In the arguments over which film was the first ‘found footage’ movie you have the folks who lay that particular burden on The Blair Witch Project (1999), those who insist that Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is the true trailblazer, and outliers like myself who point to low-budget 70’s “mockumentaries” like The Legend of Bigfoot (1976) as the progenitors of what would become a significant portion of the new millennium’s horror movie output. (And I’m sure there are others that could lay the claim, but I’m all about gross generalizations today.)
I don’t think there’s much disagreement, though, that Blair Witch was the first film that popularized the sub-genre. Presented as discovered (fine, ‘found’) footage, primarily shot in POV, with shaky camera work, naturalistic acting and way too many shots of people arguing as they walk away from you. The movie that launched a thousand nausea inducing runs down hallways or through nightvision-lit forests. The thing is, that’s all present in The McPherson Tape, which came out in 1989 – ten years before Blair Witch! (Well, not the nightvision.)
Shot for a measly $6500, director Dean Alioto managed to secure a distribution deal – only to have the warehouse with the master tape and release materials burn down. For most films that would be the end of things – but The McPherson Tape (known then as UFO Abduction) gained a sort of second life… in UFO circles, being presented as evidence of a real alien abduction. It turns out that a few preview copies of the film had been sent out to video stores, and these had in turn been shared around and somehow found their way into the UFO community.
It was something of a 10 days wonder, with Alito giving a debunking interview on the old Fox show, Encounters, which led to him being offered the opportunity to remake the film. This was aired on UPN as Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. (Anyone remember UPN? No? Yeah *cough* me either.) With interviews with scientists, UFO experts and the like it was the Alien Autopsy of the day. And still a full year before Blair Witch.
So why hadn’t I heard about it before? Good question – I guess, despite my enjoyment of The X-Files, I just never paid much attention to the UFO stuff in the 90’s. Especially not on UPN or Fox. In addition, there was the fact that all the extent copies of the original film were essentially VHS copies of copies of copies, with all the quality reduction that entails. The film had existed in the ‘wild’ for years – diluting any possible pool of customers for a general release – so there was never a copy available, outside of some very fringe places that tended to offer it as “real” UFO abduction footage. For whatever reason, The McPherson Tape never pinged my found-footage radar, despite my love for the genre. Until last year, when Sailor Monsoon included it in his list of 100 Greatest Overlooked Horror Movies.
Believe it or not, The McPherson Tape is now available on Blu-ray from AGFA and Bleeding Skull!. (The exclamation point is actually part of the company name.) To be clear, this is a Blu-ray of a film shot on a 1980’s home camcorder, leading to this disclaimer from the company: “NOTICE! This movie was shot on VHS and edited on tape. Please approach the technical quality of the transfers with empathy.” The Blu-ray is the cleanest and best presented version of the film, though, as there remains no official streaming release. You can find bootleg copies (and perhaps that might enhance your viewing experience) online at various places.
The McPherson Tape has a minor framing section, which presents the tape as a real home movie, and offering a phone number to report any info on the people in the tape – as they are still missing. A classic found-footage setup if there ever was one.
From there we’re plunked down in the middle of a birthday party for a little girl. This is Michelle and the whole ensemble are members of the Van Heese Family. There’s the matriarch, Ma, her three sons (don’t) Eric, Jason and Michael, Jaime – Eric’s wife and Michelle’s mother, and Jason’s girlfriend Renee. Michael is the youngest of the sons, and the one with the brand-new camcorder he’s using to tape the proceedings.
So, good news and bad news. The good news is, this actually does (most of the time) feel like a real video of a family birthday party. The bad news is, it feels like a real video of a family birthday party. The camera is sometimes unfocused or aimed at a wall or darkness. The conversation is random, overlapping and often inane. There’s a slow zoom on a plate of food. The thing that makes this film work as found footage is also what makes it excruciating to sit through at times.
You DO get a good feel for the brothers, though, and Ma. Mostly through realistic banter and ribbing. They feel like a real family. Unfortunately the other women get short shrift in the plot, including young Michelle – though she does get to set up a great jump scare with a “true to life” drawing.
Just when you start wondering if you’re being trolled – IS this just some family video? – the power goes out and the boys see a red light fall from the sky. Well of course they have to investigate, giving us the now classic ‘arguing while walking through woods at night’ scene before they finally come to a ridge above the object. Is it an alien ship? With actual aliens? You bet it is, and here the low-res video works to its best effect, giving us only a rough estimation of what the ship and its occupants look like. There’s no clear, high def CGI shot, it’s all shaky nightwork with a camera that never even heard of a lumen. The aliens are blobs with just enough shape to their faces that we can tell when they finally notice the humans watching them…
There is a brief respite with the group (Ma and the others being, understandably, skeptical) thinking the aliens have left – they see the red light moving up into the sky – things ratchet up quickly when Eric and his family try to leave. The aliens return and try to enter the house while the family tries to defend themselves and also figure out a way to escape.
There are disappearances, drawings, gunfire, oddly timed card games, and alien corpses. The aliens themselves are pretty low budget, but our view of them is kept distant and in the dark, so it works most of the time. There’s a great ending sequence, as the camera begins to glitch (also a found footage staple).
The whole plot, with a rural house of a large family being assaulted over the evening by a group of what appear to be aliens, reminds me of the Kelly-Hopkinsville UFO case more than anything else. If I remember correctly, they even shot one of the aliens in that case. (While I ignore most of the UFO stuff, I have read a little.)
The Bottom Line
If I’m honest, The McPherson Tape is a rough go. There are moments that I liked a lot and moments where I was just looking at the clock. The parts that do work are really good, however, and I enjoyed the experience a lot more than, say, 1972 Yellow House. It’s not the best found footage movie, not even the best alien abduction found footage movie, but it’s an interesting artifact, a piece of found footage history that’s perhaps less known than it should be, and if you’re interested in that sub-genre I think it’s well worth a look.