Starring: Florence Hartigan, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews and Luke Spencer Roberts
Directed by: Justin Barber
Written by: T.S. Nowlin, Justin Barber
Original Year of Release: 2017
Run Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
I actively despise found-footage horror movies as a rule, in part because the savings to the budget usually come at the expense of character and style. Phoenix Forgotten ultimately doesn’t change my mind on the subject. But for a genre whose creative peak began and ended with The Blair Witch Project (still one of the most overrated horror movies of all time), Phoenix Forgotten does something that few other found-footage movies can be bothered with: it makes us genuinely care about the protagonists. That doesn’t save it from its shortcomings, but if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of horror movies and how technique translates to meaning, it can be quite illuminating.
The trend in the sub-genre is to simply stay focused on the found footage: the recordings made by the hapless victims during the last few days or hours of their lives. Phoenix Forgotten doesn’t change that – covering a trio of young people who disappear in the Arizona desert chasing reports of a UFO – but the surrounding apparatus gives it a little more heft. It adopts more of a faux-documentary format which, among other things, presents the parents and family of the lost characters dealing with the fallout of their disappearance.
It sounds simple, but it makes a big difference in linking us to the characters’ plight and endowing the outcome (however certain) with a little meaning. That carries more weight than you’d expect for a small horror movie, and as a result, the shaky cam becomes a stylistic choice instead of an easy excuse to cut the budget. You can’t scare us unless we’re invested in the outcome, and director Justin Barber clearly grasps this from the get-go.
The second factor setting Phoenix Forgotten from the pack is its basis in an actual incident. A series of strange lights really appeared over Phoenix in 1997, and has since become a pivotal moment in the UFO community’s history. It also contains actual footage from real-life figures like then-Governor Fife Symington who initially mocked the incident before admitting that he had no idea what the lights really were (after resigning amid a raft of mundane corruption charges). That proves dangerous in an era where authenticity is becoming increasingly difficult to parse, and inferring that people disappeared during an actual incident in which no such thing happened flirts with trouble. But it does lend some authenticity to a genre that hinges on being plausible, and so long as everyone understands going in that this is a work of fiction, it doesn’t inflict any lasting harm.
Beyond that, however, Phoenix Forgotten delivers about what you’d expect from a genre well past its expiration date. Entranced by stories the lights, the three kids head out to get some footage on a documentary they’re making, and never come out of the desert. They’re plucky and likable – you get the sense that they didn’t bring this on themselves – but beyond that, they remain fairly standard-issue, as does the mystery they’re pursuing. It’s tough to get too pumped up over another deliberately vague enigma that lacks agreeable closure, or scares generated from territory so well worn. The film’s pleasures lie more in the Meta than in the text itself, and while it’s rarely uninteresting, that doesn’t necessarily make it good.
On the other hand, it does demonstrate how one can find life in a genre seemingly exhausted and how even the quickest cash grab benefits from a little attention to detail. Phoenix Forgotten works well enough for horror fans who don’t ask too much of it, but its real value lies in shaking up a moribund genre… if not to revitalize then at least to remind us how often it settled for less than it could have been.