I’ve made my feelings on found footage films pretty clear in my brief time here at the Niner Times. While there were some films that really turned the sub-genre on its head, the trend has quickly devolved into the laughing stock of the horror community. Last year, Lionsgate really hyped up the official sequel to “The Blair Witch Project” with “Blair Witch,” a film that I gave a decent review upon first watch, but soon found myself wondering why I ever gave that film the score I gave it. Even though “Phoenix Forgotten” had most of the characteristics of a standard found footage film, there were a few things that stuck out to me from the very start. The last person I expected to be a part of the production team of a low-budget sci-fi horror film would be Ridley Scott, as his mark on the genre typically only goes as far as bigger studio pieces, rarely ever getting into independent territory, and with Scott being one of my favorite filmmakers, I knew that “Phoenix Forgotten” had something about it that other found footage films didn’t. Throw in the creative team behind “The Maze Runner” too, and you have piqued my interest with very low expectations.
And yet, somehow, “Phoenix Forgotten” works. It’s not perfect by any means, but it works.
Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is a documentary filmmaker focusing a feature of the disappearance of her brother (Luke Spencer Roberts) and two of his friends (Chelsea Lopez and Justin Matthews) in 1997 after the strange appearance of unexplained lights hovering over Phoenix. After discovering that her brother was also making a documentary at the time of disappearance on the Phoenix Lights. Upon discovery of the tapes, Sophie sets out to get as much information as she can from the locals involved with the search for her brother, as she seeks to find the missing last tape that seeks to explain what happened to the teenagers.
The best part about “Phoenix Forgotten” is that it feels like a proper documentary and not just a vapid teenager holding a camera for no real reason. Sophie is a character who knows what she’s doing with a camera and some editing software, and it truly feels like a fictional magnum opus of a documentary filmmaker. That being said, judging by the vast difference in the film’s trailer as opposed to what the film actually ends up being might throw some people off. “Phoenix Forgotten” takes on the pace of a documentary, spending just as much time learning about the details of the characters than about the horrors that happened to them. This sort of true documentary-style polish and editing capabilities make “Phoenix Forgotten” feel much more like a dramatic mockumentary than a typical found-footage film.
If “Phoenix Forgotten” has a major problem, it would be that it isn’t particularly scary, but rather subtly haunting. When dealing with handheld camera work, aliens actually work really well as the subject, as they’re elusive and unknown to us that we can get away with the format, but with that, you’re left not knowing much of the true nature of the beings at hand here. While the faux-documentary itself feels like a vast discovery for humankind, the horror aspect of the film truly feels like what someone with a camera during this sort of situation would do: not necessarily care about the clarity of the image. This leaves us with more haunting, brief images of horror than that of a straight-up view of evil, but this still leaves a strange pit in your stomach that’s hard to explain. As a viewer, you won’t be gripping your armrests in sheer terror at “Phoenix Forgotten,” but you will find yourself looking to the sky later and thinking of the film that has stuck with you more than you would’ve thought it would have.
As for the acting in the film, I ended up not noticing anything particularly flashy or bad once the film picked up, which actually ended up working in its favor. In mockumentary movies such as this, you don’t want to think that there’s an actor on screen reading a script, but rather a human ad-libbing as much of their real life as they can, which “Phoenix Forgotten” does very nicely. This also transfers well into the time period of the older tapes found, which really does feel nicely at home in its mid-late-90s feel about it. It doesn’t beat you over the head with cultural references, but subtly inserts small bits of conversation and characterizations that one would not be able to see today in any modern teen.
While “Phoenix Forgotten” takes on the pace of a documentary, I could’ve used the film being a bit longer. Upon the inevitable discovery of the final tape, the film just kind of plays out the events and ends the film with a sort of abrupt resolution that you get from many of the lesser found footage movies that “Phoenix Forgotten” is trying to distance itself from. Had “Phoenix Forgotten” just given audiences 10 more minutes of a conclusion surrounding Sophie, rather than the horrific events that happened to her brother and his friends, the third act of this film would feel much more complete and far more haunting.
Even so, I was actually shocked by how much I enjoyed “Phoenix Forgotten.” I’m sure the film will fade from my memory by year’s end, but it’s a film that I honestly would agree to revisit to open up more lore that I think “Phoenix Forgotten” might be hiding underneath the surface. It was a bit sad that my theater was completely empty when I saw the film yesterday, but for what an intimate, haunting and surprisingly touching experience the film is, it helped with the experience, even if the film will most likely bomb. With the final product of the film, I can see why Scott attached his name and logo to the film, as it’s much smarter than one might think from the surface, and likely a step in the right direction for Scott to do more different material. “Phoenix Forgotten” doesn’t resurrect the found footage genre by any means, but for there to still be even a little bit of life found in the genre is impressive enough.
Directed by: Justin Barber
Starring: Florence Hartigan, Chelsea Lopez, Justin Matthews, Luke Spencer Roberts.
Runtime: 87 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for terror, peril and some language.
Cinelou Films presents, a Cinelou Films/Scott Free/Oddball/Singular production, in association with The Fyzz Facility/Shenghua Entertainment/Tianmu Investments/Chunchiu Media, “Phoenix Forgotten”