Let me start this review by destroying my credibility: I actually like found footage horror movies. No, like’s too weak a word; I love them. I actively seek out every one of them I can find. Whenever a new one comes up on Netflix, VOD, or in the theaters, I can’t help but be a bit giddy. At least once a month, I check IMDB or other film sites for lists of the things, hoping to stumble across a new one I haven’t seen. I know this puts me in an undistinguished minority of critics, but I can’t help it; something about the way they use perspective, the way they tell their stories, the treatment of the camera as a subjective character, it just works for me, and it works with what I find frightening. Watching horror movies all the time, it’s hard to be scared much by them, but even the dregs of found footage usually have a shot or two of what I need, the adrenaline rush of a malevolent entity suddenly popping into frame, gone sooner than I can recognize what happened. These scares, cheap as they are, simple as they are, give me the jolt other people feel riding roller coasters.
That’s not to say I love all the films in the much-maligned sub-genre: Welcome to the Jungle remains the worst film I’ve ever seen, and others like The Devil Inside or the bafflingly praised The Bay aren’t far behind. But the good ones push my buttons in just the right way where I can’t help but feel a strange affection for the style’s trappings. This is all to say that I went into Alien Abduction, the new found footage film directed by Matty Beckerman and distributed by IFC, with a bit of a bias and higher expectations than such a generic title would usually dictate. One of the earliest found footage horror films as we understand the genre today was UFO Abduction in 1989, later remade into the still quite effective Alien Abduction: Incident In Lake County made-for-TV film in 1998, and I hoped for something as successful, using genre signifiers to create a claustrophobic, suffocating atmosphere, building tension through the limited viewpoint of the handheld camera. Unfortunately, what I ended up with was overlong even at less than an hour and fifteen minutes of actual movie, not counting credits and extraneous mid-credits scenes, lacking in focus and any real sense of what sort of horror it was aiming for.
Alien Abduction follows a family of five on a camping trip, running through a collection of tired found footage preamble clichés on the way to the first and most effective alien encounter. No one is shown to have any real personality outside of our cameraman, Riley, the youngest of three kids, who is autistic, and Riley’s personality is more or less entirely defined by his autism. If this character had been done well, I could’ve at least applauded the film on something, but it’s so one-dimensional and strange that I have to assume the character was written as autistic purely to cut off that oft-repeated criticism of found footage films: why do they keep filming? But this is a demeaning and simplistic view of autism, used only to cover a logic gap that isn’t even a real issue; it’s an unsuccessful characterization because, besides it being inconsistent, it has no bearing on the happenings at large, and defining any character purely by their autism reduces their complexity as a human being into stereotypical signifiers for an ableist audience to recognize. Not that anyone else fares better, as beyond Riley the only personality comes from a sudden and baffling burst of anger from the father, whose reaction to the family being lost goes from totally calm to screaming at his autistic son in what must be world record time.
When the initial pleasantries and foreshadowing decide to move onto actual scares, the family come upon a tunnel full of abandoned cars, blocking their path any further. It’s here that we first see the aliens, and it’s the most effective sequence in the movie, feeling truly frantic and chaotic as Riley, his father, and his brother flee their pursuers. Unfortunately, this is also where the film comes apart. See, found footage movies, with rare exceptions, have to follow the Jaws principle- don’t show the full monster until we’re in the third act. It’s inherent to the form. The subjective experience of the camera is the film’s focus, and that experience is narrow; when the monster is shown, the experience widens beyond the capabilities of the camera. To say it differently: the found footage movie is an exercise in constantly ratcheting tension, and clear view of the malevolent force is the snapping of that tension. Done right, it’s incredibly effective, visceral, and feels deeply personal. Done before the second act has even kicked in, and you’re left with a whole lot of slack leading nowhere in particular. The fear of found footage films is almost always based in the fear of the unknown, what lies beyond the camera’s view, an almost Lovecraftian sense of the immensity of what is not understood. When Alien Abduction shows us the aliens, we understand, and as such there’s nothing left but jump scares with increasingly minimal returns.
After that scene, I couldn’t help but feel more and more disinterested with the goings on; it all melts into an indistinguishable morass of bright lights and imprecise pacing. None of the characters’ actions matter, no tension is created, and the stakes were never set up properly to be emotionally involving. It didn’t make me angry so much as simply bored, waiting for the end to come so I could move on to doing something else. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh- the film is competent, as far as those things go, and I didn’t hate it, but it also seems to have no purpose, no objective, and no goals. It uses the found footage form without knowledge of what the form expresses, and the pacing seems like it happened without thought, so obviously deflating tension that it’s hard to understand what the original impetus behind the editing was. If you need your found footage fix this year, check out Mr. Jones, a film I very much liked that used its form to thematic and scary ends. Alien Abduction, sadly, just doesn’t seem interested in trying to do the same.