AGFA: The McPherson Tape (1989) - Reviewed

While the use of cinema verité to simulate the idea of faux documentary footage of real events has been employed in cinema for years, including but not limited to Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, the technique up to that point was rarely used for the duration of an entire feature.  In 1989 however, that changed with the underground tape release of what became known among ufologists and supposed alien abductees as The McPherson Tape

Circulating for a long time as UFO Abduction and shot on ¾” camcorder videotape, this homegrown no-budget production about a family celebrating their 5-year-old daughter’s birthday when their home is besieged by extraterrestrials who presumably abduct the family.  Opening with a fuzzy tagline indicating what we’re about to see is genuine, the film is best known not for technical or acting bravado but for just how many people were fooled by this thing.

Part haunted-house thriller, part science-fiction horror, the one-hour long The McPherson Tape seen now is evidently a family endeavor with local neighbors cast as the aliens and a hastily rendered alien spacecraft, revealed to be something of a treehouse in the extras.  Seen through the rough videotaped footage, remarkably well preserved considering a warehouse fire at the film’s original distribution company prevented the film from being seen for years, the blurry aesthetic winds up making the whole thing feel oddly real.

Not unlike the radio broadcast Orson Welles unleashed on the unsuspecting public with The War of the Worlds, people believed this to be undeniable evidence of the existence of extraterrestrials.  Funnier still, some even refused to accept writer-director-producer-actor Dean Alioto’s own admission the whole endeavor was a hoax. 

Years later, Dean Alioto would revisit the world of The McPherson Tape again in the form of a souped up big budgeted remake named Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.  A bit longer than the original film and aired on the UPN Network in 1998 with faux interviews by “experts” reviewing the tape, this new and improved The McPherson Tape caused some measure of controversy and confusion.  People couldn’t identify which film came first, which was “real” and which one was “fake” due to the lack of disclaimers.

Whether or not The McPherson Tape was the first film to jump start the found-footage subgenre of horror or science fiction is debatable, but what’s undeniable is that whether the film works or not is secondary to the overarching impact it had.  Somehow managing to fool many even after the cat was let out of the bag by the filmmakers and even spawning an expensive effects-heavy remake, the mark left by The McPherson Tape is plain as day.  

No this isn’t some hidden gem unearthed for the first time by the American Genre Film Archive, who gave this a loving makeover replete with the filmmakers’ involvement.  But it is an important footnote in the development of one of science-fiction horror’s most successful and prolific subgenres. 

--Andrew Kotwicki