Thursday, November 24, 2011

Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)

I first saw Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County several years ago - presumably during its original run on UPN. The broadcast version consisted of clips from the offending tape (that depicts a family's standoff against an extraterrestrial home invasion), interspersed with interviews and opinions with experts in a variety of fields, discussing whether the tapes were genuine or a hoax, and the implications of either. I imagine that was more or less around the time when I was at the height of my alien abduction paranoia (as was most of our culture, I bet), and probably not far removed from my late born obsession with The X-Files. When I saw Incident in Lake County on TV, I honestly didn't know whether it was real or fake, and it scared the shit out of me. Mesmerized, I ordered the VHS tape of the broadcast, and it still sits in a drawer in my room to this day (though I'm not sure I still have a working VCR).

Lately, my attention has turned to the title again, and I was reminded of the uncut original footage from which were drawn the clips that appear in the television broadcast. Having never seen the entirety of the original tape, I tracked it down (an infinitely easier task with the modern power of the internet at my fingertips) for viewing, to get myself prepped for Thanksgiving dinner. You see, in the tape, the McPherson family (who would allegedly go missing by the end of the night) is just about to sit down to their own Thanksgiving dinner before things start to get really frightening. Tommy McPherson is a young guy who aspires to be a director (though you wouldn't know it from his 'home movie' approach to recording the night - unless, that is, he intends to be a documentary filmmaker), and he records with enthusiasm what starts out as a family holiday gathering, but ends up as a document that could prove not only that extraterrestrial life exists and has come to earth, but that they apparently don't have much concern for the value of human life.

The fun starts when an unexpected flash of lightning (on a dry night) knocks out the power. But when a few of the men in the family head out to investigate the nearby power converter, they find something unbelievable - what appears to be an alien spacecraft landed in the woods, and there are alien beings wandering nearby, performing some kind of experiment on a cow with a red laser. The aliens spot the curious McPhersons, and turn their heat ray on them, prompting them to run screaming back to the house. The rest of the family doesn't believe their story at first - until they rewind Tommy's tape. But things only get worse from there, as the aliens - whose motivations we can only guess at, but one might suppose that they don't like being interrupted during their chupacabra routine - lay siege to the McPherson's farmhouse, one of them even crawling in through an upstairs window, and torture them psychologically via an array of fear tactics before ultimately taking them away to a fate Tommy's camera does not record.

It's a wonder that Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is scary at all, because it's so obviously fake. The acting is terrible, and the fx are frequently laughable. When I was younger, the fact that the abduction scenario played out subtly differently than what we'd seen in other pop culture depictions, yet while covering all the expected bases, contributed to my suspicion that it could be real. After all, everything else we'd seen was a dramatization - maybe this was what it really looked like. Now, with the benefit of experience and insight, I can tell that the tape is so obviously faked, and I actually think it would be more effective if it took a few less liberties, seeing as the liberties it takes come most often in the form of really cheap effects, rather than clever changes to the formula. On the other hand, I do enjoy the more aggressive approach of these aliens, who seem to prefer besieging an entire family while awake to picking off individuals in their sleep without, in many cases, leaving much of a lasting memory (at least not until years later, after undergoing hypnosis). It may be less stereotypically alien behavior, but it is at least fresh.

But as I said, Incident in Lake County is a wonder, because it still manages to be scary, in spite of the aliens dressed like cat burglars, whose primary weapon seems to be a flashlight with red cellophane stretched over the bulb. This is one of those cases where the fear of the unknown exceeds the terror of the thing one fears. The aliens are more menacing at a distance, or lurking in the shadows, shuffling quickly past windows in the background, than when they take center stage. The whole of Alien Abduction plays on a very conceptual fear, and the ideas that it invokes are far scarier than the scenes that it renders, which is probably why it's so effective in spite of its low-fi fx. The scariest scene - the scene in the bedroom - had my skin crawling thinking about it before it happened (and it's got my skin crawling again just thinking about it again) so much that I was actually afraid to watch it and momentarily considered shutting the tape off to avoid it. Seriously, watching a film like this one just doesn't feel safe, like 99% of movies are. But when it actually happened - though it's still a pretty scary scene, and probably one of the more effective on the tape - it wasn't a fraction as terrifying as I was anticipating. Strange how that works, that the anticipation will affect you more than the experience itself. Proof that your mind is your most intimidating enemy after all?

So as a found footage film, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County - the full tape and not the television broadcast - works pretty well, in the sense that it's very low budget and not particularly sophisticated, but that it effectively plays on some very visceral fears. I'm sure not everyone will agree, just as some people don't find Paranormal Activity the least bit scary, though I consider it one of the scariest films I have ever seen. If the concept of a found footage alien abduction movie doesn't particularly disturb you, then you might simply see it as a low quality, laughably bad flop. I wonder how I would feel if this were a similar quality movie about a different subject - say, a science experiment to resurrect an extinct carnivorous dinosaur. Hey, it might still have some merit. ;-)

Anyway, now I have other matters to attend to. I'm going to try my hardest not to think about aliens as I climb into bed (a futile task, I know), lest I get no sleep at all to prepare me for this year's turkey dinner. Happy Thanksgiving, loyal readers. :p


  1. I agree that seeing less of the aliens would be better here. My biggest grievance by countless fathoms is the beyond-acceptable (i.e. unacceptable) ending... I was expecting this SUPER creepy ending, where the little girl comes over and turns the camera off, as if to say 'okay, it's time for them to die now, no more filming.' Like she's stewarding them to their death, you know? Even just cutting off as the red light creeps up on them would have been divine. But instead we have to see the hokiest scene ever filmed, with the aliens pretending to freeze them....

    But since Blair Witch hadn't come out yet, director Alioto may have thought the film "needed" a blatant, cheesy ending, not knowing that the nondescript cut-off ending would become acceptable, traditional, and near-universal for this type of film.

    My favorite part was him going around the dark upstairs hallways. Very spooky, almost a Rec kind of feel there. Really makes me crave a new movie of a very similar ilk. A spiritual remake, same premise but all new content.

  2. Yeah, the ending was a little hokey. On the other hand, I think it's more or less consistent with the terrible fx and acting throughout the film. But you're right, it could have been a lot more effective if they had approached it differently.

    Wow, the little girl was hilariously in charge of things. It was so bad, yet I loved it. "Do you want to play go fish?" "No, I have other matters to attend to," as she goes and lets the aliens in the front door. That was so bad, it was almost good.

    A spiritual remake could be great, but I have doubts such a thing would be made these days, now that alien abduction has largely passed out of the public consciousness.