Written by Stu Cooper
Have you ever seen footage of something you swore was real? Something that made you question what you were witnessing? Well if you grew up in the late 80's or 90's, you may have seen some kind of “alien” footage. It might have been an abduction, it might have been an autopsy, or it might have been...The McPherson Tape. The McPherson Tape is officially the first ever found footage film. It predates Blair Witch Project by a decade. The film is shrouded in controversy, and full of questions. In fact, it made the viewers question their own reality. Is what you see on the screen real? Part of something bigger? Thanks to an official Blu-ray release from AGFA and Bleeding Skull, we now have answers.
The McPherson Tape is about a man recording his niece's birthday in 1983, when some bizarre events begin to happen around the family. The recording follows a family made up of 3 brothers, their wives, the niece, and the grandmother. As the recording progresses, we follow what appears to be a normal family home video of a nice dinner, some friendly heckling and gossip, nothing special. That is until the electricity goes out. The brothers go outside to investigate the cause, and that is when they witness a flash of light. The guys immediately travel into the nearby forest to investigate. What they find is something that they can barely comprehend...an alien spacecraft. After witnessing several aliens walking around the craft, the boys scurry back home to alert the family. Unfortunately for them, the aliens caught a glimpse of them and are now in pursuit. What follows is a chaotic one-take shot of the family trying to not only comprehend what is happening, but deal with incoming home invaders! Keep in mind all of this is being recorded by one of the brothers who is trying to deal with the frightening situation by documenting it.
The film is essentially a 63 minute one-take home video. That means there no edits, no cuts, just a solid documentation of events unfolding over the course of one night. The vibe of the film is very realistic given that it's one shot and almost every conversation is made of improvised talking points. The characters begin talking over each other like a real dinner conversation, and the chemistry between them feels very natural. Since this is a found footage film, you're literally watching something that was recorded on a home video recorder in the 1980's, so the quality is not that of a large feature film but it absolutely works to the advantage of the plot. The alien nightmare that the family is experiencing is intentionally vague and low budget. If you found this on a dusty old VHS tape in someone's attic, you may actually believe this is the real deal. And with that, let's get into the REAL story behind The McPherson Tape.
The McPherson Tape is a film made by Director and Star Dean Alioto. Alioto claims to have spent years investigating alien abduction experiences from several people in the UFO community, which inspired him to create a film about it. Since Alioto only had a budget of 6500 dollars, his only option was filming the movie on home video. His idea, as far as I know, birthed the found footage genre. Since his budget was so limited, he filmed the movie as if it was a family's home video, which would more than justify the low video quality and lack of star power. He also had no complete script, just an outline of certain beats that the film needed to hit.
Alioto's approach is something you have to appreciate. Not only did he make a movie for 6500 dollars, but he made a convincing alien abduction found footage film with no script, and only improvised dialogue. I think a lot of it is chocked up to pure luck. The performances from the family members felt real and compassionate. The brothers in the films often riff each other and it feels like a real bond. The Grandmother nurtures the sons and seems genuinely scared and concerned when they venture out. That combined with the creepy birthday party theme and candle lit rooms, establishes a more than unsettling tone.
With the family members connecting, that leaves the special effects which are severely limited. This is definitely the less is more approach. The only effects in the film are the space craft and the alien costumes, both of which are shot in a grainy way that covers up the low budget. The craft was actually constructed for 750 dollars, mostly made of foam board and lights. And the alien costumes are the basic big eyed Grays that were established in early UFO culture. If you closely exam any of these effects, they certainly don't hold up, but in 1989 they are more than passable. Enough so that people continue to believe the footage is real, despite the Director making it clear it's just a film.
With the film created, the director shopped it around and received very little interest. Alioto even met with Vestron video, who was a big schlock distributor at the time, and they said it didn't even qualify as a real film. After relentlessly screening the film for distributors, it eventually found a home. The company that was distributing it even had big plans for the film. The mock up for the VHS case featured tons of quotes from huge media outlets like Rolling Stone and The New York times. Unfortunately the quotes were fake, and an attempt by the distributor to boost the credibility of the film. But before the film could start making the rounds, the distribution warehouse burnt down. During this fire, the master of the film was completely destroyed. Thankfully some copies were already sent out to a few rental places, and the director was able to source the material from those copies.
At this point in the story, it was radio silence. The film never made it to theaters, it had very limited distribution, no master remaining, and the director thought that was the end of the story. Years later Alioto was approached by a Ufologist who asked if he had seen this supposed real found footage film making the rounds at UFO conferences and conventions. Little did he know, it was his film. Someone had edited off the credits and marketed the film as completely real. Attendees at these events were left speechless, thinking they had discovered hard evidence that aliens exist and that an entire family's turmoil was caught on film. To further the macabre nature of this story, a Lt. Colonel with 30 years of military experience swore that the film was real and the closest thing he had seen to actual UFO found footage.
With the discovery of his film's now cult following, Alioto channeled his momentum and started connecting with TV networks about airing the footage. 90's landmarks like Unsolved Mysteries and Hard Copy approached him with offers, but all these shows wanted to market the film as completely legitimate home video. Since that wasn't the truth and he didn't want backlash, the film ended up being shown on a show called Encounters. The segment on Encounters was shown with interview clips strung throughout, with various experts weighing in on the film. Even though the show fully admitted the footage was just a movie, experts consistently believed in it's validity. Some would go as far as to claim the footage was a real home movie under the guise of a film to protect people from “knowing the truth”.
The momentum of the project continued to roll on, eventually becoming a TV special with Dick Clark productions and then the film was remade entirely in 1998 under the name Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. The remake follows a similar premise, with a few special effects added. I would recommend only watching the original McPherson Tape as it is easier to believe. After the remake, things quieted down again until AGFA, Bleeding Skull, and Vinegar Syndrome decided to revisit the film and release a special blu-ray. This is actually the incarnation of the film that I viewed, which is considered “The Director's Cut”. The blu-ray also features the original “Encounters” segment, a Q and A with the Director, and commentary. It's the perfect release for anyone interested in viewing this piece of cinematic history. There is even a moment during the Q and A where the director begins arguing with an audience member about the conspiracy around the film. The audience members comes up to the stage, and is revealed to be one of the cast members. This was proof to the audience that he was not actually abducted. The two went on to explain to the audience how certain aspects of the movie were created, debunking a lot of myths about the origins of it.
So that's it, the story of The McPherson Tape. A film wrapped in controversy, macabre, and wonder. It's a miracle that the film even survived, so if anything just view this film as a marker in time. It's the first found footage film and it will always hold that mantle. Now the real question is, Do you believe the truth is out there? Does Dean Alioto know something we don't? Watch the film and you be the judge. I want to believe.
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