Phoenix Forgotten Review: New Ridley Scott-produced found footage horror film is full of sound and fury and paranoia
Found footage horror movies are a dime a dozen and have been since Paranormal Activity traded on the success of the previous decade’s The Blair Witch Project and rode it all the way to the bank. With the film industry in a less-than-healthy state, found footage horror movies cost nearly nada to make, with rarely a known star in site and a visual palette that demands incompetence for it to even function.
Yeah, I don’t like them. If I want reality, I’ll look out the window.
But every so often a film of this type comes out and surprises, mixing cinematic craft with the urgency of found footage. Enter Phoenix Forgotten, director Justin Barber’s Ridley Scott-produced faux docu-thriller about the purportedly “true” events on March 13th, 1997 in Phoenix, Arizona when a bunch of locals swear that the glowing light saw in the distant night sky weren’t government jets but a big ‘ole UFO dropping in for a quick hello.
Barber’s film works because it’s a film first, by that I mean it’s produced and presented as an actual piece of dramatic journalism, with score and ace editing as various talking heads (are they real? actors? The lines here are rather ingeniously smudged) debate the authenticity of the footage and tell tales of other such sightings that might lend credence to the tin-hat set.
Woven into this is a narrative about a trio of teens who had obviously seen and enjoyed The Blair With Project enough to pack up some snacks and video gear and hightail into the desert to find potential evidence of extraterrestrial activity. Of course, they’re never heard from again. That is until 20 years later when the makers of this movie find a tape buried in the sand containing the last few minutes of the kids’ lives… on Earth at least.
The makers of this movie are cruising for a critical bruising when reviewers get hold of the title. I can just see the cynical headlines: “Phoenix Already Forgotten!”; “Forget it Phoenix!”. But the truth is, Phoenix Forgotten is really rather good. It’s expertly-paced and immersive and cynical about its subject before blossoming into a fiery horror movie for the shaky-cam finale. Unlike many of these movies, post-production is solid, especially the sound design and that last reel is a real hackle-raiser because of those alarming sound FX. The pro-am performances are pretty good too and ultimately its these controlled, presumably semi-improvised performances that elevate the movie, making us feel genuinely sad at the stressful fate the three kids endure.
While Phoenix Forgotten won’t change your life, it is a damn sight better than last year’s Blair Witch sequel and it gives hope that there is SOMETHING out there: a better breed of found footage film.