PHOENIX FORGOTTEN Review
Director: Justin Barber
Genre: Found Footage Horror
If there’s anything I enjoy wasting $12.50 on, it’s a 90 minute found footage horror film that I’ll give two Letterboxd stars to, at most. As such, I set out this weekend to catch PHOENIX FORGOTTEN, the latest entry in the canon of horror pregaming before the heavy hitters step up to the plate over the summer. Not having my hopes set very high after catching the trailer for FRIEND REQUEST, a tired UNFRIENDED retread released by the same, cleverly-named Entertainment Studios that were about to bring me my feature presentation, I was already thinking of the six pack of Corona I could have bought instead of a movie ticket as things kicked into gear. But, against all odds, I was pleasantly surprised, at least mildly so. Although it doesn’t break any new ground in terms of actual content, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN at least has enough pride to take itself seriously, eschewing the preferred quick-buck possession and haunted house narratives the found footage genre favors for a comparatively fresh alien abduction tale.
We’re dropped into two interspliced timelines, both occurring in the dry heat capital of the world, Phoenix, Arizona. In 1997, would-be cinematographer Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) is thrilled to capture the real-world Phoenix Lights incident, a mass sighting of ostensible UFOs that remains unexplained to this day, live on the VHS recording of his sister’s birthday party. Titillated beyond belief, Josh soon rounds up fellow videophile and crush, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), and best friend, Mark (Justin Matthews). The trio head into the desert in the hopes of uncovering more, only to never be seen again, leaving behind a scant tape that innocuously documents the first half of their journey. In 2017, Sophie’s all grown up, and has returned to Phoenix on the 20th anniversary of her brother’s disappearance. Determined to finally achieve some closure, she sets out to interview the locals in the hopes of discovering more about the Phoenix Lights. Eventually coming across Josh’s old, battered camera in a storage locker owned by his old high school, Sophie uncovers the missing tape, one that will explain just what, exactly, happened to the alien hunters.
Mac DeMarco? Is that you?
I know what you’re thinking, but if you’ll recall, I never said PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is good, I just said that I was pleasantly surprised. The reason for this entirely lies with Sophie’s side of the (somewhat sloppily) extended first act. While her discovery of Josh’s old camera requires a hefty suspension of disbelief, there is actually a tangible directorial presence to the proceedings. Barber, perhaps unknowingly, almost perfectly replicates the editing and urgency of the television news programs that he edits in with metatextuality, cutting between footage from the two timelines in addition to a myriad of witness interviews to successfully expand the conflict into one of local politics and interest.
The most effective part of the film occurs during a one-two punch that throws the story into the realm of a political and military cover-up. An actual 2007 interview with Fife Symington, Phoenix’s mayor at the time of the Lights incident, is used to ease us into the fact that there is a legitimate possibility that a mass shoving under the rug occurred 10 years previously, soon followed by Sophie speaking to a military general and being ordered to never show anyone the updated footage ever again. The latter scene, in particular, could easily exist in a film with more merit behind it, as Sophie’s dialogue is clearly heard while various environmental factors continually obscure the explanations of the general, increasing our perception of the shadowy governmental forces that constantly operate in the background as inscrutable and inaccessible. And then we never hear from Sophie again. Not in a menacing sense, the film really just can’t be bothered to ever wrap up her storyline.
And that’s really quite frustrating! Even ignoring the fact that it doesn’t make any sense and nobody gets anything of value from the huge journey she was in the process of undertaking, a stellar third act could have been crafted from Sophie trying to expose the truth of the tapes while the government acts as the scariest villain of them all. Alas, we instead entirely switch to Josh’s found footage tapes for the rest of the film. I think the knee-jerk reaction to compare every film in the subgenre to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT is lazy and uninspired, but the second half of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN makes a strong case for this comparison to be well-earned. This is because Barber’s film is never really scary; in fact, I can confidently state that there’s only one jump scare, and even that one’s a stretch to actually consider as such. Instead, dread and disorientation are the attempted name of the game, much like everyone’s favorite cursory reference point. If dread and disorientation are actually achieved is up for debate considering that you can accurately predict every story beat before walking into the theater, but we’re at least allowed to have fun with some flexing of special effects in the conclusion.
“Competent” is the key word associated with the rest of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN’s runtime, but because it never raises the hackles to any particular degree, it gradually plateaus and trails off into tepidness. With the group attempting to return to their car at night getting same-y, with only mysterious rumbles and growls to keep us on our toes, it’s even less engaging when they’re waltzing around in the daylight without a care in the world. Thankfully, Roberts, Lopez, and Matthews are all functional imitators of actual human conversation and behavior, with only a handful of dialogue stinkers managing to really sink the ship (Mark attempting to freestyle rap is about as painful as it gets). In addition, there’s a successful love triangle subplot that gets teased but never fully developed that would have added an improved personal element to the proceedings (although the truth or dare segment where this gets exposed is a surprisingly deft character beat that once again shows that Barber might not actually be a gun for hire). Nevertheless, there’s really no way around the fact that it’s the same hurried fleeing-with-flashlights that we’ve seen before and will continue to see time and time again.
The actual returns of PHOENIX FORGOTTEN as its own film are middling, but for what it’s worth, it makes a decently strong case for more alien abduction tales in found footage. It’s not as if the Grays have been absent from the subgenre, with many pointing to the 1989 film UFO ABDUCTION as being the first clear installment, but it’s no secret that we’re collectively much more captivated with Satan and possessed dolls in terms of our shaky-cam predilections. While it may just be benefitting from a perceived death of peers, PHOENIX FORGOTTEN is something different than what we’re used to seeing, if nothing else, and I have no doubt that within the next few years we could get something much more chilling from the same general thematic backdrop.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend