Revisiting Thanksgiving Found Footage Nightmare ‘Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County’

The late ‘80s saw the release of writer/director/producer Dean Alioto’s The McPherson Tape, a lo-fi found footage precursor centered around an alien abduction during a family’s birthday celebration. A decade later, Alioto helmed a larger-budgeted and expanded remake for UPN, Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County, shifting the setting to Thanksgiving. The holiday set found-footage nightmare proved so effective that it stirred up controversy among viewers.

Now set in the ‘90s, Alien Abduction opens with a benign Thanksgiving setting, all captured on camera by teen Tommy (Christian Ayre), an aspiring filmmaker. Through dinner prep and family interactions, we get an introduction to the McPhersons and their sometimes strained dynamics. As dinner gets underway, a bright light flashes in the windows and the power cuts out. Tommy follows his older brothers outside to check on fuses and a transformer, leading to the discovery of a UFO. But when they spot aliens cutting open a cow, the aliens notice them back, and all hell breaks loose.

Alien Abduction aired on January 20, 1998, almost a year before The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance. The film clarifies from the opening that Tommy’s footage of that night is the only clue to what happened to them. Its “found footage” gets intermingled with talking heads making observations of the footage, which added to the confusion for viewers as to whether this was fact or fiction.

Alioto, along with screenwriter Paul Chitlik, makes clever use of a variety of experts to weigh in on the events, adding credibility while supplementing the narrative. While psychologists point out the youngest daughter’s possessed behavior or tech experts question the footage’s authenticity, all direct viewers’ focus while giving subtle chapter breaks in this night of terror. Alioto appears as a filmmaker giving expertise on horror movies to lend credence.

Alien Abduction wastes no time getting straight to the horror, either, making for a brisk survive-the-night style narrative that continues to throw weird obstacles at the family, from nosebleeds to a home invasion onslaught. Occasionally, the family gets momentary reprieves, opting to use the Thanksgiving meal to self-soothe or use typical holiday family tension to infuse more realism. For example, oldest brother Kurt (Aaron Purl) displays racist aggression toward his sister’s new boyfriend. Mom (Gillian Barber) clutches her wine glass, and her alcoholism leads to numerous confrontations.

Alien Abduction Incident in Lake County

Before The Blair Witch Project was released and became a blueprint for the found footage films that followed, audiences hadn’t yet become familiar with or desensitized by the rules of the format. Presented on television with an air of authority, many thought the footage was real, not unlike BBC’s Ghostwatch on a smaller scale.

The McPherson Tape makes for a leaner, grittier experience and the scares often work a little more effectively there. In Alien Abduction, it’s hard to tell whether some moments are played for intended laughs, Tommy repeatedly screaming about peeing his pants being one of them. But some innovative camera tricks work well here, and the Thanksgiving theme grounds the chaos a bit.

The irony now is that The McPherson Tape is easier to come by thanks to its Vinegar Syndrome release and Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County remains trapped on VHS, it seems. Even still, it offers interesting insight on the found footage subgenre and its place in history.

And it’s also a rare entry in Thanksgiving horror.