Every year, as yet another Paranormal Activity sequel grosses roughly 10-20 times its budget (or more), an angel not only loses its wings, but hundreds more familiar horror films (or is that, “horribly familiar films?) lurch forth from the Land of Would-Never-Be-Financed-Otherwise. While this trend, to its credit, can very infrequently generate a superior oddity like [REC] or Chronicle, 99 times out of 100, it cynically replicates everything it saw make back 200% of its expenditures. It has nothing to say, and doesn’t bother touching the dials on what’s got to be the default pre-set on the industry machine. Start with a setting: In this case, “Alien Abduction.” Auto-fill will take care of the rest, until it’s time to title your movie. Otherwise, the file will simply be the last thing entered. Welcome to that most forgettable median range of the aforementioned 99 of 100: Alien Abduction.
Though it begins with its penultimate scene first, what follows is presented as linear “footage” of a remarkably underprepared family of five as they embark on a camping trip in North Carolina’s Brown Mountain. The movie pre-insists that one arrives scared, relying on the truthiness of that oh-so-dubious phrase, “Based on true events.” But ignoring that advanced, desperate bid for legitimacy in its attempt at horror, what remains—having just started—is nothing more than a stock entry in this highly profitable sub-genre.
Like with so many of these movies, the difficulty of engaging in the illusion that one is witnessing a direct, ground-level visual account of terrifying events is in the details. Beginning the film by presenting the most fantastically indestructible consumer-grade handheld camera in existence—while giving Neil deGrasse Tyson a phantom migraine with a wildly inaccurate understanding of gravity above Earth’s orbit—is a very, very poor way to back up that “true events” claim that had just come before.
After driving his family into the mountain where nary a phone signal nor GPS doth shine, Dad (Peter Holden) refuses to stop for directions and notes that these backwoods are just like in Deliverance.“Only without the anal rape!” enthuses Mom (Katherine Sigismund). Oh, Mom! In an spectacularly lazy bit of plot contrivance, Dad even forgot to fill the gas tank all the way up. Really should have thought of that before you started driving up a mountain and it started raining dead birds from the sky, Pop!
The frontloading of cliché in its setup proves merely an excuse to continue with a barrage of frantic, jostling camera movements by the operator (youngest child, Riley Polanski) and family run and hide from LOUD NOISES!! and enough lens flare to make J.J. Abrams cry uncle. And, of course, one can’t make a Deliverance joke without following through: Cabin-dwellin’, rifle-stockpilin’ redneck stereotype Sean (Jeff Bowser) adds his grizzled two cents about them gub’ment types conspiring to cover up the extraterrestrial equivalent of that movie’s most infamous scene.
Apart from the obvious benefit of savings, the format benefits the story little and, often, actively undermines it. Aside from being invincible, the home video camera in use (like the miracle piece of A/V in Cloverfield), has a battery that could end world hunger, and replace tens of thousands of dollars in audio equipment for the sound mixer. A half-assed stab at explaining why little Riley won’t put down, or even fumble and drop the camera in terror, is hand-waved away with the mention that he’s autistic. Granted, there remains a lot of research to be done on the condition, but would be awfully hard to imagine autism can be blamed for overriding all survival instinct.
All of this to say that, as a horror flick, even one held to the impossibly low standards of the found-footage variety, Alien Abduction fails to thrill or chill. But then, with a nearly guaranteed robust return to its future ledger, can Beckerman and Lewis be blamed for taking the safe, undemanding approach to entering the film industry? By that assumption, it makes it easier to absorb cinematic refuse like this: It’s not a cynical cash-in; it’s just a smart investment.
Scott Wold is a Chicago-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter, if you must.
Director: Matty Beckerman
Writer: Robert Lewis
Starring: Peter Holden, Katherine Sigismund, Corey Eid, Jillian Clare, Jeff Bowser, Riley Polanski
Release Date: Apr. 4, 2014 (limited)