Most found-footage horror films owe a sizable debt to The Blair Witch Project, but few have aped the genre’s touchstone quite as shamelessly as does Phoenix Forgotten, which chronicles the mysterious disappearance of two young men (one named Josh!) and a young woman who got lost in the middle of nowhere while shooting a documentary about a paranormal phenomenon. This time, the phenomenon in question is taken from real life: On March 13, 1997, thousands of Phoenix residents claimed to have seen mysterious lights in the sky, which many still believe to have been an alien spacecraft. (There were in fact two separate incidents that day, both of which have perfectly rational explanations; the first was likely just a group of planes flying in formation, while the second was almost certainly military flares being dropped.) First-time director Justin Barber, who cowrote the screenplay with T.S. Nowlin, builds his narrative around the Phoenix Lights, but sticks so close to formula that they might as well be called the Blair Lights.
Structurally, Phoenix Forgotten pointlessly combines The Blair Witch Project with last year’s belated sequel, Blair Witch. Roughly half of the film is set in the present day, as 26-year-old Sophie (Florence Hartigan), accompanied by a never-seen cameraman, returns to Phoenix to shoot a documentary about her brother, Josh (Luke Spencer Roberts), who vanished without a trace 20 years earlier, about a week after the Phoenix Lights were first seen. This material is pure filler, accomplishing little more than getting a sparse idea to feature length. Sophie’s interviews eventually lead to the discovery of a previously unknown camcorder tape, and the footage on that tape reveals what happened to Josh, but there’s no good reason why the movie doesn’t just start with that discovery. It’s as if The Blair Witch Project had wasted half its running time on scenes of other characters trying to find the tape that shows the house in the woods.
Interspersed with Sophie’s present-day doc is camcorder footage shot by Josh, mostly in the company of his classmate/“producer”/crush object, Ashley (Chelsea Lopez). Barber does a creditable job of fashioning crappy-looking ’90s video, and Lopez gives a convincingly naturalistic performance (and also totally nails an impression of Jodie Foster in Contact, which was a current release at the time Ashley’s footage was shot); Phoenix Forgotten is at its best when most divorced from its ostensible premise, just delighting in a couple of teens hanging out.
The film’s final stretch, however, is devoted entirely to the contents of the lost final tape, as Josh, Ashley, and a third friend, Mark (Justin Matthews), drive out to a Native American reservation and experience the Phoenix Lights up close and personal. Stripped of the interpersonal dynamics and days-long exhaustion that turn Blair Witch’s Heather, Josh, and Mike into gibbering wrecks, this trio is left to lurch through comparatively dull terrain and scream at some remarkably chintzy effects. Like the Phoenix Lights themselves, it’s all much ado about nothing—not even worthy of a snot-nosed apology.