For more than a century, residents and visitors to Brown Mountain, North Carolina have reported on the Brown Mountain Lights, an unexplained phenomenon that’s inspired bluegrass songs, an X-Files episode, and numerous conspiracy theories. YouTube features dozens of eyewitness videos of the so-called “ghost lights,” and interviews with paranormal researchers and people who believe they’re the result of extraterrestrial activity. With all the subtle nuance of its title, the new movie Alien Abduction adopts the “based on true events” approach, documenting alien interference in a plausible way. (To conspiracy theorists, at least.) The result is a rote, unimaginative entry in the found-footage subgenre of science-fiction/horror. It looks better than a YouTube video, but it’s rarely more engaging.
The gimmick is that the entire film—except a few title cards assuring viewers that the footage they are about to see has been recovered and verified by the U.S. Air Force—is taken from the home movies of an 11-year-old autistic boy named Riley Morris (Riley Polanski). Riley and his family are vacationing around Brown Mountain when he, his older sister Jillian (Jillian Clare), and older brother Corey (Corey Eid) all witness strange, bright lights in the sky outside their campsite. On the road the next day, mom Katie (Katherine Sigismund) can't get a cell-phone signal and dad Peter (Peter Holden) panics when the car’s GPS starts malfunctioning. Things get worse, but despite the fogbound woods, an empty tank of gas, and a shower of dead crows falling from the sky, Peter is determined to make this vacation work, portentous omens be damned.
The basic setup of the doomed family entering the woods, only to be snatched up, one after another, by monstrous unseen elements, is by now familiar to the point of boredom. The found-footage aesthetic, shot almost entirely from Riley’s point of view, only fitfully mitigates the predictability of the narrative. Riley’s autism provides a unique window into the preoccupations of a child who’s more interested in the details than the big picture. In one scene, Riley films a caterpillar crawling on a log in the foreground, while in the background, his mother and sister build a booby-trapped alarm to alert of them about oncoming aliens. Riley’s fascination with insects is an apt metaphor for the relationship between the Morris family and their extraterrestrial abductors.
While Alien Abduction makes a smart choice by eliminating ineffectual Peter early on, the fate of the rest of the Morris clan is never in doubt. After escaping an initial alien attack, Riley and his family take shelter in a nearby cabin, under the protection of an ornery but obliging hillbilly (Jeff Bowser). There, the family is terrorized by blinding white lights and a droning, vaguely metallic noise that announces the arrival of their alien abductors. (They’re heeeere.) When Riley’s camera does get a good look at the aliens, they’re disappointingly typical; innovative creature design isn’t part of the filmmakers’ ambition, and the “cabin in the woods” ambience is lifted from any number of horror films. Yes, the alien-afflicted hunker down with shotguns, and yes, one or more members of the group leave the cabin, though the others insist they should stick together. Despite its manner-of-fact title, Alien Abduction could just as well have been about ghosts, psycho killers, vampires, or any other supernatural boogeymen. The Brown Mountain Lights simply serve as a real-life pretext for a boilerplate story full of anonymous horror archetypes and customary science-fiction imagery.
While the found-footage trick is the film’s one point of interest, it’s also its biggest hindrance. Alien Abduction almost looks too good; its moments of fuzzy static and jagged edits seem too calculated and smooth. Riley’s autism similarly seems like a pretext for the fastidious camerawork and minute attention to detail. The pre-title sequence is technically impressive, but it nearly gives away the ending of the film, undercutting any dramatic impact from the footage that follows. (The film even features a post-credits stinger, setting up the possibility of a sequel that the story never warrants.) Science-fiction premise aside, the story is horror-by-numbers. But a horror movie without a unique monster, creative kills, or a sense of humor doesn’t offer much in a glutted marketplace.