Just when you thought it might be safe to take a chance on an unknown low-budget sci-fi/horror straight-to-DVD/download/whatever-takes-your-fancy feature, satisfied that the ‘found footage’ genre seems to have burnt itself out, here comes Phoenix Forgotten to remind us that it’s never a good idea to take anything for granted.
Thriving in the wake – more or less – of the success of the original Blair Witch Project, the best we can say in defence of the ‘found footage’ phenomenon is that it went some way towards demystifying the movie-making process and allowed anyone with a bit of imagination and a halfway decent camera-phone, to knock up a loose-change horror movie, often with the help of a handful of their enthusiastic friends/would-be actors. The flipside to this argument, of course, is that it also allowed rank amateurs who probably shouldn’t really be allowed to even watch films to inflict their deluded cinematic fantasies upon an audience who just want to be entertained for ninety minutes or so.
The wheat/chaff ratio in the ‘found footage’ genre is troublingly skewed towards the chaff-side and Phoenix Forgotten tumbles effortlessly into this category; it’s a film that sadly can only aspire towards being ‘so bad it’s good’. It’s just a dull, lifeless thing which someone made and managed to roll out into a handful of selected US cinemas (presumably because, somehow, Ridley Scott appears on the credits as an executive producer…there’s a story there surely more interesting than anything in the film itself) before landing with a dull thud in the darker corners of the world of online streaming.
It’d be heartening to at least report that there are a few good ideas lurking somewhere in the murk of the usual shakey-cam filming, amateur hour acting and mundane storytelling of Phoenix Forgotten but there’s nothing here – nothing at all – that we’ve not seen a hundred times before, usually done a lot better and with at least some wit, flair and sense of imagination. Ostensibly based on a ‘true event’ from 1997 known as “the Phoenix Lights” where a series of flashing, swooping lights danced above Phoenix, Arizona and, shortly afterwards, a trio of teenagers set out with their camcorder (it was the olden days, after all) to find out the cause of the disturbances and – wait for it – disappeared, never to be seen again.
Twenty years later and an equally feisty pair of camera-hounds – Sophie, the sister of one of the original teens and her boyfriend who, inevitably, is welded to his camera and records everything for the sake of posterity, decide to make a documentary about the disappearance. This involves, naturally, much wobbly-cam action and lots of earnest people discussing the lights and the disappearance of the three kids two decades earlier. This all leads to the moment when Sophie and her camera-wielding chum, after some fairly basic detective work, manage to get their hands on the tape recovered from her brother’s battered, half-melted camera when it was retrieved in the wake of the groups’ disappearance. They play the tape….and that’s it.
What follows is pretty much not only what we might expect but also what we’ve SEEN time and again in ‘found footage’ movies. The three kids journey out into the darkness, clamber around amongst some rocks, indulge in some light flirty banter…and then they are assailed by dazzling lights and deafening noise. Cue much rushing around screaming “Oh my God, oh my God”, shots of running feet as the camera is discarded in the panic, lots more shrieking and then…nothing.
Extraordinarily, the film doesn’t even take us back to see the reaction of Sophie and her boyfriend Mark once they’ve watched the videotape so the audience is pretty much left wondering ‘What was the point of all that exactly?’. And the point is, unfortunately, that there really was no point; Phoenix Forgotten doesn’t tell us anything, it doesn’t shed any new light on something strange which really happened and it doesn’t provide any explanation or closure for the family traumatised by something terrible from their past.
The failure to even provide a simple present-day coda is quite extraordinary and ultimately renders the experience of watching this cheap, mundane little film as a complete waste of time. Perhaps Phoenix Best Forgotten might have been a more appropriate title because this one won’t linger long in the memory of even the most dedicated ‘found footage’ fiend.