Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
The "Phoenix Lights" conspiracy theory practically loans itself to being adapted into a film by way of the found footage genre. Last year, The Phoenix Incidentwas released in theaters in conjunction with the nineteenth anniversary of the 1997 event where thousands witnessed several glowing orbs break through the night sky and eventually dissolve into nothingness. That film drummed up little in the way of press or box office receipts, and with the way the found footage stock has fallen considerably in the last couple years, I don't expect Phoenix Forgotten - a film with a budget and a marketing push not much larger than it similarly conducted counterpart - to be much more commercially successful.
This is a shame because, in a way, Phoenix Forgottengoes against the grain of what many of us expect from the genre. For one, it ordinarily takes about twenty to thirty minutes for these films to truly get going and inspire any kind of interest outside of basic setup. Phoenix Forgotten hits the ground running, however, showing the life of a young boy named Josh Bishop, a spunky teenager who was entranced by the Phoenix lights since witnessing and capturing them with his personal camcorder during his sister's birthday party. Josh was fascinated by the event, sharing his own theories and findings with his family and friends, Ashley Foster and Mark Abrams.
Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez
21 April 2017
Steve's Grade: C+
But when Josh set out to explore a far-off desert in Arizona with Ashley and Mark in hope of catching another glimpse at the soaring lights, he never returned. Weeks and months of searching by the Arizona Police Department proved for naught and not only left inconclusive results, but nothing in the way of an explanation as to what happened to the three teens. No bodies, just an abandoned SUV with some bloodstains and beer cans.
Josh's surviving sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) decides to commit to making a documentary about her brother and the mysterious events surrounding his disappearance. The first fifty minutes intercut her documentary footage with old home movies and Josh's own recorded tapes to great effect. Unlike many found footage films in their opening minutes, this does a startlingly competent job at building intrigue and suspense from the very beginning. The final thirty minutes, however, discard the great setup after Sophie discovers a never-before-discovered tape of the events leading up to Josh and his friends' disappearance. It's more traditional found footage, complete with noises, lights, jump-scares, freak events, and a lot of broken or distorted videography.
The final thirty minutes of Phoenix Forgotten is far from unwatchable, but it's also a bit too pedestrian. Its 180 reversal on its structure and narrative is jarring, and the film never returns to Sophie's documentary nor her reaction to watching the footage. Writer/Director Justin Barber and co-writer T.S. Nowlin would've been smart not to show all of this footage at once, or stick to the previous hour's dedication of blending documentary footage with recovered footage. Sophie's story, unfortunately, is left open and unfinished.
But Phoenix Forgotten does a lot with a little, and despite favoring Paranormal Activity-esque occurrences over extraterrestrial ones late in the game, it's convincingly and attractively retro in style without going overboard. Its camera equipment is a wonderful throwback to the days when "found footage" meant bulky VHS camcorders and cassette tapes that contained the audio of the film, and its commitment to the style is refreshingly throwback without being kitschy or nostalgic.
As stated, the extreme saturation of the found footage genre cannot be overstated, and it will likely be the reason why Phoenix Forgotten doesn't get much more of a push than The Phoenix Incident other than the fact you could more than likely bring it up in conversation with a person who has at least heard of it but admittedly not seen it. When Blair Witchsignificantly disappointed in theaters last September, I knew that was a sign of the impending death of found footage films ("death" meaning most will be lucky to net a couple million in profit after marketing rather than the grossly high figures and earnings of Paranormal Activity).
I haven't felt like this conflicted about how to really summarize a horror movie experience I marginally enjoyed but found greater problems with that were big enough not to ignore since Chernobyl Diaries, a film that also prompted an unhealthy, brewing obsession with a calamitous and controversial event. I've come to enjoy the genre's offerings more than most, and I do recognize that as I end my mixed review of Phoenix Forgotten with a wink and a nudge to you, to throw a few dollars down and be entertained.