The McPherson Tape

One of the joys of attending Fantastic Fest is discovering hidden or forgotten gems through its repertory programming. Last year they played the French thriller Dial Code Santa Claus, which is about a kid forced to fend off against a home invader on Christmas, which came out a couple of years before Macaulay Culkin ate his cheese pizza in Home Alone, and was never released in the US.  This year they offered a different yet equally fascinating “lost” film. This time around, Fantastic Fest audiences were treated to a one-time-only screening of what has been called the very first horror found-footage movie The McPherson Tape, made in 1989 – 10 years before The Blair Witch Project. 

On October 8, 1983, the McPherson family had reason enough to celebrate. Mom (Shirly McCalla) is a recent widow who just wants to see her kids. Eric (Tommy Giavocchini), the oldest brother and the first one to get married, wants to gather the family for the first time in a while to celebrate the fifth birthday of his daughter Michelle (Laura Tomas), the youngest member of the household. Then there’s Jason (Patrick Kelley), the middle brother who is coming home from college and bringing his girlfriend to meet the family, and finally 16-year-old Michael (director Dean Alioto), the youngest brother who hasn’t figured out what he wants in life. Like any other family, the brothers are constantly bickering, which results in hilarious banter that gets interrupted after the candles are blown, the presents are exchanged, and the aliens show up.

The film, known as U.F.O. Abduction on IMDB, or as the TV remake Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, is actually quite known among UFO enthusiasts, but it never reached the big screen until this year when a copy of the film was finally found and restored. That’s right, folks! Fantastic Fest showed an honest-to-God “found” found-footage movie.

“It all started because I wanted to make my first feature by age 25,” writer-director-cameraman-actor Dean Alioto told /Film after the film’s world premiere in Austin. “All my favorite directors had made their debuts by that age and I didn’t want to be left behind. By that point I had dropped out of film school and was just eager to make films. I made a producer who said he wanted to invest $6,500 and I kind of laughed it off and said the only thing I could do for that money is a home video. At the time I had been reading this memoir called Communion by Whitley Strieber, who described his own abduction by aliens. So, I decided to take the abduction storyline and embed it into a home video.”

Though it was made 10 years before The Blair Witch Project, the fact that The McPherson Tape was never properly released makes this author curious about how necessity dictated such similar styles of filmmaking in both movies. As Alioto told us, the tiny budget forced him to go handheld and give the film a homemade look, and to make it feel authentic he chose to have the actors improvise. “So I wrote out a 10 page beat sheet with the description of every scene,” Alioto explained. “Everything outside of that was improvised. I gave the actors short backstories, but they filled in the blanks themselves.” Alioto not only writes and directs but is in the movie as the brother who is recording the whole thing. “I thought I could just cue people by screaming ‘Oh my God, what is that?’ and pan the camera over and everyone would know to go to the next scene.”

Though advertised as a horror movie – and it certainly has its fair share of spooky moments – The McPherson Tape has less in common with The Blair Witch Project and more with America’s Funniest Home Videos. This is due to the funny and relatable chemistry between the brothers who keep fighting over stupid things, and the dialogue constantly overlaps, with every character seemingly fighting for screen time by talking louder. Funny enough, Alioto mentions that this was a common criticism from distributors at the time, but today we are much more used to overlapping dialogue thanks to filmmakers like Robert Altman.

Alioto takes advantage of the home video format and the plot of the movie to make the camerawork seem amateurish. Far from the film students that try to capture footage of a witch in Maryland, Alioto’s camera is at times unfocused or pointing at the wrong thing or even left alone on a table while the action happens off-screen. In addition, most of the film is shot in one take – adding to the charm and believability of the film that helped it spread in the ‘90s.

It turns out that no one in 1989 wanted a found footage movie. After being rejected by every person in town, Dean Alioto found a distributor, except the warehouse burned down and destroyed his master tape and all artwork for the movie. That’s devastating for a first-time director, but few get to experience what Alioto has. About five years later, new life was given to The McPherson Tape. “I got a phone call for a guy saying that he just found this footage,” Alioto told us, laughing. “I kid you not, he actually said that. Then he says that my name came up and describes the movie. I tell him that I didn’t find the movie, I made it. He tells me that he saw it at the International UFO Congress Convention, which is the biggest UFO convention in the world, and that the movie was presented with no credits.”

As Alioto tells it, back in the ‘80s small distributors would send video tapes to mom and pop video stores as advance copies. Though it never screened at a theater, and was never given proper and legal distribution, Alioto suddenly found his lost little movie being passed around as a legitimate abduction video in the UFO community. It didn’t help that a Lieutenant Colonel from Air Force Intelligence saw this home video about how the birthday party goes wrong once the power goes out and the brothers find an UFO outside their house and claimed that the tape was absolutely real.

“It gets better,” Alioto excitedly told /Film. “The guy that told me all this then said that there are some TV shows that want to do a story on the movie, including Unsolved Mysteries, Hard Copy, and a FOX show called Encounters. I told him the first one was out because this mystery was pretty much solved. But we went with Encounters and they did this seven-minute segment that they did on ‘The world’s greatest UFO hoax’ for their program in the early ‘90s. I went on national TV and debunked my own movie.”

Except the debunking only fueled the urban legend of the birthday party that was crashed by aliens. The Encounters segment only helped make the film even more popular, and it led to a TV remake with Dick Clark Productions at UPN. After showing a TV executive and showing the Encounters segment, Alioto got what he describes as his first Hollywood deal – one that came with a sizeable budget increase. “They told me I had 1.25 million,” he told us. “I had a full-blown anxiety attack since I had never handled that much money.” But the TV remake was made, with the company that did the effects for The X-Files working on the ship and the aliens. 

The movie, named Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, aired in 1998, still before The Blair Witch Project, and was a huge ratings success for UPN, causing the network to add more footage to the broadcast, including interviews with real UFO experts talking about the very fake alien footage from the movie – including a segment in which Alioto himself appears as a special effects director and endorses the authenticity of the movie. “Things got blown out of proportion,” Alioto laughed and told us. “News channels did exposés on the movie, and people started believing that the original VHS footage was real, and that the government had hired me to make the TV remake as part of a disinformation campaign to discredit the original.”

In the decade and a half since then, Dean Alioto has spent a portion of his free time going online and debunking the hundreds of posts claiming that his 1989 movie was real, showing the behind-the-scenes pictures of the kids who played the aliens, to no avail. Because his master tape was burned, in order to remaster the film for the Fantastic Fest screening, Alioto went online and found a bootleg copy of the full film from the mom and pop advanced screenings and ripped his own movie.

“I think that’s legal,” Alioto said.

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