Film Review: Phoenix Forgotten, A Legitimately Creepy Blair Witch-Inspired Sci-fi Thriller

Photograph courtesy of Cinelou Releasing

Although not technically a found footage film, Phoenix Forgotten is a faux documentary that includes a great deal of found footage, which is a step in the right direction for the sub-genre since it answers the question: Who found and assembled this footage? The answer is a documentary team led by Sophie (Florence Hartigan), who is seeking to uncover the mystery behind three teenagers who went missing 20 years earlier while searching for the source of the legendary “Phoenix Lights,” a 1997 occurrence that happened in the skies over Arizona, seen by hundreds, and considered by many to be proof of UFOs.

The way actual filmmaker Justin Barber (an indie film producer marking his directing debut) blends news reports from 1997 with interviews with actors playing the parents of the missing kids is quite skillfully done, and it’s established early that there is likely a missing camera and tape that shows what happened to these high schoolers out in the desert. Luke Spencer Roberts plays Josh, a nerdy kid who just happened to be filming when the light event occurred. His footage is said to be the same that all the local news stations used. He’s joined by Ashley (Chelsea Lopez), their school’s resident roaming reporter, and Josh’s friend Mark (Justin Matthews), whose more conventional good looks and winning personality creates a rift between the friends for Ashley’s attention, because of course this can’t be a story with teenagers without a little unnecessary love drama. The known found footage ends just as the kids pull of the road, preparing to walk into the desert.

As the doc director Sophie begins to uncover certain secrets from the local government and air force about the incident with the lights, she also is led almost by the hand to the location of a badly scorched camera with a tape still inside—one containing certain lost footage. The last 30 minutes of Phoenix Forgotten consists almost entirely of this found footage, and it’s legitimately creepy, if almost too on the nose in terms of revealing the fate of the three kids. In fact the disappearances are so perfectly framed (shaky cam and static aside), it’s almost laughable at some points.

Still, for a first-time film and a slightly different subject matter than most horror/sci-fi found-footage work, it’s not terrible. The kids talk too much to the point of narration, which sometimes comes across as phony, but the acting isn’t bad, especially in the documentary portion of the movie. I especially liked the actors playing the parents of the missing kids, whose lives were decimated by these events. If you’re looking around your local multiplex and noticing a distinct lack of scary movies right now, you could do a lot worse than Phoenix Forgotten.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.