When it comes to the found footage genre, it seems like everyone has an opinion, and they’re not all favorable. Personally, I love the genre’s faux-authenticity (how’s that for an oxymoron?) and I don’t hold films that fall under the found footage umbrella up to unreasonable expectations. CGI’d specters and ostentatious sound effects are necessarily off-limits, forcing the filmmaker to work within certain parameters. What’s trickier, still, is any attempt to work within the found footage genre while somehow also making the film seem unique and original. It’s hard to emulate The Blair Witch Project, for example, and still deviate from it enough to produce something that critics will deem “innovative.” With those observations in mind, I’m going to give the recently released Phoenix Forgotten my seal of approval. It has been, and will continue to be, lambasted for not being scary enough (and perhaps too imitative of similar predecessors), but as I’ll suggest below, that’s a fairly shallow bit of criticism that doesn’t take into account both how intriguing the film is and how chillingly it concludes.
Phoenix Forgotten is a historical fiction pseudo-documentary on the actual Phoenix Lights phenomenon that occurred on March 13, 1997, in the Arizona skies. Thousands of witnesses saw a series of inexplicable lights in the sky – indeed, actual pictures and footage of the lights abound – although the Phoenix mayor initially denied the possibility of a UFO’s existence, and skeptics attribute the presence of the lights to falling military flares. This explanation is unsatisfying for witnesses who claim that the lights remained suspended, clustered together in the sky, or that they moved together as one and covered the stars as they moved – which suggests they were part of some larger entity. There is, of course, no documentation proving the latter claims, so the actual origin of the lights remains a mystery, which is strange, because if they were the product of Airforce operations, it seems like their origins would have been concretely verified by now. One will note, also, that after the Phoenix mayor left office, he described the Phoenix Lights as “otherworldly” despite his professed doubt.
Spoilers to follow: Phoenix Forgotten takes this mysterious, twenty-year-old occurrence, and inserts fictional characters into the event to construct a chilling plot – although, as I’ll explain later, there is some truth embedded in the characters who are created. The film (fictionally) credits teenager Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts) as one of the people who took footage of the lights – during his six-year-old sister Sophie’s birthday party – and then becomes obsessed with the possibility of a UFO visit to earth. He recruits Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) to help him create a documentary of possible alien visitation as they predict the location of the next UFO sighting based on previous appearances. When the teens drive out to the Arizona desert to tape themselves seeking (and perhaps finding) information about the lights’ origins, they encounter more than they bargain for, and it takes the persistence of a 26-year-old Sophie (Florence Hartigan) – 20 years later – to uncover the truth behind the bone-chilling, unexplained disappearance of her brother and his friends. Footage moves back and forth between Josh’s venture in 1997 and Sophie’s investigation of Josh’s death in 2017. The trope of the sibling returning to the site of the tragedy for investigation is, of course, a mirror image of Blair Witch’s plot (the sequel to the Blair Witch Project), a likeness I had no problem with. The trope is effective for the found footage genre, and the basis for the investigation isn’t as important as how the director scares us while the plot secrets unravel.
Of course, the found footage film presents all the movie’s occurrences as accurate events, which may still be a partial truth. Though the film’s director classifies the characters as completely fictional in interviews, four men in their late 20s did mysteriously disappear on March 14, 1997, in Phoenix, a day after the Phoenix Lights appeared in the skies. Glenn Lauder, Mitch Adams, Ryan Stone, and Jacob Reynolds vanished in the Estrella Mountain Regional Park after they were seen off-roading south of the Phoenix International Raceway. On maricopamissing.com, their twenty-year-old case file is still marked with the word “unresolved” next to the picture and birth date of each missing man. To really ponder this incident was, to me, incredibly disquieting. If I disappeared in a mountainous park alone, it wouldn’t be very surprising; a solo, relatively out of shape female could get into trouble a lot of ways by exploring the wilderness herself. But to look at pictures of these men is to see four healthy young men, in the prime of their lives, who entered the park together, and yet nothing has been found to indicate their whereabouts twenty years later. I haven’t read much about their disappearances, and I don’t know if they happened to be investigating the Phoenix Lights phenomenon (there is, to my knowledge, no evidence to suggest this), but it is difficult to conceive of likely explanations for the strange situation. In a much older post, I briefly reference the mysterious case of Elise Lamm, a Canadian tourist who was found naked in a water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, despite the fact that conclusions of murder and foul play were discarded by detectives. The story – while incredibly sad – also struck a nerve; it was laced with eerie, perplexing mystery – I can’t quite find a word for the sense it evokes. I see the disappearance of these four men, the day after the Phoenix Lights appeared in the sky, in much the same way. There is something incredibly chilling, incredibly ominous about the occurrence, regardless of what caused it and because its cause is so unknown, so inconceivable.
And that sense of the incredibly chilling, incredibly ominous, is fantastically portrayed by the end of Phoenix Forgotten, albeit through the lens of three seemingly more vulnerable teenagers entering the barren Arizona desert together to find answers. Much of the film is a documentary-style build-up to the culminating footage, which reveals the answer to the film’s mystery. The exposition, while lengthy and not incredibly scary, is a clever way – through staged interviews with people involved in the fictional case – to emphasize the inexplicable nature of the teenagers’ disappearances and foreground the baffling, mysterious nature of the case. Just because the film isn’t laced with jump-scares or explosions throughout the plot doesn’t mean it’s not creepy, and it certainly does not mean it’s a bad movie. The last half hour of the film is, of course, the most gripping, and provides the most classic horror-style fright.
One thing I particularly loved about the film is what it did with the concept of the desert. As a culture, we invest different environment types with different feelings, different notions, sometimes different lore. The forest, for instance, since the inception of American society through puritanical culture, has been marked a place outside of society, a mysterious place, often associated with the feminine, where magic, devilry and witchcraft happens – a motif that’s starkly apparent in the relatively recently released The Witch. The forest captures our imaginations; it enchants us even as it terrifies us. And when, in The Blair Witch Project, and later in Blair Witch, the characters get lost in a seemingly endless forest, the filmmakers are tapping into centuries worth of lore about the mystique and danger of the woods, myth that positions the forest as a location for the evil, for the female witch who exists outside polite society (or, on a more pan-European scale, the hungry wolf of Little Red Riding Hood.)
Until watching Phoenix Forgotten, I had never seen the desert in quite the same way; it’s usually a place that’s associated with the harsh and barren. But just as the forest is an enchanted, mysterious, ultimately insidious location that houses an elusive witch (in The Blair Witch Project and cultural myth) so the desert becomes the unforgiving, insidious location away from society in Phoenix Forgotten. Simply stated, the desert, in this film, becomes as creepy and as odious as the forest in The Blair Witch Project or similar horror undertakings. It is a place seemingly without borders, a place that not only houses danger but could be hiding it, a place where people get lost and disappear. The desert is, to that end, a sort of terrestrial location and an abyss at once, a tract of land and a potential black hole, the way the forest often seems in our cultural imagination.
There is also the point-blank sadness that the occurrence of any missing person, or missing persons, provokes – especially when no person, no body, is ever found. I thought the sense of loss and unreconciled questions, the complicated process of mourning the disappearance of someone who has never been officially marked as “deceased,” the general and irrevocable sense of loss that a family experiences and the consequences of such tragedy, were well-explored in a film that otherwise sought to frighten the viewer.
And of course, the film leaves us all speculating: what were those lights in the sky twenty years ago? I have heard before – and quite agree with – the proposition that it’s an extreme act of hubris to believe that we are the only life-bearing planet in this vast, infinite universe full of galaxies that are full of their own planets. While our exact position in relation to the sun and the presence of water on our planet are specific conditions that allow for life, they aren’t conditions that couldn’t be replicated similarly in some other far-off – or not that far-off – corner of the universe. And it isn’t completely unfathomable, either, to think that some other life form might develop the technology to reach us before we reach them. It may be a giant leap to presume that life in distant galaxies would be hostile, but it seems quite likely that it would be existent, at the very least.
As for myself, I like to believe in the reality of the Phoenix Lights, even as I hope they weren’t actually linked to the disappearance of four Phoenix men the next day. I prefer an explanation that situates the denizens of that lingering possible-aircraft as friendly visitors who were interested in seeing what earth is all about (and who, after a few more reconnaissance missions, realized how insane this planet is and decided to just stay away for their own safety and well-being). Despite such wishes, the trope of the dangerous life form from another planet – the so-called horror/sci-fi alien movie – is always deliciously inviting for those who indulge in feeling unsettled in their spare time, and I thought Phoenix Forgotten – a quintessential found footage film – tapped into our curiosity, and our fear, of the (literal) alien-other, remarkably well.