Documentary Review — “On the Trail of UFOs: Dark Sky” has West Virginians seeing…things

In his wry, goofy and prescient radio series “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — later turned into books, a TV series and a feature film — author Douglas Adams wrote of “Teasers.”

“‘Teasers’ are usually rich kids with nothing to do. They cruise around looking for planets which haven’t made interstellar contact yet and buzz them… They find some isolated spot with very few people around, then land right by some poor unsuspecting soul, who no one’s ever going to believe, and then strut up and down in front of ‘em wearing silly antennae on their head and making “beep, beep” noises. Rather childish really.”

If you take the UFO hunting documentary “On the Trail of UFOs: Dark Sky” the least bit seriously, think of it as a celebration of “teasers.” Because if there’s a corner of America that would make most people roll their eyes as a font for “the unexplained” and UFOs, it might be “wild, wonderful West Virginia.” If you’re an alien “rich kid” who wants to do flybys and landings and “visitations” in a place where few will take the eyewitnesses seriously, the Appalachian heartlands would have to be awfully attractive.

Ohio filmmaker Seth Breedlove, who’s made movies about Mothman, “The Flatwoods Monster” and a TV series with the same title, “On the Trail of UFOs” (Is this merely a re-editing of that?), and his Vegas-based hostess/star, Shannon Legro, trek all over West Virginia, “collecting stories,” cataloging the state’s colorful history with “the unexplained.”

The extremely credulous pair visit many folks who relate “episodes of high strangeness” — often from their own youth. More often they speak with other local “collectors” of stories relating this or that second or third or fourth-hand tale, some covered by local newspapers in the 1950s and ’60s.

The eyewitnesses are generally straightforward, if relying on very old memories of something they saw and didn’t understand at this or that time. The local “experts” are a more breathless lot, pondering “lights in the sky” through the lens of conspiracies — “secret military bases” and connections to coal mines or chemical plants, and the arrival of the first “documented” encounter with “Men in Black,” perhaps a chap who called himself “Indrid Cold” who might have been trying to get witnesses to keep quiet about what they claimed they saw.

A funny sidebar. Lowell Cunningham, who created the comic book “Men in Black,” is also from Appalachia — Tennessee — and told me the story of how a friend introduced this urban legend to him while he was in college in Knoxville. Black SUVs near campus? “That’s what the ‘Men in Black’ would drive,” the friend told him. Odd to think of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones as Appalachian lore.

Funnier sidebar — Did Douglas Adams ever visit West Virginia? Is his “lying on my back in the Austrian Alps” staring at the sky “inspiration” for the radio series and all that it spawned a fib? Because a lot of what pops up in this documentary, the yarns spun by the gullible (“You wanna talk about a BOMBSHELL” to the credulous, has a familiar Adams ring to it.

“Hollow Earth,” alien visitors in “haz-mat suits” before anybody knew what they were called, military secrets, “The Grafton Monster,” “The Green Monster,” “Bashful Billy,” Point Pleasant’s “Mothman,” “The Flatwoods Monster” and its associated museum, “On the Trail of UFOs” covers a lot of ground and even points its own camera at the dark sky with some fellow enthusiasts and gets images that will convince…nobody.

The most credible material here might be the samples of 1950s “flying saucer mania” movies, connecting all this to Atomic Age zeitgeist in perhaps the most paranoid corner of a pretty paranoid country.

The most interesting interviewee is the late West Virginia folklorist, storyteller and paranormal buff Susan Sheppard, who relates the lore matter-of-factly, noting how “stories are told and retold” in that part of the world, where population density is thin, economic and educational opportunities are more limited but yarn spinning is an Irish and Scotch-Irish birthright.

With the military adding to the chorus of “There’s something out there,” documentaries like this are flying out of the editing (or re-editing) bays of anyone who has “collected” stories the way these two have. Breedlove and his star, with her sing-songy, new-to-this-practice narration and deadpan softball questioning of this or that witness, aren’t the most polished to uncap a lens on this subject. Not by a long shot.

But that’s almost an asset. If you’re saying, on camera, “I’ve finally seen something that I can’t identify,” that kind of hype, after swallowing every under-sourced story fed you for the first hour of “On the Trail of UFOs,” has its own naive charm. The poor dear.

Because these folks, in front of and behind the camera, are why “teasers” haven’t touched down at JPL, MIT or Cheyenne Mountain. Not yet, anyway.

MPA Rating: unrated, profanity

Cast: Shannon Legro, Seth Breedlove, Susan Sheppard, many others

Credits: Directed by Seth Breedlove. A 1091 release.

Running time: 1:25

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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