Although the found-footage genre is growing increasingly stale, it can still provide some genuine – if cheap – thrills. Also, Alien Abduction hits this critic right in the nostalgia gland.
As someone who was a teenager in the 1990s – and, as such, watched many episodes of The X-Files and Sightings – I feel like I give an unfair pass to any film that deals with alien abduction. Alien abduction has always been a scary idea (i.e. big-eyed, stone-faced monsters whisking you away and violating you for ineffable reasons), but there was a pop culture explosion of it when I was in high school. There were movies like Fire in the Sky, miniseries like The Intruders, and of course the shenanigans of Agents Mulder and Scully to keep our appetites for real-life space critters thoroughly whetted.
So while I can recognize that Matty Beckerman’s new found-footage feature Alien Abduction is perfectly rote, and adds no new stylistic flourishes to the already-tired genre – indeed, much of it seems ripped off directly from The Blair Witch Project, including the teary “I’m so scared” speech – I still, as a critic, have to openly admit the following: It creeped me out. This is one of those rare instances where I can recognize a film as being uncreative and of only dubious quality, but still confess that it scared me.
And while many audience members and critics have openly declared that they are tired of the found-footage genre (there are only so many times you can withstand 90 full minutes of jerky, handheld camerawork while someone screams as a barely-glimpsed threat), it is still eminently conducive to a particularly strong form of “Boo! Gotcha!” jump scare. Most horror films attempt arch plotting, elaborate visuals, and ambitious character work. Found footage films have much lower ambitions. They only seek to make you skittish and screamy. They serve the same function as amateur homemade haunted houses. You’re not going into a haunted house to explore human fears or delve into the human psyche. You enter one of those under amusement park pretenses, and then, maybe, to be rewarded with some vanilla Tootsie Rolls at the end. There is a wonderfully cheap purity to jump scares that, well, can still break through the skin of someone like me from time to time.
The story of Alien Abduction, based on a real-life case, follows a family of five (mom Katherine Sisgmund, dad Peter Holden, brother Corey Eid, sister Jillian Clare, and 11-year-old autistic cameraboy Riley Polanski). They get lost while driving in the woods, and eventually discover a creepy tunnel full of abandoned cars. Hmm… Could this have something to do with the lights in the sky they saw last night? Immediately, alien Greys show up and begin pursuing them. The family is able to elude capture for a while, taking refuge with a woods-bound, gun-toting hillbilly (Jeff Bowser), but eventually – just like in real life – the aliens get them. And that’s pretty much it.
If this all sounds trite to you, it’s because it is. This is the type of film that has been made repeatedly ad nauseam for the past decade, and I wouldn’t blame you for dismissing it. There are far better found footage films in the world. But there are many more that are much worse. Alien Abduction, for all its banality, still hits a weird nostalgic sweet spot. It’s just barely effective enough, and, in many cases, that can be enough.