13.11.16

IT'S RENDLESHAM CAPTAIN, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT

The Rendlesham UFO Incident. Directed by Daniel Simpson. Written by Daniel Simpson and Adam Preston. Starring Danny Shayler, Abbie Salt and Robert Curtis. Running time: 83 mins. Altitude Film Distribution, 2015.

I picked this up expecting it to be a dramatic 'retelling' of the supposed 1981 Rendlesham Forest UFO encounter, complete with assurances that it's all true and based on fact, but this is actually rather better than that. It's based on the idea that aliens really did land somewhere in Rendlesham Forest, where they were encountered by soldiers from the nearby US air force base. It begins with the Halt recording, although I friend I saw this with claimed that although the words are Halt's, it's not actually the same recording. Perhaps its been tweaked slightly to make it more suitable for cinema audiences, rather than the Ufolks poring over their computers' audio systems in the middle of the night, straining their ears to hear something through the static. After this start in historical fact, or misperception, the film goes in a completely different, fictional direction.

It's a found footage movie, supposedly made by the MOD from footage recovered from a group of metal detectorists, who videoed themselves as they ventured into the Forest and the not-quite abandoned USAF base thirty years after the first encounter. Gus, Jake and Gus' girlfriend, Sally, are travelling across Suffolk looking for archaeological remains. After drinking in one of the local hostelries, and filming the morris dancers outside, they press on further into the countryside, where events turn progressively strange. They pass a field full of dead horses. A bit further on, while standing in one of the fields by the side of the road warplanes race close over their heads. Eventually they get to the Forest, where, unable to contact the landowner, they decide to do a bit of nighthawking and start trespassing instead, walking straight through a torn gap in the fence surrounding the MOD's bit of it. During the night they see strange lights floating through the trees. After sleeping in the car overnight, they investigate, going further into the forest, where they find a covered shaft leading underground. Going back to their car, they find that the vehicle has disappeared. 

The rest of the film is about them going even further into the Forest in the hope of finding their way out. Of course they become progressively lost, while events around them become weirder and more threatening. They see more strange lights in the sky, complete with flashes and loud bangs. A air force helicopter flies overhead, only to come burning, crashing down into the trees. They find a brick hut, surrounded with fresh, skinned meat, in which there is a camp bed and a warm thermos. It also contains video surveillance equipment. Looking at this, they find images of themselves sleeping in the car overnight. Gus starts to become sick and irrational, while Sally is clearly upset at having been spied on. Leaving the hut, they stumble through the woods until evening, when they find army tents, but not the soldiers, who put them up. Preparing to spend another night in the open, they crawl into the tents, where they are dissturbed by more, louder explosions. Panicking, they get out into the open. Gus, now seriously ill, leaves the rest to go off alone.



Jake and Sally go on. Coming across the shaft again, they find that its cover has been taken off. Continuing their trek, they come to the air force base itself, which is no longer as abandoned as it appears. Exploring the complex of buildings, they find one room laid out so that its contents could be filmed by an array of cameras ranged behind a window. Going further into the base, they find video monitors showing footage of the bodies of soldiers kept in the barracks beds further into the base. Film footage on the monitors shows spikes and tendrils erupting from the bodies of the diseased horses they'd seen along the way, and the soldiers suffer from the same wounds. One of the monitors shows their friend, Gus. They go from room to room searching for him, finding more of the strangely mutilated corpses. Eventually they find Gus, dead, in another hangar, his body marked by the same spikes. Further into the base they see several levels below them a real alien spacecraft. As alarms sound throughout the base, the spacecraft starts lifting off, rising up from the ground along with the objects, like chairs and so on, surrounding it. Gus and Sally start running through the base to escape. Getting outside, they find the base surrounded by alien spaceships, with the captured UFO about to join them. Sally collapses. Unable to rouse her, Jake goes on, running up a long ramp, taking off the clothing on the upper part of his body until he abruptly vanishes. End of movie.

Extras include a tour of Rendlesham Forest with the director, Daniel Simpson, two alternative endings for the movie, and several scenes left out of the final edit.

This is actually quite an effective little movie. It's clearly a low budget film, but apparently it did have some cinema release under the title Hanger 10. It clearly owes much to the Blair Witch Project of the 1990s, but with metal detecting enthusiasts instead of film students, and UFOs instead of a killer witch. The budget obviously didn't stretch to masses of soldiers fighting UFO aliens, and the spacecraft and human aircraft are CGI. Nevertheless, the effects are well done, and the alien ships actually look good. Most importantly, they actually feature in the movie, unlike some of the aliens and spacecraft shown on the sleeves of other, low-budget UFO flicks, like The Object. And what the film lacks in budget it makes up for in atmosphere. It's a genuinely eerie movie, and creates a real sense of the characters passing through an otherworldly environment. Apart from the explosions, the sky is weirdly lit, and the movie effectively creates an unsettling feeling of terrible things happening just out of sight. It also expresses just how eerie the British countryside can be as a working environment, where sounds and traces of people can be heard, but the people themselves remain unseen.

I have to say that as an archaeologist, I've mixed feelings about the characters going nighthawking, though I don't find them being metal detectorists problematic. Until recently, many museums and the archaeology departments of local councils up and down the country ran schemes with metal detecting groups, in which they encouraged responsible detectorists to bring their finds in so that they could be properly recorded, with the hobbyists keeping what they found.

Nighthawkers are different. They're a menace to archaeology and this nation's heritage. They prey on archaeological sites and investigations, going in after dark when the proper excavators have gone home, and then trash them. Artifacts that should tell the history of a site are lost into their private pockets, and the surrounding evidence destroyed or spoilt in the nighthawkers' attempts to get to them. Precious knowledge is lost, and potentially valuable items, which really belong to the public and the local landowner, are stolen by these thieves.

I notice, however, that the movie is careful about how the characters are portrayed. They are shown to be trying to contact the landowner before going on to their land, and are not shown trying to loot a proper dig. Despite their questionable attitude to detecting, this is not an endorsement of nighthawking. Especially if it is viewed as some kind of morality play, with the UFO aliens descending as their just nemesis for trespassing on a forbidden site.

It's not a great movie, but not a bad one either. It's also shot on location in Suffolk and Rendlesham Forest itself. In the short piece presented by Simpson, he shows how the 1980s UFO encounter has been commemorated in a UFO trail laid out through the woodland, like the various other heritage paths set out for walkers up and down Britain. This shows how far the original encounter has become part of the local folklore, as well as its commercialisation as part of the tourist industry. Outside of the framework of the movie, the film actually doesn't pretend to be factual, with the exception of the Halt recording. Its setting as stolen military footage is actually quite a common plot device in such films, like Cloverfield, which is set as footage filmed by a party of New Yorkers attempting to escape and rescue one of their friends as the city is attacked by a vast, submarine monster. 

To my knowledge no-one has gone on to claim that somehow the events in the Rendlesham UFO Incident are real, or based on a real incident. This doesn't mean that someone won't in time, however. Browsing the internet a little while ago, I came across a Russian piece that claimed to show the 12 alien races that were now visiting Earth. Despite its claim that this was all completely 100 per cent true, it was clearly the opposite. All the aliens were from SF movies and TV series. I even recognised one as Zhan from the US-Australian series Farscape. But for the moment, the film has clearly been received as it was meant, as a piece of entertainment. Those worried about spread of the abduction myth through spurious documentaries and dramatic reconstructions can breath easy with this one.

So, if you fancy watching a low-budget SF flick about UFOs, you could do worse than see this one. It uses its low budget well, has reasonable effects, and doesn't pretend to be anything more serious than it is. -- David Sivier


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