The McPherson Tape

Wicked Wednesday: The McPherson Tape (1989)

As an adult, the horror movies that scare me the most are home invasion films. Black Christmas (my steadfast favourite) gets to me every time. The leering, the creeping – it all makes my skin crawl. Anything where someone is there that shouldn’t be. But as a child, there was one thing that scared me the most: aliens. And in The McPherson Tape, both my fears meet in the middle to shake hands.

The McPherson Tape is one of the earliest examples of the found footage style. Written, directed, produced and filmed by Dean Alioto, this movie is done a shoestring budget and is remarkably convincing for its age. The recording claims to show the last footage of the Van Heeses family before their disappearance years earlier.

In 1983, the Van Hesses gather to celebrate Michelle’s 5th birthday. The camera operator, Mike, irritates his family right off the bat. He refuses to put down the camera, insisting he capture every moment on the night. Now, as this is the 80s, this is absolutely believable. My dad had one of those VHS cameras, and it went everywhere with us. And what do we have to show for it? Hours of footage my family looking grumpy and having mundane conversations.

As the night carries on, Mike continues to film the family as they celebrate. After Michelle blows out her candles, the family discover the lights won’t turn back on. Mike and his brothers, Eric and Jason, go to examine the breaker. But even still, the lights in the house remain off.

When they see something in the woods, they go off together to find the source of the strange light. And while they expect to see the neighbours, they instead spot a group of extra terrestrials and their spaceship.

The boys all run home when they realise they’ve been spotted by the aliens. The women back at the house are utterly confused, and the family soon begins to argue, especially as to whether or not they should stay in the house or flee.

But the aliens have their own ideas. They begin to attack the house. When one of the brothers kills an alien, its corpse is brought back into the house. Why does it need to be inside? It’s not really explained. Though I guess it does make for a fun trophy…?

Eventually, the Van Heeses calm down. They decide to all head home for the night, believing the excitement to be over. But of course it’s not! These aliens aren’t going to go home quietly.

As the family begins to try to fight their for their escape, they soon discover that the aliens are both smarter and more powerful than any human could be. After all, the family are never to be seen again.

By today’s standards, the budget means there are some very basic effects (think alien masks and black leotards). But I know that if I would have seen this as a child in the 90s, I would have 100% been convinced. The technology’s lack of finesse adds to the ambience. You’re not always certain of what you’re looking at.

Movies like this are always remarkable because of what they achieve with so little. The cast are really convincing in this. While no one is related, they all bicker like they’ve spent too many days together. Though it should be noted, that for those of us who are sensitive to noise, it can be really difficult to hear what’s going on.

This movie ticked all the boxes for me: it’s convincing as hell (minus those little alien dudes), it’s pace keeps moving, and it has an ending that makes you shout “COME ON! NO!” If you’re able to look beyond dated technology and are able to appreciate achievements like this (a la Bad Ben) this is a classic found footage movie that does the trick.