Lens Flare

I watched 2 productions that relied on 1980s/90s VHS recording technology to provide “recovered documents” for mystery stories. This sort of thing became known as “found footage” after The Blair Witch Project (1999) and also the rather superior The Last Broadcast a little earlier. But the basic idea is the Mystery Manuscript that goes back at least to The House On The Borderland (1908) and it was updated to audio cassette in The Evil Dead (1981), it was an old phonograph record in The Skeleton Key (2005), cinefilm in Resolution (2012), and a bundle of VHS tapes in The Endless (2017).

The McPherson Tape (1989) starts by presenting itself as a recovered text.

From 1948 to 1969, the United States government conducted investigations into reports of UFO and extraterrestrial sightings. The code name for these investigations was “Project Blue Book”.

Since the termination of “Project Blue Book”, all data from these investigations and reports thereafter have been made public under the freedom of information act.

And then:

The uncut video footage you are about to see contains the most important evidence yet made public regarding the UFO abduction phenomenon. This footage is from the North Woods UFO Case 77.

On the evening of October 8th 1983, a young man videotaped his niece’s fifth birthday party. As the night’s strange occurrences took place, he kept his camera running, recording the entire event.

And so we get some grainy, jerky home movie footage of a little girl’s birthday party.

Strange lights are seen in the distance, and after she blows the candles out there’s a general power loss. Oh, and everyone notices their watches have stopped later on.

The McPherson lads go off to investigate, along the way we pick up chitchat about how they are concerned that Mom’s drinking by herself.

They get very scared when they see the strange alien figures standing by what appears to be a very cheap knock-off of the Apollo Lunar Lander. Worse still, the aliens seem to notice them, so they flee back home and lock the gates, getting very scared indeed when there’s another flash of red light outside.

Being Americans, these lads have firearms to defend themselves with, and it doesn’t take long before they’ve shot an alien and brought the body inside. But that wasn’t a smart move as the intruder seems to disappear later on. We get the classic Found Footage ending as the camera has been left on its side running on and we can see the baddies appearing.

Although it’s a jolly good effort and has a few creepy moments, there’s not much to The McPherson Tape, and the aliens themselves are a very amateur school-play level presentation of the classic “Gray” look that had achieved its canonical form on the cover of Whitley Streiber’s Communion (1987) but earlier versions were already circulating for years for example in the Usborne Book Of UFOs:

The end credits break the illusion by giving a cast and crew and a clear disclaimer that it was all a work of fiction, alas. Still more convincing than the tragically feeble “Rendlesham Incident“, which was the best Britain could muster in 1983.

Stepping back to 2022, we have a more elaborate story in Archive81 on Netflix. Incidentally the title never seems to appear directly in the story, and there is no straightforward parallel with Artemis 81 by David Rudkin, so I surmise the similarity in titles is accidental.

We start with the rather unsettling footage of a young woman scared and desperate and hoping that her message is recovered and dealt with by somebody.

Then we have the weirdy opening credits, which show comets and rocks and strange symbols and what appear to be occult ceremonies. Every episode commences with a fragment of Found Footage, not just from a camcorder but also snippets of TV adverts and news and old dramas, usually sourced from the 80s.

The story really begins with Dan Turner, film archivist, on his way in to work at Museum Of The Moving Image in New York.

The year is not exactly given, and at one point he refers to events of 1994 as “25 years ago” which may or may not be exact. So this may be some time between today and 3 years ago.

Dan is pretty good at all technical things – he can figure out computer networks and cut in to CCTV systems to insert bogus looped footage, if need be. His day job involves a lot of restorative work on old materials, though he is a fan of the medium himself and there are several references to his love of Tarkovsky’s work (he also has t-shirts celebrating Fritz Lang films).

His best mate Mark Higgins puts on a podcast called Mystery Signals about strange unsolved mysteries. Mark is able to do this because his parents give him the money, one of several points in which this story is honest about how such characters actually live in our world.

After some strange new damaged tapes turn up at MOMI requiring Dan’s attention, he gets the offer from the big corporate sponsor LMG to go to their offices to meet top business dude Virgil Davenport. LMG = “Legacy Management Global” we learn later, but it keeps its affairs and structure mostly mysterious.

Davenport offers Turner a big bag of money if he’ll go away to an isolated spot up in the Catskills and work on restoring a pile of old VHS tapes recovered from the fire that destroyed the Visser apartment block in 1994. However he seems to overplay his hand by referring to Dan’s mental breakdown a few years ago, which involved a spell in a clinic, funded by Mark (actually Mark’s parents, of course). Dan is sensitive about that side of his life, but after calming down he agrees to go out to the strange old brutalist chalet in the woods, and work his way through the warped plastic of old camcorder cassettes.

There’s no internet and mobile phone reception is terrible, though by standing in the right bit of the woods he can manage to get in touch with Mark and send him questions to be investigated.

Going through the tapes he finds they were created by Melody Pendras, a graduate Student at NYU who was working on an oral history project and so helpfully created lots of recordings of everything she did and saw in 1994 when she had moved in to an apartment in the Visser. This is where the show’s commitment to financial realism starts to falter, as it’s not so clear how Melody could get funding for sufficient time. Also I don’t think she could have practically carried her camera around as easily as she would need to do to get all the segments needed. There’s not much dead time, she didn’t make all that many tapes and they’re all thriller no filler. To make this archive she’d really need to be a more recent NYU graduate, using a smartphone, but that wasn’t available at a time that would fit this chronology.

In any case Archive81 quickly establishes new rules: we aren’t always reliant on the old footage; we step in to Melody’s timezone and see it all as a drama filmed in her space, with occasional synchronicity with the footage Dan is looking at.

We meet the other tenants, including young Jess:

And there’s creepy guy with a beard, who might as well have a badge saying “WRONG’UN”. Just in case you’re tempted to see him as an ambiguous figure who might turn out to be a good guy after all… he reveals he’s an academic specialising in Renaissance Literature, or at least that’s what he claims to be. Such an obvious red flag, since no one in modern fiction is interested in such stuff for a positive reason. They’re all only in it for secret powers and hidden treasures, or at the very least the location of the Holy Grail. And why the hell else would you read all that crap?

The soundtrack sticks very broadly to things that would have been heard in 1994 (though the Magnetic Fields track is from the next decade), and at the end we get a news report of Kurt Cobain’s death to establish that we’re back in that year. But there’s not too much background detail – no one ever mentions the Clintons or Newt Gingrich or, oddly the exciting new TV series The X Files, which started in 1993 and was a big deal within 2 years. When Dan seems to move in time and passes the phrase “a feature not a bug” to Melody I did think “that wasn’t known in the early 90s”… but the the anachronism was picked up and became part of the story straight after. It does jar when Dan’s dad mentions the internet, which was only just becoming widely known… but he’s a psychology professor, so we can accept that he would be an early participant, and Melody would know what it was without having used it.

There are a lot of ideas in Archive81, possibly too many. There is the idea that visionary experience may in fact have a material basis in contamination from mould spores; this goes back to the 40s and 50s, was alluded to by Aldous Huxley in Heaven And Hell, was alluded to less clearly in “Ergot”, and was in an X-Files episode in 1997. There are weirdy cults based around secret knowledge who are performing sacrifices and hiding in plain sight in respectable society and putting their occult symbols on the brickwork of their mansions. There are alternative dimensions and crossovers and also the influence of a comet – always a terrible idea, both here and in the otherwise great quantum-mystery story Coherence. There is a demonic presence, who can look scary and threaten to crawl through TV screens, like the evil one in Ring, but is a bit rubbish and ineffectual when you actually meet him in his home universe. He’s been brooding for millions of years and yet he hides himself in a wardrobe he can’t get out of in time to catch 2 humans running past it.

Fun facts:

  1. Is there a continuity glitch when they’re running down the stairs at the end? They seem to come to the red Exit doors twice.
  2. The device for recording video on to audio cassettes was mentioned on Tomorrows World in the 80s, but I never heard of anyone using it in real life and this show seems to reveal it had little commercial success.
  3. The supposedly lost TV series about mysterious events, of which we see a made-up introductory segment, might be alluding to One Step Beyond. That show had a very odd non-fictional episode called “The Sacred Mushroom“.
  4. In the historical flashback episode there is a reference to Rose the maid’s family having died of typhoid fever just before she came to the US in the early 1920s. That reminded me that there had been a reference to someone in that period by another character earlier, and I had an idea it was Mark. But I can’t find anywhere that he’s mentioning it, so I’m in the position of doubting my memories of an electronic source I only looked at yesterday. Ah well, someone on Reddit has a theory about an aspect of the show, which I think is plausible.

The template for this story and so many like it is of course the magnificent Angel Heart (1987), which had all the classic elements ready to be reused: a mysterious client hiring an investigator to investigate a story he may already be part of, which involves rich people secretly practising ceremonies to worship The Evil One who gives them power in this world. That version wisely did not show us the rituals or their source books, it only told about them, whilst staying in the grit and the urban grime. That was better artistically. It relied on the implicit reference to the satanists inverting the True Religion. Archive81 is made in a world where no one takes that too seriously, and Father Russo’s attempts to exorcise Jess are hopeless. He can’t defeat a demon worshipped by a cult of sub-Theosophical bilge that was invented around 1870; demons are real but they live in the interstices of modern physics and as such the Church can’t touch them, but maybe a secret society of witches know how to do it.

I hope there isn’t a second series as it would just pile on more mythology and back story and rapidly become as dull as The Dark. VHS tapes have given us all they can – they were an exciting, disturbing innovation in Videodrome, but now they’re relics of a dead world, like gramophone discs or cinefilm from the 1920s.

3 thoughts on “Lens Flare

  1. Fun fact: Louis Cyphre’s lawyer in “Angel Heart” was played by Mitch Pileggi, who was Walter Skinner in “The X-Files”, yet the film is not listed on his imdb or wikipedia pages – spooky. Internet sources are insisting it was Dann Florek. I’m feeling confused, and quite likely going to stare in a mirror for a while, having flashbacks and a very unstable sense of personal identity.

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  2. I would say that we had the phrase “that’s a feature, not a bug” before the 90s but what we didn’t have in 1994 were thick eyebrows. An extremely pretty thing that bugged me, otherwise Archive 81 was fun and I particularly liked the opening segments.

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  3. “Bug” was certainly known in its computer sense, but I’m sure I’ve only heard the expression in the last few years. It’s the story itself that makes a point of it being anachronistic, as Melody only knows it from hearing it off Dan in what is for her a dream. At least that’s how I understood it.

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