Something strange happened over Phoenix, Arizona on March 13, 1997. Lights appeared above the city. The Airforce claimed that they were flares dropped by an A-10 Warthog, but many believe that those lights were a UFO. “Phoenix Forgotten” follows a fictionalized aftermath of the Phoenix lights. It attempts to weave a story between two types of low-budget film making, but neglects the care to successfully pull it off.
Half of the movie is watching “found” VHS tapes filmed by three of the main characters Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), Ashley (Chelsea Lopez) and Mark (Justin Matthews) in the days leading up to their disappearance. The other half is a documentary following Josh’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan) twenty years later as she searches for what happened to her brother and his two friends.
But the film doesn’t care about Sophie.
She is introduced with a tape about her sixth birthday, but the film doesn’t spend any more time characterizing her. It merely uses her to frame each VHS tape and further the plot. And what’s worse, is that Sophie’s scenes are polluted with parents and siblings of the missing three that serve the same purpose as Sophie. It shows a lack of love for the world the film is trying to bring to life
“Phoenix Forgotten” then just disposes of all of these characters in favor of sticking with Josh, Ashley and Mark. It’s clear the movie is more interested in these three, because it does a superior job of characterizing them within limited screen time.
The film seems to understand its found footage scenes better and, while not groundbreaking, these pieces of the film are the most enjoyable. In part because we are made to care for Josh, Ashley and Mark, but also because “Phoenix Forgotten” adheres to the horror movie rule of darkness there and nothing more. Now of course, it’s not just darkness.
This is about the Phoenix lights, but the film doesn’t give too much away too quickly. The tapes have a wonderful sense of claustrophobia and impending doom. They build nicely to the climax and even then don’t indulge in anything hokey; they don’t even employ cheap jump scares. But these scenes can’t shine as much as they should, and they certainly cannot mask the lack of attention throughout the rest of the film.
“Phoenix Forgotten” works hard not to be derivative of films like “The Blair Witch Project.” And the documentary half attempts to create a sense of tension, as Sophie finds hints of a government cover up. But each time we cut back to adult Sophie, it feels like the movie is taking a break from the quality atmosphere and mystery it’s built so far.
“Phoenix Forgotten” takes the economy of found footage and creates a solid horror narrative, but squanders it in an attempt to be more than just a found footage movie. It’s desperate to be original but doesn’t take the time to weave any depth into the majority of its characters. It fails to recognize that all of its characters are important. And if this film doesn’t care about its characters, why would anyone bother to remember them?