The McPherson Tape (1989)

August 17, 2020

 

Late into the humid summer night of August 21, 1955, eleven members of the Sutton farm family appeared at the Hopkinsville, KY sheriff’s office, visibly distraught. This clan of non-drinking, devout Southern Baptists carried with them an incredible tale: that they had just survived a four-hour-long gun battle with UFO occupants at their secluded home. Impressed by their sincerity (and observable stress), the sheriff gathered together a posse of four city cops, five state troopers, three sheriff deputies, and four military police officers from nearby Fort Campbell to go check things out.

 

Needless to say, there didn’t appear to be much else going on in Hopkinsville that night.

 

The calvary arrived to find nothing, as these types of stories are wont to go. But that’s not entirely true. While the police didn’t uncover any evidence of aliens, they found broken windows, busted doors, and bullet holes through the walls and ceiling. Something obviously happened, but what?

 

According to the Suttons, the fun started around 7pm with family friend Billy Ray Taylor, who was visiting from Pittsburgh with his wife. Taylor was out fetching water from the well when a bright, silvery object floated over the house and landed in the nearby woods. He ran into the house excited, but no one believed him.

 

An hour later, the Suttons, alerted by their dog’s incessant barking, looked out back and discovered a strange glow—inside of which would become known as The Hopkinsville Goblin. Described as three-and-a-half feet tall, it had an “over-sized...perfectly round” head with large, bulbous eyes that emitted a yellowish light. Its arms extended to the ground with claw-like hands, and its skin tight uniform shimmered silver and strange in the night.

 

 

I’m sure things are all nice and civilized back where the alien came from, but this was Ball Scratch, Kentucky in 1955—so I hope that little fucker was prepared for a lil’ buckshot. The men grabbed a shotgun and a rifle and unloaded on the “little man.” Clearly hit, the alien flipped backwards and scrambled into the woods. Another creature appeared a short time later in the window looking in. Again, they fired on it, shattering the window. Bullets did not appear to do any kind of mortal damage to them, but every time they were shot, the creatures would do a backwards “flip” and run away.

 

Perhaps the most frightening part of the encounter came when Taylor stepped out on the front porch and a claw reached down from the roof overhang, grabbing him by the hair. Screaming, the family pulled him inside, firing rounds into the ceiling and roof. For the next four hours, the Suttons huddled inside, frightened, occasionally hearing something walking along the roof. They made a break for their cars around 11pm and sped to the sheriff’s office to share their story.

 

 

Which, of course, is the long way of getting to The McPherson Tape. While I’ve never heard director Dean Alioto publicly mention the Kelly-Hopkinsville Encounter in regard to the film, I’d be shocked to learn that he, as a self-proclaimed UFO buff, had not heard of it. That’s because the Sutton story and the Van Heese family’s story from the movie are almost identical. The McPherson Tape is a shot on video found footage film (ten years before The Blair Witch Project!) that would seem to reinterpret the events of the 1955 encounter for the 80s analog era.  

 

The film follows—in real time, mind you—a family defending their home from an alien siege during a 5-year-old’s birthday party. The beats and character behavior/motivations are all lock-step in tuned with the Hopkinsville incident: the adult brothers witness a craft landing (and the aliens that go along with it), so they grab some shotguns for an extra-terrestrial hootenanny. Made for $6,500 and shot in two gargantuan takes, The McPherson Tape is actually a modest, little gem.

 

 

Everything that made The Blair Witch Project so effective, works here in spades. Both, for example, benefit greatly from the viewer’s lack of context. Assuming you weren’t one of the idiots who thought The Blair Witch Project was real when it came out, much of the first viewing’s anxiety came from the thought: “what IS this?” Because there was nothing like it before, there was no way to know what to expect. And The McPherson Tape plays to the viewer the exact same way, as for most of us watching today in 2020, it’s just a blind buy AGFA/Bleeding Skull Blu-ray.

 

And when you have zero context for anything, every frame is filled with dread. Oh my god, oh my god, is there something at the window? Is that just a lens flare? Every nuisance, mistake, action, and sound (or lack thereof) carries significant weight. The movie is only 63 minutes long, but it feels like hours (in a good way) due to the hyper-analyzation of every second. The acting—a bunch of no-names improvising for an hour—is honestly not too bad (in the world of AGFA releases, one could even say top tier), and the workmanlike thespianism grounds the affair into a tactile nightmare we can touch and feel.

 

 

Unfortunately, the reasons why (presumably) none of us have ever heard of this film is that:

 

  1. In 1989, found footage would not really be a thing for another ten years, so distribution companies didn’t know what they were looking at. (Alioto notes in the Blu-ray commentary that’s the price you pay for being ahead of your time.)

  2. When The McPherson Tape eventually was picked up, the warehouse storing the film materials burnt down.

 

But that’s why AGFA exists. They’re like the benevolent (but insane) cat lady who takes in all the strays and gives them a loving (but insane) home. Their release of The McPherson Tape, billed as “the first found footage horror movie” (here come the Cannibal Holocaust fans...), is a transfer from the original 3/4" master tape with a new commentary track from Alioto (as well as the director’s cut, which I’m pretty excited to check out). This film is never going to look great—it’s not supposed to—but this is the best presentation of it we’re ever going to get.

 

 

Bottom line: It’s not my intention to oversell this. It is a $6,500 amateur found footage film from 1989, after all. But if you want something as fun as Phoenix Forgotten but grounded like The Blair Witch Project, The McPherson Tape is gonna be your jam. 

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