PG-13 80 mins. Justin Barber USA 2017
I loved Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project when it first came out in 1999, and I’ve remained a staunch fan ever since. That interest has spilled over onto the found-footage subgenre of horror more generally, and I’m willing to forgive a lot (Why is she still filming what’s going on?) to see what directors can offer in the way of innovation. Sometimes I’ve been pleasantly surprised: Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2007), Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010), Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2013), Creep (Patrick Brice, 2014), and The Break-In (Justin Doescher, 2016) are all worthy horror films. I was excited, then, to hear about Phoenix Forgotten, directed by Justin Barber and written by Barber and T. S. Nowlin and released on April 21, 2017. Found-footage horror was at the theater again—and previews looked promising. Phoenix Forgotten seemed self-consciously to recognize its famous 1999 antecedent, with the billboard prominently featuring three missing teens. Could this be the film to re-create what Myrick and Sánchez accomplished almost twenty years ago?
To give away the punch-line, I was disappointed. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good things about Phoenix Forgotten. The premise is a fascinating one—and the trailer sent me to the Internet to find out about the strange lights seen over Phoenix, Arizona, on the 13th of March, 1997. The story centers on a teen, Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), who captures the lights on film at his little sister, Sophie’s, birthday party. He becomes intent on making a film about them, and, having plotted a likely course for the supposed alien ship, he heads out into the Arizona desert with two friends—Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews). They never come back.
While the central story is Josh, Ashley, and Mark’s, over half of the film, the first half, is set in the present, nearly twenty years later, and it follows Josh’s sister, Sophie (Florence Hartigan), as she too sets out to make a film. Her film, of course, is about the disappearance of her brother and his two friends. She interviews the parents of the teens and those involved in the extensive search twenty years ago. But the heart of her film is the tapes she finds, made by Josh two decades ago. Indeed, Sophie is the first person to find one tape in particular, still inside a battered camera that ended up back at the high school from which it was borrowed, never watched by anyone. Sophie watches the film, the record of what happened to Josh, Ashley, and Mark—and it is this film that constitutes the last thirty minutes or so of Phoenix Forgotten.
I’d like to be able to say that Phoenix Forgotten is an effective “slow-burn” film, but the truth of the matter is that I actually found myself checking the time, wondering when we were going to see what happened to Josh, Ashley, and Matt. Too much of the film is preliminary—tracking Sophie and her rather bland interviews with locals about the events of March 1997. I found myself becoming mildly interested in Sophie, but then at some point, when we start seeing the film Josh recorded in the desert, she utterly disappears from the film. And who she is, and the interviews she conducts, don’t finally shed a whole lot of illumination on the events of 1997. And they also don’t really build suspense. Much of the first part of the film feels like filler—and that’s not good in a film that’s only 80 minutes long.
When the film does shift, finally, to Josh, Ashley, and Mark , there’s only about thirty minutes of the film to go, so there’s little opportunity for viewers to develop an attachment to them. As a result, what happens to them—their interpersonal relationships (Josh likes Ashley but she seems to develop a sudden interest in Mark), their disorientation when they eventually realize they’re lost and the compass doesn’t work, and then their final terror as things get flat-out disturbing—just doesn’t mean as much as it should.
Bottom line: The Blair Witch Project focused on one set of characters (love them or hate them) from beginning to end. In its scant 80 minutes, Phoenix Forgotten tells two relatively discrete stories (Sophie’s and then Josh’s) and neither is developed fully enough to make us care very much. The narrative is too split to draw viewers in.
And finally, the mystery at the center of Phoenix Forgotten is not that interesting. I went to the Internet to find out about the actual Phoenix lights—and the film certainly delivers what is known about what happened on that night in 1997. But it doesn’t do any more with the mystery than that. From beginning to end, the threat, the mystery, at the center of this film remains, well, lights. Here’s where the comparison to The Blair Witch Project really hurts Phoenix Forgotten. There were depths, layers, to the mythology of the Blair Witch, one that tied human actors to supernatural occurrences across centuries. There are no layers to the story at the center of Phoenix Forgotten. In The Blair Witch Project, you were straining to “see,” in all the various meanings of that word—to literally see in the darkness, to grasp the meanings of things (rocks, stick figures, slime), and to understand what the characters were doing. In Phoenix Forgotten you’re so dazzled by the light, you’re blinded. And that’s it.