Great Moments in Found Footage History: Incident in Lake County (1998)
This last weekend saw the release of Apollo 18, a "found footage" horror film that depicts NASA's last, top secret visit to the moon and explains the real reason why no one has returned to the moon since then. While Apollo 18 is entirely fictitious, that hasn't stopped the film's producers from courting the moon conspiracy audience by claiming that the film is actually a documentary and sponsoring a conspiracy theory-laden Web site called "LunarTruth.com", a site that is advertised in Apollo 18 itself. (Space.com and The Los Angeles Times have more information about NASA's reaction to Apollo 18.)
This isn't the first time that a found footage film has blurred the line between fact and fiction as part of its promotional campaign. Such a tactic was key to the success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), which went a long way towards convincing some viewers that the events depicted in the Blair Witch movie actually happened. Sometimes, such an approach can backfire, as was the case of Cannibal Holocaust (1980), one of the earliest examples a found footage horror film. Some people were so convinced that Cannibal Holocaust was an actual snuff film that its director, Ruggero Deodato, was hauled into court to prove that his cast of actors was still alive.
Perhaps the strangest example of a found footage film blurring the lines between fact and fiction is Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County. Even though this film was originally written and directed by Dean Alioto as a low-budget horror film, it eventually became known as "the McPherson tape" in the UFO community and continues to generate speculation among hard-core UFO believers about alien visitations to this day. Read on for the complete story behind this unlikely found footage success that's still an obscurity to many horror film buffs.
I probably would never have known about Incident in Lake County had it not been for the now-defunct United Paramount Network (UPN). UPN aired Lake County in January 1998, and it hyped the footage in a way that strongly suggested that footage depicted the last known hours of an actual family from Minnesota, the McPhersons, who disappeared in 1997. Out of curiosity, I watched the first 15 minutes of the footage, until I saw some shots that convinced me that the footage was in fact a low-budget fake and I switched to another channel. If anything, the airing of the Lake County video left me thinking that it was nothing more than UPN's feeble attempt to jump on the profitable alien footage bandwagon that Fox started in 1995 with its airing of Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?
I didn't give much thought to the Lake County video since then, other than vaguely remembering it as being some kind of shameless hoax that UPN did when it was still on the air. Yet with found footage movies becoming their own subgenre within horror after the success of The Blair Witch Project, I thought I would dig deeper to find out exactly what happened that led UPN to attempt such a obvious fraud.
It turns out that in the case of Lake County, the truth is much stranger than fiction. After the 3-B Theater column on the Bad Movie Planet site posted a review of the Lake County video, Dean Alioto contacted the site in 2003 to provide the complete story behind Lake County and how it came to be aired on UPN. You can read the complete story here, but I will also provide the cliff notes version of Alioto's story in this post.
In a nutshell, Alioto shot a feature-length 8mm video that he intended to be "the most realistic movie on UFO abduction ever made". His film was later picked up for distribution, but the distribution company later burned to the ground and the master copies of the original video were lost. This setback did not keep a bootleg copy of Alioto's footage from reappearing in the UFO community, where many believed that the footage was genuine proof of aliens abducting an entire family. A friend of Alioto, Paul Chitlik, heard about this tape and after viewing a copy, he was able to convince Dick Clark Productions to fund a remake of Alioto's film with a bigger budget, Alioto himself directing, and UPN agreeing to air the finished film. Unfortunately for Alioto and Chitlik, the management at UPN that agreed to air Alioto's remake was replaced with new management who didn't like the movie at all while Alioto and Chitlik were shooting their movie in Vancouver. To keep the project on UPN's schedule, Dick Clark Productions agreed to remove Alioto and Chitlik from the movie and have someone else come in to re-edit the film down to one hour and include interviews with several "experts".
Regardless of Alioto's original intentions, what UPN and Dick Clark Productions did to the finished film provides a definitive example of what "chutzpa" means. Of the "experts" who were interviewed as part of the UPN edit, only two of them--Michael Shermer and Stanton Friedman--are real people (who I presume were interviewed under false pretenses). The rest of them consist of the following cast of "real" people who are played by really real actors:
To keep viewers watching Lake County and believing that they might be watching an actual video recording of an alien abduction, UPN removed all of the commercial bumper tags that Alioto had in his cut which explicitly stated that the film was fictional. The new bumper tags would keep asking questions such as "Were the McPhersons abducted by aliens?" and reminded viewers to participate in an online poll that asked if the Lake County footage was real or fake. The program even closed with the following screen (note the fake "555" phone number):
Then, after showing the viewers such a dire message, the credits rolled that listed all of the actors and which roles they played--including the actors who played the "missing" McPhersons, as well as those who played "Alien #1" and "Alien #2".
You'd think that with such blatant fakery (the hokey special effects, the bad acting, and the production credits), no one would think that Lake County was evidence of anything other than the shameless dishonesty and opportunism of UPN and Dick Clark Productions. Yet Lake County is still the topic of discussion of many UFO believers to this very day. Some think that the UPN edit is the real thing, while others think that the UPN edit was a faithful re-enactment of a real video of aliens abducting an entire family (in other words, Alioto's original low-budget movie was "real" but the later remake was "fake"). Of the many different theories I've seen online, my personal favorite argues that Lake County is actually the dramatization of an alien abduction that happened in 1955.
You can watch the entire UPN Lake County video on Google here. (Alioto says that his original 8mm video from 1988 and his own two hour edit of Lake County are still available, but I couldn't find them anywhere online.) You can also read 3-B Theater's 2002 Lake County review here, and watch a funny video review by Corn Pone Flicks here that closely examines both Alioto's footage and the additions made by UPN and Dick Clark Productions.