Prop planes, your neighbor’s drone, a grip of balloons from a graduation party, cottonwood giving you the worst allergy flare up this year — our skies are littered with the mundane. So much so, that we take it all for granted.
Aside from the stray UFO sighting, on the decline since the rise of smartphones and the aforementioned drones, what mystery is left among the clouds and Boeings? Terror in the Skies, a new cryptozoology documentary from Small Town Monsters, posits that there’s quite a bit, actually.
Focused primarily on sighting in Illinois, the film — directed by Seth Breedlove and featuring fantastically hokey narration by television personality Lyle Blackburn — covers near-ancient sightings of a giant bird of Native American legend called the Piasa, near-past sightings and direct encounters with Thunderbirds, and exceedingly modern viewings of a Mothman-like figure in Chicago creatively dubbed “The Chicago Mothman.”
Sketching a loose timeline of sightings of these creatures, often informed by the accounts of crypto authors Loren Coleman and Troy Taylor (as well as a smattering of other paranormal investigators), the documentary attempts to make the case that we don’t know as much about our skies as we might think, and that our grasp of the very basics of nature and weather might be shaken by more run-ins with these creatures.
Does it succeed? Yes, and no.
In the yay column, the cinematography of Zac Palmisano is exceptionally well-done. The long, aerial shots of the Illinois landscape, sparsely populated and solemnly beautiful but upset by the edge of Blackburn’s voice and the subtle soundtrack, are very effective. There was obviously a lot of thought put into what the world would look like to these creatures, and in emulating their views, the visuals are a thought-provoking success.
Similarly, the team behind the film has done a fantastic job of collecting an entertaining, if not also compelling, dossier of events. From the early evidence of Native belief in the Piasa to the sheer multitude of Thunderbird (giant, Condor-like birds of prey) sightings, to the difficult-to-refute evidence that something was going on in Chicago, there’s quite a bit here that makes you wonder “what if?” if not, “I should probably go check on my small, prey-like dog in the yard right now.”
Grounding the history of these creatures in the local folklore and culture of the Illinois river valleys and communities helps all the more, making it relatable, understandable, and it makes the victims of supposed encounters sympathetic. I commend the Terror team for not going off the deep end immediately, as is so common in this realm of investigation and documentary-making. Sticking to the quotable newspapers, reproducing those events, and speaking to the investigators, while allowing the production the edge it needs to suggest something is off, wrong, or even predatory, is the way to go, and they succeed.
However, in the nay column, the film struggles to assign a narrative to its evidence, and a poor edit allows a lot of crosstalk through. Taylor will say, “The other kids made fun of him, they left dead birds on the sidewalk,” about a kid who was supposedly attacked by Thunderbirds, and 30 seconds later Coleman will say something along the lines of, “They left dead birds on the sidewalk, making fun of him.” This kind of double exposure is confusing, frustrating, and it makes it feel like the interviews needed a second pass in editing.
Additionally frustrating, the first two thirds of the film is spent doggedly convincing you that giant birds are real, with tons of spurious claims and little to no skepticism — introducing a humanoid section but never actually covering it — only to culminate in the teased-from-the-opening-scene Chicago Mothman. Only for the assembled cast to say, “probably not – maybe a drone or something,” with little fanfare, or rationale for the difference. (Although this does provide my favorite scene, in which an investigator suggests the Mothman news was released to cover up sightings of a UFO or another credible incident, with literally no evidence.)
It becomes increasingly unclear if even the supposed experts in this field have a viewpoint, and the film’s production doesn’t step up to provide anything for the viewer to grab onto in a satisfactory summary. This can be kind of a reward for the ever curious, a lead for your own internet sleuthing or real-life monster-hunting, but the lack of call to action makes the end kind of flat.
Ultimately, Terror in the Skies is a fun, but lacking endeavor. It complies a lot of evidence, assorts it into a neat and exceedingly well-produced package, and then fails to say much about it. I want to believe in Mothman, I want to believe in Thunderbirds, modern-day pterodactyls, and more — I want to see that pesky drone and think that someday a massive, lightning-controlling dragon-bird is going to knock the pervy thing right out of the sky — but without a compelling case to think about that on the day-to-day, I too will return to taking the skies for granted.