Can’t some bug-eyed outer space piece of sh*t abduct me the hell out of what passes for America today? Oh, well…one can dream.
By Paul Mavis
Speaking of made-up dreams, Kino Lorber has released on Blu-ray The U.F.O. Incident, the marvelously creepy 1975 NBC made-for-TV sci-fi docudrama depicting real-life couple Betty and Barney Hill’s supposed “alien abduction” in September, 1961. The Hill incident was really the first mainstream-reported “alien abduction” case. Their story became a worldwide phenomenon, eventually launching an entirely new mythology…not to mention a commercial industry that, over the decades, has generated billions of dollars for everyone from true believers to scammers to that lowest of low-life scum: the academics.
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Based on one of ufology’s most sacred texts, John G. Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey, and starring James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons, and Barnard Hughes, The U.F.O. Incident is most satisfyingly vague when it comes to whether or not it believes the Hills…which, if that isn’t necessarily the best way to approach these fantasists, it’s certainly the most entertaining. A couple of extras are included on the Blu, which we’ll laugh about later (on second thought…it’s not worth the effort).
[Author’s note]: Oh. And just a heads up to save you some time. If you read the above paragraph and somehow took offense, save it. Don’t send me impassioned or indignant rebuttals or PDFs of charts or graphs that plead your pro-alien case (and by the way, that guy in Schenectady who keeps sending me his old War Cry issues: knock it off). This is a review of a 47-year-old telemovie, depicting a 61-year-old event of, to put it kindly, highly dubious origin. It’s not a debate. Besides…you know I’m right.
Obsessively returning again and again in their car to Route 3, near the Indian Head resort in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Barney and Betty Hill (James Earl Jones, Estelle Parsons) know that something terrible happened to them off Route 3 on the night of September 19th, 1961. It must have happened, because Betty is suffering from frightening nightmares concerning the event, while Barney’s health is the real nightmare: extreme anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia, high blood pressure, ulcers…and a curious ring of genital warts (hey cheaters—bet you never thought of the “alien excuse” for that one, huh?).
After initial therapy sessions with Boston psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon (Barnard Hughes) in January, 1964, first Barney and then Betty, under Dr. Simon’s hypnosis, finally reveal, in full, what “actually” happened on that September night in 1961. Pulling an all-nighter to get home from a Canadian vacation, sleep-deprived Barney and Betty believe they see something acting unusual in the night sky. Betty believes it’s a UFO, but practical Barney insists it’s a plane.
Following the erratically-flying “plane,” the Hills eventually stop their car when the UFO descends towards them. Betty insists Barney take a look at it with his binoculars. Absolutely terrified at what he sees—a huge pancake-shaped object with humanoid figures visible in the windows—Barney, in a blind panic, dashes back to car, screaming that they’re going to be abducted. Trying to outrun the UFO, the Hills suddenly hear a beeping sound…and the next thing they know, it’s two hours later, and they’re 36 miles further down the road, with both of them not knowing what happened (that’s just a regular Friday night after the Drunk TV weekend kick-off).
Returning home to Portsmouth, the Hills feel that something else happened to them after they spotted the UFO, but they can’t quite recall any details. They also note Barney’s inexplicably scuffed shoes and Betty’s torn dress, and also strange radioactive spots on the back of their car, which, before magically disappearing, cause a compass to react wildly when put near them (yeah…compasses don’t detect radiation).
It’s only when Betty starts vividly dreaming about the abduction are more details present, dreams that she later writes down and eventually shares with others and then Dr. Simon. Betty details how Barney and she were taken aboard a spaceship, where little gray aliens with huge eyes conducted medical experiments on them (again: Friday nights. Drunk TV HQ). Will anyone believe their story? Or will self-knowledge be enough to soothe their own shattered psyches?
I have one vivid memory of watching The U.F.O. Incident back on October 20th, 1975, just one: James Earl Jones’ hypnosis scene, where he cries and screams and, rather frighteningly, flips out. Clearly, as a ten-year-old, I must have registered that as the movie’s most terrifying sequence (Jones really goes for broke there, repeatedly delivering a believably unhinged, high-pitched squeal that will make your hair stand on end). The rest of the movie was lost to me until I saw it again this week.
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If you’ve read some of my previous reviews (someone else needs a head shrinker…), you’ll know that I frequently mention growing up on stuff like The U.F.O. Incident and how much I loved all of it. The early 70s was the golden age of pseudoscience married to commercialization, so books and movies and documentaries and TV shows and toys dealing with UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, The Abominable Snowman, ancient astronauts, The Bermuda Triangle, the Lost City of Atlantis, the occult, Amway, and the Methodists, were everywhere.
So I’m certainly not predisposed to not believing the Hills just because so-called aliens are involved. On some nostalgic (and childish) level, I’d love to believe it happened. It would just back up all those delightful childhood memories of mine devoted to those fantastical tales, and give weight to those wonderfully scary moments when watching something like The U.F.O. Incident seemed just as real as, well…reality.
But we get older, and (hopefully) smarter, and certainly more questioning, and eventually we should find that we don’t need fictional boogeymen anymore to scare us into the arms of our parents. As every generation discovers, what’s happening right in front of our eyes is far more terrifying than anything the Hills claimed to have happened to them (when the supposed leader of the free world implores dead people to come up on stage with him—a stage he can’t find his way off of—I think we can dispense with the horrors of little gray men with ping pong ball peepers).
Besides, other far more qualified researchers and writers have thoroughly debunked the Hills’ account. You don’t need me to pile on, too…although it’s hard to resist, considering their story has taken on additional contemporary aspects—mostly racial, due to theirs being an interracial marriage—that now are supposed to immunize their account from any scrutiny. Prior to today’s fanatical, fascist wokery that is decimating Western culture, if you disbelieved the Hills you were merely a skeptic. Now? You’re a racist.
Unfortunately, I’m not at all surprised that there has been renewed Hollywood interest in retelling the Hills’ story—particularly their backstory—despite the fact that it’s been proven to be a complete fantasy. Just as that lame-ass new Jeffrey Dahmer miniseries isn’t really about his repulsive crimes but the far greater crime—in that disreputable producer’s mind—of so-called “white privilege,” the new Hill abduction series won’t be so much about aliens, I’d gather, but rather about how white America hated a black man marrying a white woman. The aliens will just be the hook to get eyeballs.
So, I’m not going to get into even the most basic, glaring facts disputing Betty’s story (and it truly is her story, which Barney then later internalized after years of hearing its various permutations), like…Betty’s abduction account differing significantly over the weeks, months, and years that she repeated it. Or that the Hills’ celebrated “lost time” wasn’t even noted by them until “UFO enthusiasts” told them it was lost (and even after that, Betty couldn’t stick to a set time it occurred). Or that Betty’s assertion that military radar had picked up a UFO at the time of the abduction has been repeatedly proven false. Or that the supposed validity of the Hills’ accounts depended on the thoroughly unreliable method of hypnosis (unreliable, that is, in getting hard, verifiable facts out, rather than subconscious wishes or fantasies).
Or that this hypnosis was conducted years after Betty wrote out what happened to her and Barney, written accounts that were taken from one-time dreams of what supposedly happened, not real-time memories. Or that details of Betty’s story varied widely under hypnosis, including her description of her abductors. Or that the Hills’ doctor flat-out stated, after studying their recorded hypnosis sessions, that their account was an induced fantasy, brought on by Betty’s fascination with science-fiction and her previous belief in alien beings, masking personal “crippling anxiety” that plagued the couple.
Or that Betty’s notorious “star map,” drawn from memory inside the ship, is completely bogus, a meaningless series of dots and lines that can be lined up with any number of star systems…or whatever you care to lay it over. Or that once she became famous, she claimed to see UFOs everywhere, and became such an unreliable proponent of the UFO phenomenon that she was subsequently ridiculed by the very people who originally championed her.
I’m not going to mention any of that….
That’s why it’s best to just view The U.F.O. Incident as complete and utter (science) fiction, and to judge it solely as a movie divorced from any semblance of reality (as one should do with any movie purportedly based on real events or people). And on that level…The U.F.O. Incident is quite thought-provoking and entertaining.
Tone is everything in a piece like The U.F.O. Incident, and director Richard A. Colla is quite subtle at creating an unnerving underlying tension throughout this MTV. Deliberately understated in the TV-square framing and direction, and consciously underplayed by the small, excellent cast, the total effect isn’t “documentary realism,” as the disc’s commentator, Gary Gerani, incorrectly calls it. Rather, a dreamy, metronome, “waking nightmare” ambience is enhanced by the un-documentary flashback/flashforward editing, and the dead, hermetically-sealed atmosphere created by tight, cramped TV budget-dictated interior sets, and the controlled, obviously faked-on-a-soundstage outdoor scenes involving the aliens.
Apparently, prior to production, the director was asked about the validity of the source book, The Interrupted Journey, with Colla quite rightly expressing reservations about it, since the author John G. Fuller cleverly inserted his own logical qualms into the narrative. A close look at The U.F.O. Incident indicates that Colla and screenwriters S. Lee Pogostin (working under the pseudonym “Jake Justiz”) and Hesper Anderson also had their doubts about the Hills’ account.
Indeed, far more of The U.F.O. Incident seems concerned with exploring the Hills’ life together after the “abduction,” rather than the actual “abduction” itself. By most accounts, including Betty and Barney and their various psychiatrists, the Hill relationship was marked by Barney’s life-long anxiety (“I was always a worrier,” the on-screen Barney explains) and his desire to be seen as in control of himself and whatever situation he was in, and Betty’s ability to actually achieve this state.
When Barney explains he didn’t think they initially saw a UFO, he states, “Betty found a way to talk me into it,” to which she cheerfully pipes up, “I’m good at that!” (later, Barney aptly sums up Betty for the doctor: “Bossy little thing, isn’t she?”). It’s a relationship neatly foreshadowed in the opening scene’s dialogue: a tense, nervous Barney is driving out in the middle of nowhere, searching for the site of their previous encounter, exclaiming, “There’s no road, no nothing,” which prompts a calm, confident—and controlling—Betty to reply, “Of course there is; we just haven’t found it.”
The U.F.O. Incident’s script goes out of its way to highlight several incidents showing Barney’s legitimate paranoia about being black in America, but interestingly, the moviemakers make a point of suggesting that perhaps the first fantasy of Barney’s life wasn’t the alien abduction, but rather his notion that racism intended towards him may have been exaggerated or even non-existent, perhaps a perception born out of his own neurosis created when he was a child—a rather bold viewpoint considering today’s moviemakers’ rather monolithic take on past race relations in America.
In The U.F.O. Incident, Barney’s obsession with race dominates his thinking (even their dog, snapping at Barney’s hand when he tries to get between it and Betty, summons up a racially-tinged joke: “Just a little tolerance, is all I ask,”). When a resistant, unbelieving Barney angrily dismisses Betty’s thoughts on the “abduction,” stating, “Dreams are dreams, and reality is reality,” Betty counters with Barney’s infatuation with the thought that every white kid in a ducktail and leather jacket means to harm him. “Is that reality?” she defiantly asks, to which he responds, “I was brought up to be careful, remember?”
And yet, The U.F.O. Incident’s script never mentions or shows any actual prejudice perpetrated against Barney—a fact the character acknowledges several times. In the movie’s opening sequence, when the couple is jeered by some hotrodders in the road, it’s too dark for them to see who’s driving (they don’t yell anything specific to Barney, either). In Barney’s hypnosis session, he questions his own judgment in always carrying a gun, admitting that there’s no hostility from whites (“Get ahold of yourself!” he implores himself). Barney also worried that while on their honeymoon, the hotel would discriminate against them as a couple. They didn’t.
Later, Barney relates to Betty two awful stories from his past. His mother recounted that an old woman was caught on his porch with a pot of boiling water, with the intention of pouring it on Barney in his crib. However, Barney laughs when hearing himself say this, stating, “Isn’t it crazy?” before dismissing it with, “Maybe it didn’t really happen…but I grew up on stuff like this.” “Stuff” like that also includes frightening stories of his relatives having to stay up late, sitting on their front porches with guns in case “they” (whites) were coming.
Barney, however, sighs, “But…they never came,” as if he’s long resigned to this actual reality. Were Barney’s parents so frightened for him that they overstated the actual danger he faced (after all, most sources have Betty stating that she and Barney had no trouble as an interracial couple, in a place—mostly white New Hampshire—and during a time that many people today would insist had to have involved discrimination against the Hills)? Since these moments reoccur and are highlighted in The U.F.O. Incident, it’s a legitimate line of critical inquiry (within the scope of the movie’s script in this case). But of course in today’s woke pop culture, to even suggest such academic seeking is tantamount to bigotry itself, for the outraged social media goon squads that fanatically seek to control intellectual pursuits and true free speech.
In fact, The U.F.O. Incident doesn’t shy away from showing Barney’s intolerance towards whites. In a scene where the Hills entertain friends (Barney’s best male friend is white), Barney bombastically starts exclaiming to Betty, “The trouble with you white people…” before she angrily interrupts his racist statement (and of course it’s racist—just switch a white character saying that line about black people), stating, “Don’t you call me ‘you white people’! You can say, ‘those white people,’ but don’t include me! I’m not white. I’m human.” That last line sounds like a Hollywood screenwriter, but it’s still interesting because it shows Betty rejecting Barney’s bias…but only by excluding herself from his generalized scorn.
Of course in The U.F.O. Incident, the clearest indicator of Barney’s feelings towards whites occurs under hypnosis, where he’s discussing his fears of being discriminated against when he and Betty arrive at their hotel. He states he’s worried because, “I was prejudiced,” a classic Freudian slip that his doctor immediately questions, and which Barney immediately corrects. It’s a telling moment, but the screenwriters wisely left out other instances of the real Barney Hill’s feelings, from the hypnosis transcripts, that would have had the TV audience questioning their sympathy for him (for instance, Barney rather bizarrely asserted that all red-headed Irishmen are abusive to blacks).
But then, quite a bit of what Betty believed is left out of The U.F.O. Incident, as well. As disc commentator Gary Gerani states (without a hint of irony), screenwriters rely on their “own creative judgment” as to what to add or delete when basing a script on a real person or event (in other words: it all boils down to fiction, in the end). He even offers how the script left out significant info about Betty and her family believing in UFOs prior to the “abduction,” because that would “break [the movie’s] careful sense of reality and would start to get a little too crazy.” Indeed it would, as would the fact that Betty was a big fan of sci-fi books and movies prior, and that far from not seeking publicity, she talked about her “abduction” with anyone who would listen (fellow employees, church groups, schools) prior to the story going wide—neither of which are found in The U.F.O. Incident.
As intriguing as the domestic scenes are in The U.F.O. Incident, the “abduction” sequence (interspersed throughout the narrative) is marvelously unsettling. Shot on a large, dark soundstage, the “practical” forest, the discomposing music cues (from pro Billy Goldenberg), and heightened, dramatic lighting, lend a nightmarish quality that is further enhanced by Jones’ and Parsons’ believably frightened thesping (Parson gets to channel Blanche Barrow again when they grays stick that long needle in her).
I’ve read complaints about The U.F.O. Incident’s special effects (most probably from spoiled new viewers), but there are only a few, including one brief shot of the craft (perfectly acceptable for a low-budget TV movie of that period), while the dark, hard-surfaced interior of the craft is agreeably sparse, modernistic, and threatening (disc commentator Gary Gerani states, with nary a suggestion of a giggle, that Betty’s description of the interior of the space craft has been “validated” by scientists. Soooo…how’d they do that?).
Most successful is the incredibly simple practical effect used to create the “bug-eyed” alien look: plain magnifying glass was put into the latex masks to grotesquely enlarge the actors’ eyes. When we first cut to a close up of one of them, it’s a lovely bit of a shock for the viewer. If these TV aliens actually had visited Betty Hill, I’d understand her long-repressed terror and anxiety. However…she originally said her aliens looked like, um…Jimmy Durante (“Inka Dinka Doo-what I say and you won’t get probed,”). So, as always, the Hollywood version of a “true” event, is far more entertaining than the “real” thing.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.
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2 thoughts on “‘The U.F.O. Incident’ (1975): Fact, fiction, or Hollywood entertainment?”
I recall certain parts of this from my childhood tv memories (yes, we too were given carte blanche with the tv until pops came home and reclaimed the couch and 19” colour box).
I did not recall the mixed marriage dynamic – very interesting undercurrent. Enjoyed your read of that dynamic and how it adds context to the story. Agree, would be a very different take on this movie today if made as a “reboot” (retch).
A shout out to “In Search Of…”. With the gravitas of Leonard Nemoy in tweed and turtlenecks and eerie synthesizer music, was always a good watch for those too young to know better.
Thanks, Spenser–glad you enjoyed it.