Independent filmmaking is like a state lottery: Someone wins a prize just often enough to keep encouraging all the hopefuls who never get anywhere. This month, first-time director Matty Beckerman and first-time writer Robert Lewis grabbed the brass ring with a little movie shot in Burke, Avery and Watauga counties.
IFC Films is distributing "Alien Abduction," which opens Friday at Ayrsley Grand Cinemas in Charlotte and elsewhere around the country. The low-budget film "explains" the source of the Brown Mountain Lights, which have been attributed in real life to anything from swamp gas to Air Force flyovers. In this case, aliens have been dropping in on North Carolinians for decades, as a family vacationing in Pisgah National Forest learns to its dismay. Here's a sample:
The movie lacks narrative imagination. The plot is thin as a fingernail. We never find out whether the aliens are studying us, eating us or kicking us around for amusement. (They're the slender, almond-eyed, malevolent extraterrestrials we've seen many times.) Human characters have little personality. The "We're out of gas in the deep woods and unable to escape" motif made me smile.
At the same time, the filmmakers do one thing extremely well: They use quick cuts, fragments of sound and snippets of video to convey the confused terror these humans feel. Their budget may be limited, but their ability to hint at horror without actually filming it is not.
Fifteen years have passed since "The Blair Witch Project" revived the found-footage genre memorably. Like that film, "Alien Abduction" purports to be made up of video discovered by authorities near the spot where the victims disappeared. The basic conceit doesn't work as well here, because the footage is shot by an autistic boy who uses a video camera as a security blanket (and who doesn't behave like any autistic person I have met or heard about).
But Beckerman has a fine sense of when to speed up or slow down, how much or how little to reveal to make us squirm. Though the 83-minute film consists of many long chases in semi-darkness, the director maintains a consistent sense of unease. An amusing coda leaves us with one final jolt (Yes!) and the possibility of a sequel (Please, no!) What will mainly happen, I suspect, is that filmmakers with equally little money but far less of an idea how to pace a movie will try for that same brass ring -- but few will grasp it.