoenix Forgotten degenerates into the typical found footage beats. The final 20 minutes or so are exclusively dedicated to the missing teens’ excursion into Phoenix’s remote canyons, where they encounter the usual paranormal phenomena (mysterious sounds, strange lights), all while they bicker and yell at each other after realizing they’re hopelessly lost. But I’ll be damned if this sort of thing still doesn’t resonate with me, especially since these canyons are especially desolate and spooky. With the exception of some shots of the kids wandering that linger a bit too long and feel tedious, it’s a nifty little sequence revealing just the right amount of restraint on the part of the filmmakers. Naturally, the climax is predictable, but not any more so than most films of this ilk, though this one’s admittedly not the least bit vague—you discover exactly what happens to these kids right before the camera predictably slams to the ground and the film provides a documentary-style “update.”
Yes, you’ve seen this shit before. I’ll be the first to admit that Phoenix Forgotten feels overwhelmingly familiar, with only the details serving to really separate it from the pack. But you know, at least it has those details, and it’s making some attempt at stitching together all of these familiar elements into something a bit different. Maybe it results in a bit of Frankenstein’s Monster—Phoenix Forgotten is essentially one of those 90s alien mockumentaries welded onto a horror short—but I’ll certainly take this over the batch of unremarkable found footage takes from recent years. If nothing else, I’ll at least remember this one, long after those others have faded. Plus, that 90s kid within me that was fucking petrified by Fire in the Sky and enthralled by those weird TV specials will always reserve some kind of affection for alien horror.
It’s a rare genre that we don't see enough of, so I salute the filmmakers out of sheer principle here. That’s it’s a solid entry in that sparse canon makes it worthwhile on its merit, which is even more encouraging. Look, I know a title likes Phoenix Forgotten invites all sorts of obvious barbs, but I'm happy to holster them in this case.
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