German indie horror flick UFO begins in true Blair Witch fashion, with a young group of students filming a documentary. Coming from a film student who is learning similar production techniques, I can appreciate these opening shots. One person holds up a plastic card to gauge the white balance while another assesses the costuming of the subject of the interview while another asks for a sound level check.
As the group prepares and begins the interview of two workers at a zoo, the animals start going crazy over what appears to be a comet falling out of the sky. The film crew makes the democratic decision to ditch their zoo documentary in order to chase the fallen space object.
Even with the knowledge of the film being a found footage “student” film in the footsteps of The Blair Witch Project (itself receiving the reboot/sequel treatment earlier this year), UFO does not look particularly pleasing. As we follow the group in their van we are greeted with a distinct lack of lighting. It is not high contrast shadows over faces for effect, it is simply a series of poorly planned shots that are poor not because they are staged as non-professional but because they are poorly planned.
Perhaps a slack aesthetic is something that is easily overlooked in cases such as these, but, coming from a non-fan of found footage horror save for the occasional exception, it takes away from the suspense of the film. Focusing on a poor shot or being hampered with excessive handheld motion is a distracting element that stilts horror elements. Take this reviewer’s words with a grain of salt if you have a soft spot for found footage.
After one of their members gets lost in the woods (in a rather effective inaugural scare), the crew recovers his camera and playback the footage to see him get attacked by an unseen creature. No cell phone service (ugh), and thus no police, they venture out into the woods in search of him.
UFO has a very similar trajectory to Blair Witch. A group of film students get lost in the woods while an unseen entity harasses them. It is not a bad trajectory to follow, given Blair Witch‘s smashing success. But it also isn’t anything new in terms of plot or character, of which there is little.
What I mean to say is, there are no real characters in the film. Even reading subtitles, one would be hard pressed to remember names of any of the ensemble. The idea that character is optional in the horror genre is, like found footage aesthetic, something that feels more lazy than inventive. There is something to be said for a statement of cinema voyeurism: that the spectators watch to scratch a sadomasochistic itch and characters within the film are totems as opposed to actual people a la The Cabin in the Woods.
It doesn’t feel, though, that UFO is making a statement about horror cinephilia. A few character traits, then, could have went a long way.
What UFO does have is, like Blair Witch, an intriguingly restrained mythology. Nothing is quite thrown in your face in the way of exposition, yet there is a clear sense of trouble in River City, so to speak. Animals acting up, including birds flying in line away from our filmographers. An almost ritualistic use of organic matter, which is used on trees in a similar fashion to Blair Witch‘s stick figures. There is an efficient sense of dread that is established almost immediately.
What we do see is crafted with effects work that looks great given whatever the budget of this film must be. Where other found footage films can be impressive for what you don’t see—indeed, one scene here involving panning in the dark over trees is simplistic yet incredibly tense—UFO may be more fascinating for what you do see, even if it is only in flashes over faux camera distortion.
This is the saving grace of UFO. If you can stomach the same old found footage affair, complete with false jump scares, lackluster plotting, and absent character development, then UFO has enough going for it to satisfy your horror needs. It may be derivative of films like The Blair Witch Project and Alien, but it utilizes its limiting camera to strong effect. While a low budget film, it has effects and makeup work that is surprisingly well-engineered. It certainly doesn’t get points for originality, but it is not devoid of entertainment value, all things considered. It is a found footage horror movie for the found footage horror fan.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)