“The Blair Witch Project” wasn’t the first “found footage” horror picture, though it has proven to be the most imitated.
The latest is “Phoenix Forgotten,” a thriller about — now get this, three young people who set out, with a camcorder and gear, to solve a seemingly unnatural mystery. Then, it was this mythical witch that haunted a dead town long ago and the hunt was in the woods of Maryland, this time it’s “The Phoenix Lights,” a dazzling and under-explained light show that appeared in the skies over Phoenix in March of 1997, with answers sought in the plateaus and desert mountains of Arizona.
Sophie (Florence Hartigan) is in town in something like the present day, helping mom move. But she uses the trip as an excuse to seek answers, and lost videotapes that might connect her long-lost brother with the “Blair Witchy” name, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts) with those infamous “lights.”
On the found tapes, Josh, the smart aspiring journalist he crushes on, Ashley (girl-next-door approachable Chelsea Lopez) and his pal Mark (Justin Matthews) set out for answers in the desert and later, among the Apache, taking Mark’s “Grand Jeep Cherokee” on the quest.
Forget for a moment that no redblooded teenage American boy would miss-ID his first set of wheels, and we’re quickly made aware of what works with this Ridley Scott produced no-budget sci-fi spin on “Blair Witch,” and what doesn’t.
The framing device, the modern inquest into what happened to Sophie’s brother 20 years ago, is dull, limply-acted and filmed. The resolution of the mystery is laughably derivative and lame.
But the grainy, clumsy old tapes of that original search captures an almost Spielbergian/J.J. Abrams level teen reality that is delightful. Josh’s behind-the-camera questions and encouragement of Ashley is awkward and needy. And as Ashley, Lopez corrects clumsy journalistic practices (asking “close-ended” yes-or-no questions) and gets across a focused curiosity that hints at a future that might have been.
Watch Ashley Foster, the character, impersonate Jodie Foster, heroine/actress, in a scene from a movie (“Contact”) that was new when “The Phoenix Lights” lured the “Phoenix Forgotten” off the map.
Director Barber makes the period video look exactly like misplaced family home movies — rolling picture, static, shaky, the works.
But there’s not nearly enough here to justify the heavyweights among the producer credits, making “Phoenix Forgotten” a bit too apt in its title — an abandoned movie doomed to be forgotten in, oh, about a week’s time.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for terror, peril and some language
Credits:Directed by Justin Barber, script by and Justin Barber and T.S. Nowlin. A Cinelou release.
Running time: 1:27