Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County is a little-known ‘found footage’ style movie that tells the story of an alien attack on a rural American family enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner. This pseudo-documentary horror never had a cinematic outing and was instead released direct to TV in 1998. This lack of fanfare or hype meant it stayed under the radar for many and the fact that The Blair Witch Project was released shortly after did not help matters, which is a shame. In many ways, Lake County spearheaded the birth of the ‘found footage’ sub-genre and director Dean Alioto should be applauded for helping it come to fruition.
As the film begins, viewers are told: “In the fall of 1997, a sixteen-year-old boy set out to document his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. What he purportedly captured on his video camera was more than just a family get together”. To make the faux-documentary angle all the more believable, the footage of Lake County is interjected with what we’re supposed to believe are real ‘interviews’. These short segments feature Ufologists, law-enforcement officers, a child psychologist and even a punk rocker with a terrible British accent. Each interviewee offers their thoughts on what’s happening at that moment in the footage, what the motives of the aliens are and why certain family members are acting the way they are.
So What Happens?
Here’s a (relatively) spoiler free summary of the synopsis: Tommy McPherson, a teenager in Minnesota, is making a home movie of his family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It’s quite clear from the start of Tommy’s recording that his family is hardly happy; his recently bereaved mother has become an alcoholic and none of Tommy’s older siblings seem to want to address the problem. His sister has also just returned from college with a black boyfriend – something that does not sit well with older brother and family patriarch Kurt, who makes his narrow-minded feelings known to all.
Before this drama can escalate, the McPherson farmhouse loses power. Tommy and his brothers set out to investigate the outage and come across a UFO and fierce-looking aliens using a laser to dissect a cow. After the aliens notice the brothers and open fire, Tommy and his family draw up plans to defend against the extra-terrestrial threat. Strange, eerie things happen throughout the rest of the night (against the backdrop of the sub-plots mentioned above), before the movie finally reaches its harrowing and terrifying crescendo.
Okay… But is it Called Alien Abduction, Lake County or The McPherson Tape?
So this is where things get a little bit complicated. Before Lake County, there was UFO Abduction. Alioto shot this short-movie in 1986 at the age of 24 for the meagre sum of $6,500. In 2016, he revealed in a fascinating interview with Found Footage Critic how he made a movie on such a shoestring budget: he used improv actors, a buddy made the UFO for $750, three eight year old girls dressed as the aliens and the whole thing was shot in one gruelling night. Alioto aspired to release the movie direct to home video, but sadly the original master and artwork were destroyed in a warehouse fire (Alioto claims in the above interview that he feels it was an insurance scam).
A few copies of UFO Abduction did escape the fire and made their way into the larger UFO community. Inevitably, they were edited and stripped down, and purported to be actual footage of a real alien abduction. This version adopted the name The McPherson Tape and various ‘experts’ championed its authenticity, including a lieutenant colonel in the U.S Air Force. When Alioto caught on to the fact that his work had survived and was being used in such a fashion, he happily went on TV to reveal the truth. In return, he was dubbed the world’s greatest UFO trickster, which must’ve been tiresome. However, this new found fame did have positive implications.
The Easiest Movie Deal
In 1995, Alioto was approached by the head writer of a crime show that he was working on. He had heard of UFO Abduction and its unique legacy and wanted to know more. A day later, the two were shaking hands with the Head of TV at Dick Clark Productions, after a pitch that lasted a mere three minutes. Alioto has said that it remains the “easiest movie deal I ever made”. He was given a budget of $1.25 million to remake his infamous UFO horror. No expense was spared; they even got in the guys from The X-Files to make the props!
So is it Any Good?
You have to understand: this movie was meant to be seen on TV with little to no context. I don’t remember what channel I saw Lake County on originally – I just remember stumbling upon it one night and spending the next two hours thinking that I was watching a documentary. Nowadays, of course, I would just hit that little ‘I’ on the TV remote to read the synopsis, before going to Google and IMDB to learn more. We didn’t have this luxury in the 90s; in many ways it was the last decade of true mystery and intrigue.
I will always vividly remember the first time I watched Lake County because of the sheer terror I felt in the night that followed. It was the type of abject fear that only a child that’s stayed up way past their bedtime can feel. I spent that night curled up against the headrest of my bed, with my duvet clung to my chest. I remember intensely staring through the windows at the blackened outdoors and being convinced, utterly and truly, that a nefarious grey alien would make an appearance, and that my horrendous abduction would follow.
Paranormal stories did occasionally frighten me as a child but I also knew, deep down, ghosts were not real. Aliens, however, did scare me, as I could find no real logic in the world to support any claims that we were alone in the universe (clearly I had issues!)
I don’t really think I can be blamed too heavily for having this fear; kids are impressionable and aliens were everywhere in the 90s. They blew up the world in Independence Day, grossed out Will Smith in Men in Black and seemingly killed off every Hollywood celebrity in Mars Attacks. In addition, we also had the prevalent and awe-inspiring presence of The X-Files, with Mulder and Scully reminding us every week that ‘the truth is out there’. Still, good movies stand the test of time and shouldn’t necessarily require the viewer to know the context of the age they were made in to be enjoyable – you shouldn’t need to necessarily know the above to enjoy Lake County.
Luckily, I feel that Lake County has enough going for it to merit watching at least once. From the moment that the alien threat is realised (which is thankfully early in the plot) the film moves at a fast enough pace to keep the viewer on edge.
After discovering the aliens, Kurt barricades his family into their home, passes around the shotguns (‘Murrica!), puffs out his chest and declares this is where they’ll make their stand. As a viewer, you’re pretty much screaming at the McPhersons at this point. Why the hell would you think a species capable of intergalactic travel are going to be stopped because you’ve locked the front door? They’re not vampires!
However, like with many horrors, this foolishness is a necessary plot device as it gets the family into an environment where they should be safe, but totally aren’t. Not to give too much away, but the aliens utterly mess with their prey with cruel and vindictive methods; they very quickly prove they’re happy to play the long game. The notion that the whole thing is just a big, perverse experiment on their part is apparent very early on.
Some of the best scares aren’t even visual; one particularly powerful moment is when the family members hold their ears in pain, screaming that a horrendous sound is being played. That we, the viewer, cannot hear the sound is immensely creepy. We infer that the aliens are waging psychological warfare in a way that we just cannot comprehend. It sounds like a silly plot device and it shouldn’t work, but it does.
Later on in the movie, Tommy soils his underwear through sheer fright. He’s embarrassed, humiliated… he’s still filming everything for some reason, but it’s a nice touch. I expect many of us would be more like Tommy than Kurt under similar circumstances, if we’re being honest. As Tommy ascends his staircase to retrieve fresh clothes, we witness one of the scariest moments in the film. Again, I do not want to give too much away, but it is a bit of a jump scare and a total juxtaposition to the subtle horrors we’ve seen so far.
Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)
Amongst all of this, we can’t ignore Kurt’s five year old daughter Rosie. Throughout the entire harrowing night she remains sweet and innocent; she dotes on her family with sincere compassion and tries her best to keep them calm when all seems lost. This is, however, a façade. Rose is a plant, an extra-terrestrial agent. It is implied in one of the interview segments that she’s either being controlled by the alien attackers or is willingly working with them and by the end of the movie, it’s very apparent that Rose is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s harrowing to think that, throughout the entire movie, the family members never realise the enemy was with them the whole time.
After watching found footage, the biggest complaint I usually levy is something akin to “Why didn’t they just drop the camera and run?” It seems a bit redundant to complain about that, but there you go: film buffs are a fickle bunch. What I like about Lake County is how it justifies Tommy’s incessant use of the camera early on: firstly, the power is out in the home and the family need the camera’s light. Secondly, Tommy is initially excited to document mankind’s first contact with an extra-terrestrial species. I find both of these reasons satisfactory and I believe that they play into the perceived realism of the film.
The cinematography is, at time, out of focus and shaky, but that’s okay: Tommy isn’t a professional cinematographer; he’s just a scared kid with a camera. I particularly like the moment that he runs back to his home after seeing the aliens for the first time; the video camera points towards the ground and swings around erratically, and all you can see are patches of grass and blurry glimpses of the teenager’s feet. It’s a genuine first-person perspective, which is what found-footage should be.
Lake County is good, but it’s far from perfect and the acting leaves a bit to be desired at times. I’ve already mentioned the peculiar role played by Rose and if you watch the movie, you see that the director always intended for her to play this part in the story. Yet, at the same time, I wonder if the child actress just performed so poorly that the makers felt they had to hang a lantern on it and get one of the interviewees to mention “Oh, she’s like that because she possessed or something” in post-production.
It also bothers me that there are occasions where Tommy just stands around with the camera when there’s something going on that he could help with. This takes away from the realism a bit; anxiety is a hell of a frantic state to be in after all and it tends to make people act.
The delivery also feels a bit flat at times – I’ve never really enjoyed Kurt’s scenes in Lake County, despite the fact he’s one of the ancillary characters. In contrast, the lines in UFO Abduction seem to work better and add to the film’s realism. Perhaps there’s something to be said for using improv actors after all.
Still, that doesn’t stop Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County from being a good movie with some good scares. In my opinion, it nailed the found-footage formula just as well as The Blair Witch Project, despite the latter being the shaky-camera flick that everyone remembers.
We haven’t even discussed the fact that Lake County was first broadcast without any disclaimers and that it made me people panic (and I mean actual, grown-up people; not just 11 year olds in sleepy English towns). Surely this makes it as much of a notorious broadcast as the BBC’s Ghostwatch?
Even today, there are still those in the UFO community who claim that The McPherson Tape is genuine, and that the fire that almost prevented it from being released was orchestrated by government agents seeking to hide the truth. It takes a lot to reach theses sort of levels of tin-foil conspiracy. Alioto deserves a page in the annals of pop culture; some of the techniques he pioneered in both of his extra-terrestrial horrors are now commonplace in the modern found footage genre. We have a lot to thank him for.