Friday, August 4, 2017

Past Misdeeds: The Alien Encounters (1979)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Astronomer Alan Reed (Augie Tribach) is up in Alaska with his family, manning a telescope in the search for life in outer space. One day, Reed seems to be on the verge of a major breakthrough observing radio signals coming from Barnard's Star, but he gets a bit distracted from that - as well as a potential UFO sighting - by the house his wife and little son are in going up in flames in a gas explosion.

With his family dead, Reed crawls into a bottle until the sudden realization hits him that the last signals he got from Barnard's Star seem to have contained an actual voice saying something in an alien language (note: the audience never gets to hear it that way). Reed stops drinking at once and turns into one of those holy crusaders roaming the American highways in search of the Truth, researching alien encounters, ghost sightings and so on, everywhere.

Five years later, Reed arrives at the house of the widow (Patricia Hunt) and teenage son (Matthew Boston) of one Dr. Arlyn. Arlyn has written quite a few books on Reed's favourite topic, and was supposed to be building a machine for human cell regeneration called the Betatron (not to be confused with the Metatron or that guy from the bible) before he died. Obviously, our hero has a few questions about that. It will take quite a few scenes of sitting and flashbacking and hiking through deserts and hills while flashbacking until the Arlyns trust Reed enough to point him in the direction of a truth containing benevolent aliens, flying silver spheres and the evil men in black (who, disappointingly, don't wear black). Somehow, there's also room for a short flashback visit, a rather slow car chase sequence and some hair-curdling soft rock (alas not with lyrics actually connected to what's happening on screen) in the film. And yes, Mister Mulder, they have been here for a very long time.

I still fondly remember James T. Flocker's Ghosts That Still Walk as a wonderfully peculiar example of US independent local filmmaking, so I went into the same director's The Alien Encounters with some hope, but also a certain amount of trepidation based on my experience that many of the most interesting local films of this type come by their value through a rather alchemical process which might not necessarily be repeatable in a second movie. Turns out my hope was more justified than my trepidation.
However, before I come to that, I have to give the usual warnings about movies of this type: if you can't ignore a film's obvious technical flaws in favour of its odd (perhaps dubious) charms, this just isn't for you. So, yes, The Alien Encounters has all the problems I went in expecting from it: the acting's rather wooden (although lead Augie Tribach's long rambling off-screen narration that at times gives the whole affair the feel of a very weird pseudo-documentary in the Charles B. Pierce mould is much better than his on-screen acting), the shot composition is often bland, and the script tends to go on and on with scenes that exist for no particular reason, or takes detours into not always necessary and nearly always overlong flashbacks without moving the plot (such as it is) forward one iota, until it's not always clear if you're watching a movie, or a movie is circling around you, ready to pounce or fall asleep.

What the film has going for it makes being patient often worthwhile, though - and is certainly where my hopes for Flocker were fulfilled. Even with its director's not exactly exciting visual style, Alien Encounters still manages to build a peculiar mood of (a bit awkward) otherness out of its own flaws. There's often a point in a movie when rambling pacing turns from boring to hypnotically interesting for me and the film at hand reaches it early and with skewed enthusiasm. Plus, there's also the thing even a lack of budget and experience can't ruin - landscape. One should never underestimate the possibility of something as simple as rocky hills and desert to turn from quotidian to slightly odd in a viewer's mind when a movie just insists on showing enough of it, and that's exactly what happened to me with The Alien Encounters. Once the natural world has turned strange, it only takes a little effort to find the classic US UFO mythology in the movie fascinating again instead of played out.

Still, said UFO mythology certainly is the film's weak point compared to Flocker's more imaginative Ghosts. The older movie was particularly effective in mashing up some of the 70s' greatest paranormal hits with really peculiar ideas very much Flocker's own; The Alien Encounters just tries to reproduce stories that everyone has heard a thousand times before (even though, honestly, I like these stories), and only comes into its own in what may seem like accidents of production. Or would seem like accidents if Ghosts didn't suggest Flocker to be a man with peculiar interests and talents hell-bent on putting them on screen, even if it means packaging them inside of forteana's greatest hits.

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