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31 Days of Halloween

‘The McPherson Tape’ is the birth of modern found footage

‘The McPherson Tape’ is an innovative film.

Welcome to today’s installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be talking to creators working in horror and share and recommend various pieces of underappreciated scary media-books, comics, movies, and television-to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Found footage films are a common guilty pleasure. Audiences love getting a sneak peek into people’s real lives. The fact they are forced to deal with unknown terrors makes the movies that much more entertaining. Still, a strong case can be made the genre has been watered down. It is certainly doubtful anything will reach the heights of The Blair Witch Project soon. While the 1999 movie brought the genre to the mainstream, there are some notable examples that predate it. 

The McPherson Tape (also known as UFO Abduction) has been called the first found footage film. Though it was released ten years before The Blair Witch Project, movies like 1980’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust also used the format. Nevertheless, it is an innovative film which fans of the genre will appreciate. 

The footage is from 1983. (It was actually filmed in 1989.) The Van Heese family have gathered to celebrate Michelle’s fifth birthday. Her uncle Michael decides to record the festivities on his new Camcorder. It is the last anyone would ever see of the family.

It may not be the first found footage movie, but The McPherson Tape is still revolutionary. Many of the tropes associated with the genre can be found here for the first time. Running through dark woods, the refusal to put down the recording device, and the unremarkable setting are all staples seen here. For someone just watching the movie for the first time today, it is easy to dismiss it as another copy.

What makes it different from other similar movies is when it was made. There was no template to follow in 1989. The McPherson Tape is inventing a new genre as the film progresses. A strict apples to apples comparison would be unfair. It would be more correct to see what it introduced to the genre and what others have done since.

For many found footage movies determining how good they are is based on the believability factor. The situation may be supernatural or out of this world, but if the cast comes off as people you can meet on the street, the whole thing has a better chance at succeeding. This is one of the best things about The McPherson Tape. It does not just look like a home movie you would rather not watch. It feels and sounds like one too. (Pro Life Tip: Family movies are only exciting to the families involved.) This is simply a tape with a family hanging out for a birthday party. 

This gives the movie a sense of tension normally not found. A lot of times in found footage the audience is forced to play the waiting game. Stuff is happening, but it seems like a pointless use of time before the next scare. Make no mistake about it; there is plenty of filler here. It is not as egregious as other movies, but it is definitely there.

The difference is the Van Heeses. The conversation never seems forced or silly. It may not be the most exciting, but that is because it is natural. How many times has a friend told you about a hilarious video of them and after watching it you find it mildly amusing at best?  That is the case here. This is not supposed to be a movie judged as a whole. It is just a home video someone stumbled across. 

The McPherson Tape also avoids another trap of the genre: it never gets boring. The family seem like nice people.  It is cute watching the birthday fun, it is unsurprising to watch the brothers make fun of each other, and it is scary to see the encounters had that night. The audience may not care about the family, but there is the constant anticipation of what is going to happen next.

The McPherson Tape is a groundbreaking found footage film. A description would not do it justice as it sounds unimpressive. It is also important to watch it in a vacuum. Forget comparisons; the genre has been improved upon. It is the first movie of its kind and to see it as anything else would lessen its impact.

The McPherson Tape
Is it good?
It may seem like just another found footage film because in a way it is. This is the movie that made the template for others to follow.
Unique for its time
Does not fall into the normal trappings of the genre (boring, pointless, etc)
Some moments are obviously filler

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