Phoenix Forgotten [Review by SpecialK]
One of my favorite horror movies, if not my absolute favorite, is Lake Mungo, an unexpected little gem of an Australian film. It’s a faux documentary that centers around a family mourning the loss of a teenage girl, who they mysteriously start seeing around their house long after her death. It’s simple and straightforward enough, yet I watch it again and again and never tire of it. The filmmakers gently but persistently build an ominous mood, hitting all my favorite ghosty pressure points and revealing dark, unexpected secrets along the way.
Phoenix Forgotten closely tracks all the things I love about Lake Mungo. In Phoenix Forgotten, our narrator is the sister of a teenage boy who disappeared with two friends in the desert outside of Phoenix, Arizona. The trio of teens had set out to find answers to the real-life unexplained appearance of a UFO-like string of lights over the city in 1997, but they never returned from their excursion. Now, the sister is back in town, looking for answers about her brother’s disappearance, and of course, making a film. She interviews local experts, family members, and even military officials, and mixes in video recorded by the teenagers themselves.
So what makes it work so well? I think some of it is what has made true crime so maddeningly popular. Many experts have written about the explosion of investigative TV shows and podcasts. They’ve postulated about the “armchair detective” effect of entertainment that walks you through a tragic story as you try to answer “whodunnit” before the 22-minute show is wrapped up with a neat little bow. Jezebel notes that women especially have been drawn to the genre. As of August 2015, just seven years into its existence, Investigation Discovery had become the third-most-watched network among women ages 25-54. After all, as the author notes, the genre “sits at the perfect intersection of reality television’s voyeurism, the realtime sleuthing of a mystery, and the dogged fact-finding of news journalism…”
And perhaps that explains a bit of why Phoenix Forgotten is such a satisfying film—it’s that much more gripping and engaging because you’re piecing together the clues right alongside the sister of the missing teen.
But this ignores a few crucial factors that make this type of film not just entertaining, but also terrifically terrifying. First, found footage. From The Blair Witch Project to the parade of Paranormal Activity films, most good horror movies these days include some primary source material, and I don’t begrudge this development. There’s nothing like some shaky camera action and a few sloppily-focused shots to put you right there alongside the protagonists and tee you up for a good scare. Although it doesn’t build the ominous mood quite as effectively as Lake Mungo, Phoenix Forgotten’s found footage has plenty of solidly dark and terrifying moments that stay with you long after the film ends.
Second, a good mockumentary horror film has got to be convincing. It can be low budget—as the blockbusting Blair Witch effectively demonstrated—but I have to leave the theater wanting to Google the facts of the story to see just how much of it (if any of it) is true. Phoenix Forgotten has a leg up by being based on an actual event—the Phoenix lights—but the surrounding story about the missing teens is just as convincing. I also honestly have no idea how filmmakers manage to write and direct natural dialogue or shoot believable reactions to extraordinarily scary events, but it’s a true skill, and Phoenix Forgotten again is solid here. The teenagers speak—and even more challengingly, flirt—quite naturally, and the interviews make me wonder if the “experts” are real.
Finally, and most importantly, these films exploit a carefully-crafted false sense of security. As Professor Scott Bonn explains, we are “drawn to true crime because it triggers the most basic and powerful emotion in all of us—fear. As a source of popular culture entertainment, it allow[s] us to experience fear and horror in a controlled environment where the threat is exciting but not real.” In other words, you can watch a true crime TV show from the comfort of your own home and keep the fear at a comfortable arm’s length. However, horror films are designed to draw you in, and so it’s that false sense of security that really gives the scares their full effect. In these mockumentaries, you think you’re safe because you know the ultimate outcome of the story right from the get-go—the girl died, or the teenagers were never found—and as the story unfolds, sometimes you even forget that you’re watching a scary movie. That’s right when the filmmakers pounce with an epic, unexpected scare. It’s like waking up and realizing you’re on a roller coaster, and as a true horror fan and adrenaline junkie, I can’t get enough of it.
SpecialK Verdict: Put on your detective cap, set aside what you may love or hate about UFOs, and see Phoenix Forgotten, an unexpectedly satisfying little horror film.
Phoenix Forgotten opened April 21.
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