From The Blair Witch Project onward, there’s been ongoing interest with found footage horror films. Part of the reason they remain so popular is because we live in a time period when everyone is recording themselves with their smartphones, so new cinema will reflect a narcissistic society that constantly broadcasts itself. The other, more cynical view is that found footage horror films are easy to make because they look cheap, which give filmmakers an excuse for shoddy camera work and chaotic editing.
Some found footage horror films try to innovate within the limitations of the form. The V/H/S film series forces filmmakers to find creative ways for the characters to film themselves: in one of the better examples, we watch a zombie invasion from the perspective of a zombified biker with a GoPro. These experiments are not always successful — they’re either too weird, or not scary enough — but at least there’s an attempt at something new. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the generic-sounding Alien Abduction , directed by first-time Matty Beckerman. There is absolutely nothing new about the found footage conceit, which means that the stale Paranormal Activity franchise feels innovative by comparison. There are a few uneasy sequences, with a generous amount of darkness and tension, yet the payoff does not deliver.
Our cameraman is Riley (Riley Polanski), a 11-year-old kid who’s on vacation with his parents and older siblings in the mountains. The screenplay by Robert Lewis informs us that Riley is autistic, a clever explanation for why he keeps filming even when everything goes to shit. While on their way to another site, the family gets lost and notices something disquieting: there’s a series of abandoned cars, including a police vehicle, leading up to an ominous tunnel. Riley accompanies his big brother and father inside, and they discover exactly what you’d expect inside.
Up until the tunnel sequence, Beckerman shrewdly develops the family dynamics. Riley and his siblings discover some UFOs in the night sky, and they have a way of communicating without any condescension. The family gets into heated argument when they’re lost, and the dad loses his temper in a specific way that’s kinda terrifying (Riley lingers on his dad in medium shot like a kid who’s on the spectrum, indifferent to the social cues). But once Beckerman turns his attention to horror, Alien Abduction is so ordinary it’s almost depressing.
As with most found footage, there are series of small reveals, each creepier than the last, that culminate with an obscure shot of the monster/ghost in question. The aliens in Alien Abduction look like they belong from a B-movie in the 1950s, and Beckerman has no interest in exploring their purpose. They simply perform what the script requires of them, as if they’re props in a haunted mansion instead of actual invaders. The only character that’s more of a cliche than the aliens is the redneck the family meets. Played by Jeff Bowser, he’s amount to little more than an extra from Deliverance. At least Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs. Evil had the wherewithal to make their rednecks mildly self-aware.
In its final minutes, Alien Abduction makes due on its title. The camera is still rolling as a forcefield whisks Riley away from Earth and into a spaceship. This would be excellent opportunity to eschew the shakey-cam in favor of classical compositions so we have some idea of what horrors Riley must undergo. No such thing happens in Alien Abduction, which fumbles its big reveal in favor of a series of abstract colors and distorted sound design. Alien abductions are inherently terrifying, so there’s enough material for the film to frighten us. Instead, canny horror audiences will wait for the other shoe to drop shortly after the credits roll, only to forget what they saw a few moments later.