McPherson Tape (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2020-10-07 23:51

Written by and Directed by: Dean Alioto
Starring: Tommy Giavocchini, Patrick Kelley, and Shirly McCalla

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

It was a happy birthday celebration...until it's wasn't.

If the effectiveness of a found footage movie hinges on how many people it dupes, then every single one of them should probably take a seat behind The McPherson Tape (aka UFO Abduction). Sure, some of the bits in Cannibal Holocaust were so convincing that Rugerro Deodato had to prove his innocence in court, and The Blair Witch Project sparked a nice little summer-long hysteria. Dean Alioto’s film, on the other hand, was touted as genuine alien invasion footage at UFO conventions and TV documentaries for nearly a decade before the truth was revealed. And even then, the most diehard gurus still insisted it was the genuine article. None of this was by design, mind you: when he completed the film and shopped it to distributors, he did so with the intention of audiences actually watching it as a work of fiction.

But when the distributor’s warehouse caught fire with Alioto’s master tapes caught inside, the film was thought to be lost forever until it resurfaced on the convention circuit, its end credits hacked off to heighten the “authenticity.” It’s a remarkable story that resulted in The McPherson Tape attaining its own unintended mythos: like any found footage movie, it leans on the illusion of reality, but I doubt anyone could have ever imagined it taking a life of its own like this. I imagine it would have been among the scariest experiences imaginable for anyone who came across it at an impressionable age.

Even still, it’s easy to see how The McPherson Tape convinced so many folks over the years. For all intents and purposes, it looks like someone fired up a video camcorder to record a 5-year-old’s birthday party before it went absolutely haywire when aliens landed nearby. Panicked by this discovery, the Van Heese clan takes refuge inside their house, shotguns tightly gripped as they leap at the sight of anything strange outside the window. Eventually, two of the brothers decide to take action and seek help, stranding the rest of the family inside of the house, where they’ve dragged the body of one of the slain creatures and locked it in a bedroom.

The McPherson Tape is about as primal as these things come. In addition to authenticity, found footage often thrives on simplicity, baiting the audience with threadbare but evocative, universal hooks: the witch haunting the woods, the ghost haunting a suburban home, etc. An alien craft landing in the desolate wilderness and terrorizing a family definitely qualifies, and Alioto remains committed to the unsettling intimacy of this particular ordeal. Save for a few brief excursions into the surrounding wilderness, most of The McPherson Tape unfolds within the confines of the Van Heese home, whose rustic, cozy charms stand in stark contrast with the otherworldly terror lurking just outside. Cosmic scaled alien invasion pictures make for good spectacle, but a movie like The McPherson Tape captures why this scenario would be so utterly frightening. Invasion hits home when, well, it involves a home, and Alioto foregrounds this ordeal by focusing on the family’s utter freakout.

It helps that they’re a convincing bunch, brought to life with convincing, naturalistic performances. This, too, is a crucial component of found footage: you have to believe the participants aren’t just putting on an act, and The McPherson Tape might be the most impressive one in this regard. Conversations unfold in a genuine, ragged fashion, with dialogue overlapping as multiple characters discuss different, mundane things. There’s nothing mannered about the performances, nor is there any portentous, obviously scripted dialogue. In fact, what’s stark about The McPherson Tape is how little regard anyone seems to have for the camera unless they’re fussing at Mike, the camcorder operator, to put the damn thing down. From the first moment we see the Van Heeses at the dinner table, yapping about school grades and swimming lessons, they’re utterly convincing. It’s actually surprising that everyone was hired actors--if I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn that Alioto just found an actual family and talked them into participating in an experimental home movie.

Never is this natural chemistry more crucial than it is during the film’s most harrowing stretch, when the remaining Van Heeses hunker down inside the house, hoping the two brothers who took off will return with help. While there’s some obvious tension in the house, which leads to some profanity-laced yelling matches (foreshadowing how nearly every found footage movie resorts to this eventually), they eventually collect themselves and decide they just need a distraction. Poor Michelle has seen her birthday party go terribly awry, so the family decides to keep her occupied with a game of Go Fish. It sounds like a ludicrous turn of events considering they could be under siege by extraterrestrials, but something about this very human compulsion to retreat into comfort and denial strikes me as completely authentic. A long stretch of the movie finds the Van Heeses just trying to come up with something to fill the still, eerie dead air threatening to suffocate them, and it’s unbelievably unnerving. You don’t hear so much as a stray bump during this stretch, yet it's the most disquieting part of the entire movie. You get the impression that these folks are damned, so they’re essentially playing out the string and waiting for the axe to come down on their heads.

When that finally happens, it’s more apt to say the axe slowly, deliberately descends with an incredibly creepy shot that provides the best glimpse of the aliens. That they take on the standard gray man appearance is immaterial--something about this generic design totally works in this case because it makes for such an uncanny sight when they stroll into the home to carry out some nefarious bidding. It’s one of only three shots of the aliens themselves, meaning The McPherson Tape relies a lot on the unseen; more than a few times, characters insist they see something at the window, only for the camera to pick up nothing but the vast, dark night billowing through the Connecticut hillside. It might be a little frustrating if it didn’t further heighten the authenticity--it makes sense that this panicked dude wouldn’t be able to capture a perfect shot of the creatures descending upon his house, even if it might make for a “better” movie. However, The McPherson Tape hinges on that axiom of creating suspense and tension with the unseen, and it commits to the bit harder than just about any of the movies that followed in its wake.

It also has the added distinction of being the first of its kind, something Alioto also hadn’t exactly planned for when an investor came to him to fund a movie. With only $6500 at his disposal, Alioto quickly decided he would have to make a faux home movie, a happenstance creative decision that wound up forging a whole new path for filmmaking that would flourish years later. Like many early works of an embryonic medium, The McPherson Tape is a little rough around the edges, and something like The Blair Witch Project feels like a much more refined take; however, this is one case where the jagged edges work in a film’s favor to make it more convincing. What’s more, Alioto mitigates the lack of budget and an inability to lean on visuals by keeping the film at a lean 62 minutes, allowing it to leave a striking impression without unnecessarily lingering on and straining to stage more action for the sake of it.

Just as his cast shows no regard for the camera, Alioto doesn’t regard standard narrative conventions: rather than emphatically ending, The McPherson Tape trails off into the ether, its final shot a doom-soaked ellipsis heralding the ultimate truth of the genre it unwittingly inspired: found footage might insist on a veneer on reality, but reality rarely provides coherence or explanations. Sometimes, humanity stumbles upon inexplicable forces that might show up on a lens--but that doesn’t mean the lens can make complete sense of them.

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