After much soul-searching, I lay the blame for my love of found footage films at BLAIR WITCH’s door. It wasn’t the first found footage I ever saw, but it was the first to make an impression, and one of the few movies that can legitimately claim to have spawned a subgenre. Almost every innovator and imitator that followed has been a disappointment (see any number of reviews on this very website), but that hasn’t stopped me from chasing that first glorious high. It was with cautious optimism, therefore, that I approached ALIEN ABDUCTION, from debut screenwriter Robert Lewis and debut director Matty Beckerman. While the odds aren’t in its favour (there are at least ten abysmal found footage films for every pleasant surprise), it has one thing going for it – as a sci-fi/horror hybrid it’s in esteemed company (ALIEN, THE TERMINATOR, EVENT HORIZON, 2012’s EVIDENCE). It isn’t a patch on any of those, and doesn’t even try to break new ground, but it’s never less than solid, and offers a few legitimate scares.
Found footage is its own worst enemy. Not only is its reputation fatally flawed, it presents a slew of logical and logistical impediments that work again the story. It’s to ALIEN ABDUCTION’s credit that it manages to surmount most of them. First, and most obvious, the question of why anyone would continue to film when life-threatening events are befalling them. Lewis and Beckerman offer a solution in the form of autistic eleven-year-old Riley (Riley Polanski), who manages his condition by viewing the world through the camera’s lens. Any opportunities for sentimentality are ignored (thank goodness), and Riley makes for a convincing documentarian. The semi-improvised dialogue lends an air of authenticity, and while some sections are scored, it’s subtle and unobtrusive. The film also avoids the traditional found footage pitfall of spending two thirds of its runtime on pointless preamble. It gets to the point with commendable alacrity, which leaves plenty of time for the tension to mount as the vacationing family are picked off by sinister alien greys.
While I applaud the decision to dive straight into the action, there are pacing issues that need to be addressed. Beckerman reveals his villain too soon, and never manages to recapture that initial level of intensity. What follows is a sequence of peaks and troughs. When the threat is present it’s undeniably engaging, but there are long spells when nothing happens and our interest wanes. And as we haven’t spent much time with the family, and don’t either know or care about them, the sense of peril is absent. It’s also hard to say exactly what the threat is. We know it’s extraterrestrial, but apart from the occasional spooky glimpse of an otherworldly figure, we’re left with nothing more substantial than flashing lights and booming noises.
While there are serious structural problems with the story, Beckerman is a master of atmosphere. The aliens may be largely AWOL, but there’s no doubting their omnipotence. They’re presented as sadistic overlords, as superior to us as we are to cats and dogs, and the film’s most distressing scenes are those that articulate both the family’s helplessness in the face of their attackers, and the all-powerful nature of the aliens. The special effects, which are inexpensive but effective, add to the feeling of menace, and the ending (which is also the beginning) is even more chilling the second time around. The same can’t be said of the footage that accompanies the credits, which is a rerun of earlier scenes. It’s superfluous at best, and can only have been included to pad out the meagre runtime (although there is a brief bonus scene at the end that’s worth seeing).
ALIEN ABDUCTION is a mixed bag. It surmounts most of the problems endemic to the format, and cultivates an atmosphere as chilling as any found footage, but the thrills are patchy and it squanders what should have been a grand finale on an early reveal. Even so, it’s streets ahead of most of its rivals, and an interesting first offering from a director worth keeping an eye on.