Monday, January 19, 2009

CULT TV-MOVIE REVIEW: The UFO Incident (1975)

The unsettling and inexplicable experience of Barney and Betty Hill -- of alien abduction -- was recounted meticulously in John Fuller's best-selling book, The Interrupted Journey. The same tale was also memorably adapted for American TV screens in October of 1975 by writer Hesper Anderson and frequent TV-movie director Richard Colla.

The film's title was changed to The UFO Incident, and actors James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons were cast in the lead roles. The late Barnard Hughes co-starred as the couple's stolid psychiatrist, Dr. Simon.

The UFO Incident commences a few years after the alleged alien abduction, as a troubled Barney and Betty Hill, an interracial couple living in New England, feel a strange compulsion to re-trace their steps from the night of September 19, 1961, the nights their lives were forever altered. There are gaps in their memories that they can't explain, and this fact vexes them both.

Since September '61, The Hills have driven the same stretch of New Hampshire road eight or nine times, but on this particular occasion (an event translated directly from Fuller's book...), something unexpected occurs. The presence of a group of men on the side of the rural highway causes a usually calm Betty to fly into a spasm of hysteria and panic. We see an alarming quick cut -- as she screams in terror -- of a gloved, grey hand reaching into the if to grab her.

Meanwhile, Barney is still reluctant to face the possibility that he and his wife encountered a UFO at all. He is insecure living in an all-white community with Betty and fears ridicule and isolation should the story of flying saucers come to light. "Your dreams are your dreams," he tells Betty, "and reality is reality." Later, Barney angrily acknowledges "I know it happened...but I can't get myself to believe it."

The couple goes to see Dr. Simon, a psychiatrist, to aid in resolving their "anxiety problems" and "double amnesia." But what the Hills ultimately reveal in long, detailed hypnosis sessions is something extremely terrifying: a close encounter with the crew of an alien spaceship. Aliens stopped their car by moonlight, and escorted the alarmed humans aboard their flying saucer. There, these curious, inhuman creatures conducted a variety of invasive medical exams, including a pregnancy test, before sending the Hills -- with wiped memories -- on their way home.

Over time, Dr. Simon helps the Hills contextualize and accept the events of September 1961, even if it can't be fully or even adequately explained. The cloud of anxiety lifts (especially for Barney...), and some sense of normalcy returns to the Hills, despite the oddness of this weird event in their history.

The UFO Incident inter-cuts a series of tension-provoking hypnosis sessions with more routine views of Barney and Betty's domestic life, to good effect. James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons share a number of sweet, well-written scenes together at the Hill residence, strongly registering as likable, "real" people under unusual duress. These relationship scenes purposefully contrast in tone with the horrific recitation of the fascinating, you-can't-look-away abduction details.

For the most part, the hypnoses scenes in The UFO Incident admirably eschew spectacle for intimacy. Colla's camera remains pinned to Jones' expressive face in intense, sustained close-up photography. Barney grows ever more disturbed during his account of the alien encounter, and the performance is stunning. Watching Jones "live through" Barney's experience, you are absolutely riveted. And when Jones breaks the carefully-staged close-up composition, suddenly lunging from frame "trying to escape," you'll feel your adrenalin kick in. This is scary, scary stuff.

There are also occasional cuts to flashbacks during the hypnosis session; to Barney worriedly studying the night sky, clutching his binoculars, for instance. Intermittently, the audience can make out a light shining down on forest trees, but other than that, we never actually see the UFO in flight. This is an effective technique simply because we seem to be remembering "fragments" of the experience at the same time Barney or Betty does.

The medical examination scene aboard the alien space craft is vetted with similar tact and dramatic flair. Colla's camera cuts to a variety of insert shots: close-ups of alien surgical tools and other instrumentation, for example. When these shots begin to flash by, faster and faster, we feel as though we are being overcome by a flurry of images, literally overtaken by the experience.

The UFO Incident's most chilling image, however, arises during Betty's hypnosis session. She describes (again, in committed close-up), a group of "men" appearing ahead of the car; coming out of the forest and slowly nearing. Here, the film flashes back to a sort of wooded glade, and at first we don't see anything distinct. Then, appearing in shadow -- in the blurry, darkened distance at first -- black-garbed creatures loom, eventually coming into plain sight. Again, it's very chilling.

Colla and Anderson rigorously and faithfully follow the events and experiences in Fuller's written account, a fact which makes this TV movie an unusual artifact in a medium that prefers to tart things up. But, The UFO Incident isn't exactly a documentary, either. Instead, the film seeks and ultimately locates the core of the Hill drama: the manner in which the encounter with the aliens plays into Barney and Betty's already-existing fears.

For instance, Barney is a pragmatist, afraid of that which is real, meaning racial prejudice, intolerance and hatred. He's also grappling with another very real fear -- his health. The men in Barney's family all died young from strokes and he fears the same fate. For Barney, acknowledging that the UFO experience is actually real, proves a traumatic and difficult thing. If it's real, then he has to deal with it the same way he has to deal with bigotry or his illness.

Coming from a more privileged background, all of Betty's fears are based not in the real, but in the unknown. She's not alone; but she fears being alone (of losing Barney). She fears the "unknown" of death too. For her, the UFO experience means countenancing and accepting the unknown in her life.

The UFO Incident could have easily proven a really lurid, sensational bit of business. However, the steadfast focus on character, on performance, and on effective camera-work renders the movie not merely respectable, but actually admirable. The movie could have been an over-the-top geek show, but The UFO Incident understands it doesn't need to embellish, enhance or "stylize" the story of Barney and Betty Hill to render it attention-grabbing and suspenseful.

On the contrary, all the drama -- all the anxiety -- we can handle is abundantly present. In close-up. In the expressive, human faces of Jones and Parsons.

1 comment:

  1. Back when I was head of Programming for TNT, we had a Larry King special on UFOs, and we were able to license "The UFO Incident" to play in conjunction. (This is probably the mid-90s). It hadn't run in a while and we were thrilled to run it. It's definitely just as good as you say here, with incredibly performances. Just remembering Estelle Parsons crying out for "Barney...Barney!" is worth the price of admission, as it were. Great to see you cover this amazing TV movie which was certainly ahead of its time.