Surprises might be at a premium but expectation is definitely served in Justin Barber’s accomplished found footage horror Phoenix Forgotten.
Boosted by a true life mystery and the presence of Ridley Scott as executive producer, debuting director Justin Barber had budget and Hollywood clout on his side. And you can see the full extent of that in Phoenix Forgotten. This effective found footage horror film mixes a girl documenting her search for her brother with grainy “lost” footage depicting his final movements before disappearance with an appealing ambiguity that helps ramp up the tension.
It’s nice to see a found footage film sidestep the genre’s over-reliance on evil entities haunting woods and houses even if Barber sticks closely to the conventions that make this type of film tick. But, by combining the high definition digital spark of Sophie’s (Florence Hartigan) investigative documentary with her brother Josh’s (Luke Spencer Roberts) low quality analogue-taped search for aliens in the Arizona wilderness injects freshness to tried and trusted tropes.
Phoenix Forgotten takes its cues from the sighting of a UFO in Phoenix, Arizona in March, 1997. Many people reported seeing lights in formation with footage recorded at the time depicting what appear to be unexplainable objects in the night sky. In Barber’s film, impressionable, eager teenager Josh, having witnessed the “Phoenix Lights” himself, decides to record his search for the truth, taking friends Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez), Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) and a video cassette camcorder into the desert to find E.T.
Inevitably, the film takes off in its last 25 minutes which depict the fateful night the trio and their footage get “lost”. Yet, Phoenix Forgotten keeps things interesting, particularly by building the suspense through Sophie’s interviews with family, law enforcement and witnesses which complement the film’s unsettling sense of the unknown and lay the foundations for the horrors to come.
Barber’s direction also keeps things simple. He doesn’t over-indulge in special effects, recognising how crucial credibility is to making or breaking the found footage film. The performances should be complemented too, a naturalness supporting the film’s authenticity before the expected screams and chaos.
Admittedly, there are a few plots holes – the characters talk about how Contact is a favourite movie of theirs even though it wouldn’t have been released until after their disappearance – but they can be brushed under the carpet without pushing your sense of disbelief beyond acceptable limits.
And, while tackling a different kind of paranormal activity, Barber can’t hide his appreciation of found footage granddaddy The Blair Witch Project with inspiration at best pastiche, at worst straightforward copy and paste. The co-writer and director also shows his inexperience letting Sophie’s side-plot disappointingly fizzle out.
But for fans of the genre, Phoenix Forgotten is one of the more satisfying films. It’s a technically accomplished found footage horror which, while relying on convention, offers appealing thrills in delivering a nerve-jangling addition to the alien abduction niche. Surprises might be at a premium but expectation is definitely served.
Written by Dan Stephens
Directed by: Justin Barber
Written by: T.S. Nowlin, Justin Barber
Starring: Chelsea Lopez, Florence Hartigan, Justin Matthews, Luke Spencer Roberts
Released: 2017 / Genre: Found Footage Horror / Science Fiction
Country: USA / IMDB
Top 10 Films reviewed Phoenix Forgotten courtesy of Signature Entertainment which releases the film on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital HD September 18, 2017