Sometimes the story about a film is more interesting than the film itself.
Back in 1989, Dean Alioto figured out a clever new way to make a low budget SF film. He convinced a friend to give him $6500, hired a few Improv actors and, after several weeks of rehearsals, made one of the first found footage films in a single night – ten years before The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast.
It seems almost ironic, considering that a decade later The Blair Witch Project would debut at Sundance, but Dean was almost apologetic about his film because he knew he’d broken so many of the rules of filmmaking. Yes, he did so to make it seem more real, but it was such a radical idea that he was merely happy that a tiny VHS company, Axiom films, decided to release his film on video.
Which is where the story starts getting strange.
They were ready to release the film when a fire destroyed Axiom, his Masters, artwork and the entire stock of videos (Dean suspects the owner might have done it for the insurance).
So Dean shrugged and thought that was the end of his film.
What he didn’t realize was that a handful of copies had gone out to Mom and Pop video stores as promos. Some clown found one of these; removed the opening credits, with their very Seventies logo and music, and the end credits, which listed all the actors involved; and gave it to his friends in the U.F.O. conspiracy community, as real evidence of an Alien Abduction.
It was a huge hit.
Copies of the film circulated for years as “the best evidence for flying saucers”, and at one UFO conference an Air Force Colonel came out and said there was no way the footage could have been faked!
And then one day, five years after he’d made it, someone asked Dean about the mystery footage because his name somehow got attached to it, and he found, much to his surprise, that it was his own movie!
The problem is that a lot of people just weren’t willing to believe him. Instead, they decided that Dean was a plant, part of a Government cover-up. The film is still circulating as a genuine alien encounter and can be found all over the internet still billed as “the best evidence.”
You almost have to admire such certainty.
But it did net Dean the opportunity to direct a remake, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, for UPN in 1998 (yes, a year before the Witch). However, this just added to the confusion, as its original title, “The McPherson Tape“, is now used to refer to both films.
And the film itself?
Sadly, it is hard to really see how revolutionary a film this was in 1989. Dean pioneered so many of the things that are now taken for granted in Found Footage films, but they no longer have quite the same effect that they did on the people who believed this film was real for so many years. Unfortunately, this is all too often what happens with firsts.
But there is an interesting degree of subtlety to the film which seems to deliberately underplay its shocks. The most obvious of these is the moment when, after turning the lights out because they’ve lit the candles on the five year old niece’s birthday cake, they suddenly realize that they won’t turn on again. True, having them go out unexpectedly would be far more dramatic, but instead it takes a while to realize that there is anything much out of place happening. And this basic pattern repeats over and over as the hapless members of the Van Heese family keep thinking that everything has somehow gone back to normal, right before the next shock happens.
It seems a shame that the film never got a proper release, although somehow one remembers the fate of far too many films released on VHS in those early days of video: overpriced, under-advertised, published in painfully small numbers and only found in the Bargain rental shelf at the corner Mom and Pop videostore, along with all the teen vixen films.
So perhaps the strange history of Dean’s film wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
The good news is that he still has the rights to his first film, and high-quality original materials. He’s now working on a DVD release, which may finally get his film the attention it deserved.
It’s about time.
(For more information than you could ever possibly want on the film, its sequel and the strange circumstances surrounding it, see here)