James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons Star in Intimate Made-for-TV Close Encounter of the Third Kind
DIRECTED BY RICHARD A. COLLA/1975
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JUNE 14, 2022/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Bright blue laser light makes precise contact with a reflective silver surface. It spins and spins, not making any sound of its own yet generating altogether other sound and visuals. What we make of the resulting sensory experience is only for us, individually, to determine…
Such is the basic function and follow-through of any Blu-ray player. Yet in the context of the 1975 made-for-TV movie The UFO Incident, one can be forgiven for perceiving the description as something else. We are drawn to subjects such as this because, like Fox Mulder, we want to believe. Even Betty Hill herself- one of the true-life individuals the film is about, notable along with her husband Barney for being the first high-profile claimants of UFO abduction- is said, in her later years, to have mistaken ordinary streetlamps for glowing spacecraft. Per both historical records and the fictionalized telling in the film, the Hills initial extraterrestrial experience was the stuff of buried trauma, nightmares, and perpetual second-guessing for years to come. It happened just south of Lancaster, New Hampshire one night during a long commute home from a vacation…
The film is based upon John G. Fuller Jr.’s 1966 book. The Interrupted Journey. Fuller Jr., an author who made his bread and butter writing about such things, scored a bestseller in his telling of the plight of the Hills. In reality and in The UFO Incident, Betty and Barney (portrayed by Estelle Parsons [Bonnie and Clyde] and James Earl Jones [Coming to America; Star Wars], both perfectly cast) are a humble middle-class couple of formidable intellect and a shared progressive outlook. Their status as an interracial couple living in a white community when the incident takes place, circa 1961, is the source of much tension and anxiety in their lives, but it doesn’t outwardly hinder their own relationship with one another. Neither Betty nor Barney is the type to go looking for an otherworldly encounter, at least not initially. The fundamental strangeness of their claims, many details of which synch up under independent expert hypnosis, is something that they understandably share the need to reconcile.
Barnard Hughes (The Lost Boys; TRON) plays Dr. Benjamin Simon, the professional analyst who hypnotizes and conducts the subsequent interviews with the Hills. Hughes, playing it assuredly perplexed, is the unsung cornerstone in this performance-centric three-hander. Much of the film is Dr. Simon’s interviews with the Hills; scenes in a dark but ordinary room filled primarily with the droning hum of the doctor’s 1/4” tape recorder. The sessions are intercut but not aggressively so, with both Betty and Barney’s glassy-eyed staccato cannot-tell-a-lie hypnosis interviews culminating in uncovered raw mental terror. In such, director Richard A. Colla (who’d later helm the pilot feature for the original Battlestar Galactica) cultivates a sustaining atmosphere of legitimate horror from very, very little in terms of production value. The way in which the film’s mise-en-scène (which could be described as “very 1970s”) commingles with the performances amid the then-trending UFO craze finds rare directorial symbiosis- something all the rarer for such quickly-made TV movies.
Everything about The UFO Incident wields an unsettling, often freaky quality. At times, simple shots of Jones smiling at Parsons- lit just a bit too aggressively- unintentionally resembles The Joker. It’s most definitely scary to hear the voice of Darth Vader coming out of the mouth of the clown Prince of crime… thankfully, that perception is not real. Then and now, 1970s TV-movie aesthetic always seems to be good for getting any given supernatural or otherworldly low-budget tale at least partway there.
Many of these efforts that came out of Universal Studios- a treasure trove unto itself of such output- had the added benefit of composer Billy Goldenberg. Goldenberg specialized in layered, gripping scores that elevated many a shoestring flick to a higher echelon. His work included The Outer Limits television series, Elvis Presley’s famed 1968 “Comeback” special, and Steven Spielberg’s breakout TV feature, Duel. Although Goldenberg died in 2020, he participated in the recent feature-length documentary by Gary Gerani called Romantic Mysticism: The Music of Billy Goldenberg, all about his career and unique sound. It’s a lovingly rendered if somewhat amateur piece that is included on this disc. It’s a perfect bonus feature for a movie such as this which begs for accompanying content, but very little probably exists at the ready.
KL Studio Classics continues its quite interesting recent trend of giving special treatment to its Blu-ray releases of the genre-centric vintage TV movies it has access to. This one includes not only the aforementioned Gary Gerani film about Billy Goldenberg and a slipcover, but also a newly recorded audio commentary with Gerani, credited here as “film historian/screenwriter”. Like his doc, Gerani’s track has its amateur qualities (from the recording quality to his unpolished delivery), but its overall warmth and enthusiasm quickly wins out. Gerani went the extra mile, successfully contacting a descendant of the Hills, as well as Estelle Parsons. He alternates effectively between the real-life version of the reported abduction and what the film is doing. The UFO Incident itself is presented in a brand new 2K master of its original NBC broadcast, complete with director Colla’s stylized commercial break outros and intros.
It’s kind of astonishing to realize that were a project akin to this network-broadcast movie created today, it would automatically be deemed “art house”. To what degree Colla’s limited budget (the aliens “inhuman grey skin” is obviously… rubber gloves) takes its toll on one’s enjoyment will reside in the perception of each individual. We will all see what we choose to see. If you go all in for this and find yourself entranced by the result of blinding blue rays communing with spinning shiny silver, fear not- it’s most likely not a UFO. It’s just KL Studio Classics’ The UFO Incident.