Posts Tagged ‘The Phoenix Tapes ’97’

In another lifetime — okay, in this lifetime, and right up through last year, at that — I positively drowned myself, and readers of this humble site, in horror film reviews during the month of October. That was before a little thing called Four Color Apocalypse took off like a shot and started greedily consuming every spare moment I had for writing, and before those moments became even more spare thanks to a frankly pretty goddamn grueling work schedule, but hey : it’s still “Halloween season,” is it not? And that means I’ve gotta make at least some time to watch a so-called “scary movie” or two, and to talk about ’em here. For the sake of persistent tradition, if nothing else, but also to make sure no one’s made off with the good china and silver I keep in a cabinet around these parts.

Amazon Prime is my go-to choice for micro-budget horror these days, and has been for some time, but I prefer not to “fly blind” on there whenever possible, so when I heard that the estimable Turner Clay — the backyard auteur latterly revealed to be the “brains” behind the much-speculated-upon The Phoenix Tapes ’97 (probably the last “found footage” flick that actually managed to fool wishful thinkers into believing it was “the real deal”) had jumped back behind, and in front, of the camera for not one, but two “paranormal investigator”-themed flicks in the space of the past year, I was all in to give ’em a go. First up, then : 2017’s The Blackwell Ghost.

Borrowing the same credit-omission trope as his first flick (hey, it set the “chattering class” to — well — chattering, didn’t it?) in order to imbue the proceedings with at least a thin veneer of “authenticity,” Clay introduces himself as a frustrated zombie filmmaker who wants to find some real scares, but his initial foray into ghost-hunting for the camera ends up scuttled for reasons left bizarrely oblique (truth be told, I honestly wonder why footage of this purportedly-abandoned “haunted hotel” project was even included here, the end result being that a film that only runs 59 minutes in length anyway actually feels padded), but fear not : just when it looks like our man is gonna have to go back to filming shambling corpses for the DTV crowd, a correspondent provides him with some mildly disturbing footage of the goings-on at a reputedly haunted house in Pennsylvania (whatever — this movie was actually shot in Lexington, Kentucky), and before you can say “boo!,” Clay and his wife, Terri (played by Terri Czapleski) are on a plane and headed straight for, I guess, danger.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves : when it comes to these “mockumentaries,” they often tend to rise or fall based on the sheer likability of their narrators/protagonists, given that gore, special effects, and complex technical set-pieces are usually well outside both the budget and the ability of the filmmaker, and this one is no exception. Clay’s pulling triple duty as writer, director, and nominal “star” of this flick, but surprisingly, he doesn’t appear to have spread himself too thin — he’s an engaging and relatable central figure with just enough of a sense of humor about what he’s doing to keep the tone agreeably light until things start going bump in the night. There’s very little by way of tension in this hour-long flick, it’s true, and the “big finale” revolves around water faucets turning on of their own volition, but don’t let that prejudice your view before seeing it, simply because nothing here is quite as lame as it sounds, thanks in large part to Clay’s more-than-competent acting and a pleasingly well-developed backstory that makes this particular low-rent haunting seem pretty darn plausible. Yeah, the pacing here is lackadaisical and we’ve seen all this “security camera” and “night vision” stuff a million times before, but it’s all assembled in a coherent manner and the guy tasked with being our “eyes and ears” is, refreshingly, at least not someone you feel like punching in the face.

Now, if you’re on the lookout for originality, clearly you need to be looking elsewhere, but if you can extract a reasonably good time from a tired premise — and I freely admit that I can — then you could do a hell of a lot worse than this movie. It’s predictable in the extreme, it’s true, but it never insults your intelligence, never pretends to be anything other than what it is, and even has a little bit of fun pointing out its own shortcomings. Some might consider that to be damning with faint praise, and maybe it is, but it was good enough to keep my attention and, crucially, doesn’t outstay its welcome. 90 minutes of this might be a little much but, to his credit, Clay knows that, and once we get into the “main” story, he never veers in getting to point B from point A. You’d have to be really damn gullible to think anything happening here is “real,” but I honestly don’t think that’s a big concern. It has a reasonably authentic look and feel to it — which may just be a nice way of saying that it’s smart enough to make its “warts and all” approach work for it — and, combined with its audience-friendly tone, that’s enough to make me feel like I haven’t wasted my time.

Honestly, if you’ve made it this far you should have a pretty clear idea of whether or not The Blackwell Ghost sounds like the sort of thing that you’d enjoy. If not, fair enough — I really can’t hold it against anyone for having had more than enough of the whole “found footage” sub-genre as a whole — but if you’re happy to play along with a well-established set of rules and don’t expect any sort of reinvention of the wheel or anything, then I think it’s a solid bet that you’ll have a fairly good time with this one. I know that I certainly did. So, what the hell — bring on The Blackwell Ghost 2!

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As far as modern UFO “flaps” go, none are more well-known than the so-called “Phoenix Lights” incident of 1997, and while I’m not sure we’ve ever gotten anything like an “official explanation” as to what went down, I’ll guarantee you this much — the reality of the situation, whatever it may be, is probably far more interesting than 2016’s “found footage” indie micro-budgeter The Phoenix Tapes ’97. Even if all it was all just swamp gas or reflections of the planet Venus.

The authorship behind this particular piece of garbage is difficult to ascertain — the film has no credits, but that’s par for the course with these things. What’s far less common is the fact that this flick has no IMDB page, and that its official website lists none of the names of the people involved in its production, either. It does, however, make the more-than-dubious claim that the flick was “banned” from all streaming services save for Amazon Prime (which is where I caught it, obviously), a pathetically transparent slice of old-school hucksterism designed to foll the gullible into thinking that maybe this is the “real deal,” after all.

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Which, needless to say, it isn’t — but if it were, events would purportedly have happened thusly : a guy named Dustin Miller was a “top-secret government agent” of some sort who was killed during a routine traffic stop in Texas. His father, Pete, was never satisfied with the authorities’ accounting of his son’s death, and when he finds a barely-plastered-over “cubbyhole” in his deceased offspring’s home, he thinks he’s found the real reason for the young fella’s untimely demise : hidden videotape recordings that shows the “truth” about what those mysterious lights in the sky were all those years ago. Pete’s determined to put put this material into the public’s supposedly eager hands, and so while he may be on hand to say a a few words at the starting and finishing lines, the rest of the movie is the “unedited footage” just as he found it.

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Trust me when I say you’re gonna wish he’d left the whole thing alone. What we’ve got here is tedious “road trip” nonsense featuring four dumbfuck “bros” who have rented an RV to go spend a weekend in the Arizona desert. All they wanna do is get drunk, talk about girls, give each other shit, and crack dick and fart jokes, but instead on their very first night “away from civilization” (but evidently not that far away — listen closely and you’ll be able to hear somebody’s dog barking in their back yard) they hear loud explosions and see a meteorite (or something) crash into the nearby hills. This affords us the only mildly interesting and competently-executed scene in the film, but things go from almost-worth-staying-awake-for to depressingly dull in a hurry when we get the usual shaking of the RV and noises on its roof right after the big boom. When they wake up, the Winnebago’s dead and one of our quartet of clowns is missing, but don’t worry — his friends will be joining him soon enough, as on night two, shortly after witnessing those famous light in the sky, they’re dragged off, one by one, by a vaguely-visible shape that’s just, ya know, gotta be an extraterrestrial invader of some sort. With the tape still rolling the whole time, of course. The end. Sound like something you want to check out? Nah, I didn’t think so. You are, after all, much smarter than I am.

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Look, I get it — evil aliens have become a staple of the “mockumentary” subgenre in recent years, and if I had no money and wanted to make a film with my friends for some reason, this might be the way I decided to go. Or not.  Thankfully, I have a job and other shit to do, so it’s not like it’s something I need to think about. It’s just too bad that whoever really is behind this thing (my money is on one of the film’s nominal and nameless “stars” being the guilty party) didn’t listen to the little voice in their head telling them that they were wasting their time by doing this.

I’ll tell you one thing, though — if I ever made anything as dull, predictable, amateurish, and just plain lousy as The Phoenix Tapes ’97, I wouldn’t put my name on it anywhere, either.