I must be coming up in the world. Over the past few months, I’ve ended up on a number of PR companies’ lists and have been bombarded with requests to review various media projects, and for the first time the PR agents are offering me free review copies of upcoming releases. Yes, I am now a wielder of power and influence on par with your run of the mill Kardashian fan page. As a result, I was given access to the video on demand release of a documentary on UFOs called Strange Septembers: The Hill Abduction & the Exeter Encounter – Narrated by Peter Weller. Yes, Robocop got his name listed as part of the title in the press packet, though not on-screen in the film itself. The film was made in 2010 but is just now being released.
Before I criticize the 90-minute film, by directors Jeff and Jess Finn of Z-Machine and written by Jeff Finn, I will praise it in one thing: The title card is visually striking and draws from some of the better graphic design from the horror genre. The rest of the film borders on the incompetent and wouldn’t have passed for a student film in any film school worth its salt.
Strange Septembers purports to investigate two 1960s-era New Hampshire UFO events, a sighting of a large craft by a teenager in Exeter in 1965 and the infamous abduction of Betty and Barney Hill in 1961 and subsequent hypnotic recollection of it several years after. According to the production notes, it is an uncredited adaptation of John Fuller’s two books on the incidents, The Interrupted Journey and Incident at Exeter, both favorites of Jeff Finn. But the filmmakers are so convinced that the witnesses encountered space aliens that the documentary is little more than a face-value recounting of the participants’ claims, as given in their own words (via archival footage) and through the supportive comments of their friends and relatives, and the happy agreement of ufologists. Weller’s monotone narration, read rapidly as though he were paid by the word and wanted to get them all out as quickly as possible, asks no questions and points out not even the most basic of inconsistencies or implausible aspects of either case. Even believers might find it a bit too willing to bend over backward to avoid critical thinking. It’s not a good sign that nearly everyone interviewed in the film is either a close friend of the deceased witnesses or someone who directly profits from UFO “mysteries,” or both.
Weller’s narration drops out part way through the film, and it becomes mostly a montage of ufologists speculating in the absence of facts, gradually rising to a crescendo of conspiracy theories unleavened by any critical voices or even self-awareness.
Even that might not have been enough to sink the documentary, but sheer incompetence makes it nearly unwatchable. The film is technically slipshod. Interviews are poorly lit, badly framed (some people are looking down and off screen, or partially cut off), and the sound is horrific. Some interviewees’ voices seem to be recorded not from a lavalier but from the microphone built in to the camera, with no effort to shield it from wind or ambient noise. At one point it sounded like the producers failed to turn off the TV in one interviewee’s living room, and in one wide shot from a second camera it appears that the filmmakers are using a Flip Video UltraHD pocket-sized camcorder as their primary camera. Indeed, the production notes concede that Jeff Finn started making the film in 2010 with the intent of it being a YouTube video—and it shows! To mask the sound issues, the entire freaking film is smothered under a repeating loop of the kind of mood music you’d find in a late-1990s X-Files rip off. By the end I could not stand the music any longer and just wanted it to stop. The blocking is pedestrian, and the visual look of the film is low-rent, like public access TV. In place of the kind of photorealistic CGI recreations or hiring actors for scenes like you might see on cable TV, the filmmakers use simplistic cartoon animation that looks a lot like the famous “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe” pilot episode of South Park. Oddly, this is perhaps the best choice the filmmakers could make because their lack of visual sense unintentionally led to undercutting their whole message by emphasizing the ridiculous.
The film’s big “get” is that it interviewed James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons, who played Barney and Betty Hill in the UFO Incident TV movie back in the 1970s. Both actors profess to believe that the Hills really encountered something mysterious, though neither has any firsthand information to provide. Jones, indeed, believes that the Air Force was trying to suppress hysteria should the “truth” come out, though he isn’t sure what that truth is, aliens, Cold War weaponry, or something else. (The filmmakers also don’t bother to hide the badly placed lavalier wires, which stand out against the actors’ shirts, and drag down Jones’s t-shirt at an ugly angle. The wires should have been run up underneath their jackets and pinned to their lapels.) They also interview UFO regulars Stanton Friedman and Kathleen Marden, the coauthors of the Hill book Captured, and Marden conducts the entire interview while holding a copy of Captured up to the camera like a QVC presenter hawking costume jewelry.
Strange Septembers starts to pick up steam in its last third, however, when the filmmakers run out of ways to recap the two UFO stories and start to let their talking heads take a stab at explaining what happened. The lunatics they interview, particularly ufologist Dean Merchant, when untethered from reality, begin to spout all sorts of nonsense, tying these two UFO stories to everything from a global conspiracy centered on the Roswell Incident, to a vast military conspiracy to thwart the aliens’ nuclear ambitions, to their attraction to power lines and the aliens’ ability to change the size of their ships from that of an atom to that of an ocean-liner all while traveling interdimensionally. You see, the aliens’ ships aren’t made just of nuts and bolts but can convert themselves into pure energy bodies through which they can exceed the speed of light and pass between dimensions. All of this is presented with a straight face, as though it were a plausible scientific hypothesis.
The film was written by Jeff Finn, whose writing wasn’t up to the task. The phrasing is pedestrian, the order of information confusing and repetitious, and the overall point muddled. Why are we hearing about these two UFO stories out of all possible stories? No one ever says (though the press release ties it in to New Hampshire’s history of living free or dying), and the writing never makes clear whether we are supposed to see them as similar, or merely as facets of a vast conspiracy. The whole thing needed a rewrite, a stronger narrative voice, and just a hint of critical thinking. That would not come from Finn, who admits in the press packet to being a true UFO believer, obsessed with UFOs since a childhood viewing of The UFO Incident in 1975, at the age of 8: “To say the movie scared me, like my own UFO sighting, would be an understatement. I was haunted.” Finn goes on to say that the more ufologists he spoke with, the more completely he embraced the fringe worldview: “The deeper we dug, the more interviews we were able to arrange, and the more interviews we arranged, the more eerie puzzle pieces began to fall into place.” He said he hopes that his film will challenge those “clinging to a rigid worldview.” Although it pains me to say it, if Finn had made himself a character in the film it might have given a spine to the story to give structure to what otherwise is an impressionistic montage with no center.
Strange Septembers is available for on-demand streaming for $2.99 or download for $9.99.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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