Hollywood's alien movies have been drawing inspiration from UFO stories since the dawn of the modern UFO era over seventy years ago, but only a handful have been based directly on real-life UFO incidents. Here are 5 of the best...
The UFO Incident (1975)
One of the first cases of alien abduction on record -- and arguably the most famous -- is that of Betty and Barney Hill, a middle-aged couple who encountered a UFO on the night of 19 September 1961 while driving late at night in New Hampshire. The couple claimed to have witnessed a disc-shaped craft low above the road directly ahead of them. Barney even described seeing a number of humanoid figures staring back at him through its windows. Little else was recalled consciously. The rest of their account would surface later through dramatic hypnosis sessions with respected Boston psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon, who published a popular book about the incident in 1966.
In 1975, the Hill abduction story became even more famous when it was adapted for television as a feature-length movie starring Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones as Betty and Barney. With a teleplay based directly on Dr. Simon’s taped hypnosis sessions with the couple, The UFO Incident was remarkably faithful to the Hill’s actual account of capture by grey-skinned saucer occupants in September of 1961.
Another film, the little-known Italian production Eyes Behind the Stars, had touched on the theme of abduction three years prior in 1972, but The UFO Incident was the first direct treatment of a real-life case and the first to bring together many of the now-common themes and motifs of abduction experiences, including medical examination, missing time, and hypnosis. The movie’s aliens, although smallish with large eyes and bald heads, are of normal proportions, and are quite different to Greys as they would later be realized onscreen in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind as decidedly smaller, more spindly beings with significantly larger heads and larger, blacker eyes.
The UFO Incident remains one of Hollywood’s best treatments of a true life abduction experience. It works first and foremost as a powerful human drama, propelled by the obvious commitment of Parsons and Jones in excellent central performances as the Hills. Despite its fantastical subject matter, the film remains sober throughout.
Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book about his claimed encounters with non-human entities was an instant bestseller, and, to date, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. The 1989 movie adaptation starred Christopher Walken in a compellingly manic performance as Strieber, and Lindsay Crouse as his late wife, Anne.
Both book and movie are primarily focused on an experience which occurred 26 December 1985, when Strieber believes he was abducted from his cabin in upstate New York while on a short break with his family and some close friends. Strieber had almost no conscious recollection of what had happened to him, but in the months that followed he began to suffer an untraceable emotional and psychological toll.
In the movie, we follow Strieber as he reluctantly agrees to be hypnotically regressed by psychiatrist Janet Duffey (played by Frances Sternhagen). It is through these sessions that the bizarre events of that night come back to confront him – events involving small, spindly, beings with oversized oval heads and large hypnotic black eyes.
Communion was the first Hollywood entertainment product to engage thoughtfully with the more surreal aspects of the abduction phenomenon. With a screenplay penned by Strieber himself, the movie captures the tonal essence of his book, if not its deeply layered psychological and metaphysical complexity. It’s a flawed film, but it dares to show abduction for the baffling, hallucinatory, deeply troubling, intellectually challenging, and spiritually transformative phenomenon it is reported to be. This is a film, which, for the most part, is rooted firmly in our own mundane world. The thought of non-human intelligences breaking through into this reality from a strange realm is psychologically jarring, both for Strieber and for the viewer.
Despite its flaws, Communion remains a deeply creepy movie. It’s an important one too, not only for its ambition, but for further popularizing the image of the now iconic Grey alien—an image which first came to prominence on the cover of Strieber’s own bestselling book and would later feature on the movie’s VHS cover, staring hypnotically into the eyes of millions of freaked-out customers in video rental stores worldwide.
1987 saw the publication of Budd Hopkins’ Intruders: The Incredible Visitations at Copley Woods. The book investigated the claims of a number of alleged alien abductees, but was more specifically concerned with the case of Debbie Jordan-Kauble (known in the book as “Kathie Davis”). Jordan-Kauble described having been abducted from her parents’ home in June of 1983 and being taken aboard an egg-shaped craft which had landed outside. She claimed to have been impregnated by her alien captors, who later removed the fetus and eventually introduced her to her human-alien hybrid child.
Hopkins’ Intruders book would later be very loosely adapted for television by screenwriter Tracy Tormé—son of legendary jazz singer and musician Mel Tormé. The 1992 mini-series (later broadcast back-to-back as a movie) was concerned less with the Jordan-Kauble story and more with the broader abduction phenomenon as it was then understood by the leading researchers in the field, namely Hopkins and Harvard psychiatrist John Mack, both of whom served as consultants on the production.
Intruders was broadcast by CBS through 17–19 May 1992 and was generally well received by critics. It remains significant for its thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of the abduction phenomenon, and for grounding itself convincingly in a normal world occasionally intruded upon by a profound and sometimes terrifying non-human intelligence. It explored many themes and motifs common to abduction accounts, including intrusive examinations, alien impregnation, hybrid children, screen memories, and hypnotic regression. Tormé is convinced that his show had considerable cultural impact, bringing a previously obscure UFOlogical facet to the masses. He told me of Intruders: “I really believe this project was part of the process of people becoming aware of how these things [abductions] allegedly work.”
Fire in the Sky (1993)
In 1975, Travis Walton, a logger from Snowflake, Arizona, famously claimed to have been taken aboard a flying saucer and to have interacted with two different species of aliens. What distinguishes Walton’s story from innumerable other accounts of cosmic kidnapping is that his apparent abduction was witnessed, in part, by the six other men on his logging crew. They sped back into town that night to inform bemused authorities of how a UFO had zapped Travis in front of their very eyes. Assuming he was dead, the terrified loggers had left their colleague where he lay, the saucer looming above his lifeless body.
A swirling storm of confusion, anger, and allegations was soon to descend on the sleepy town of Snowﬂake. The loggers, having reported to police that their friend had been taken by a UFO, immediately were considered suspects in Walton’s disappearance and possible murder. After no less than five days, Walton returned. He was found in a telephone box some three miles outside of Snowﬂake, huddled and shivering. As he was taken back into town he began babbling about strange creatures with large eyes. He assumed he’d been gone just a couple of hours and was stunned into prolonged silence when he was told almost a week had passed.
Featuring solid performances from D.B. Sweeney as Travis, and Robert Patrick as logging-crew-leader Mike Rogers, the Fire in the Sky movie was a reasonably faithful accounting of the Walton experience—that is until its final act, which notoriously pummeled the meat of Walton’s encounter out of all recognition. The human-looking beings described by Travis and their walkabout with him in a spaceport were nowhere to be seen in the movie. Walton’s skittish Grays were replaced with frightful goblin-like beings who literally drag the logger like a sack of spuds through their pestilent, rotting spaceship—all dank tunnels and dripping embryonic sacks—before gluing him to a table with a suﬀocating membrane and subjecting him to graphic torture with a thick needle to the eyeball.
The movie divided opinion upon its release. It made back its budget, but little more. The legendary Roger Ebert praised the ﬁlm’s ﬁnal sequence for its believably, writing: “The scenes inside the craft are really very good. They convincingly depict a reality I haven’t seen in the movies before, and for once I did believe that I was seeing something truly alien, and not just a set decorator’s daydreams.” However, Ebert was left deﬂated as the credits rolled, adding: “The movie ends on an inconclusive and frustrating note.”
This 1994 TV movie was the first in-depth Hollywood treatment of the infamous Roswell Incident of July 1947, in which an alien spacecraft and bodies are alleged to have crashed in the New Mexico desert and been recovered by the US military. For writer/producer Paul Davids, the purpose of his movie was not just to entertain, but to educate—to bring what many regard as the ultimate UFO cover-up to wider public attention as a powerful and comprehensible narrative.
Roswell was also one of the first movies to feature a direct reference to Area 51. The secret base shows up fleetingly in a sequence in which a mysterious government insider (played by Martin Sheen) describes to Roswell whistle-blower Jesse Marcel (Kyle MacLachlan) the events that unfolded in the months and years following the saucer crash.
In a 2014 interview, I asked Davids if the word “Roswell” would be so culturally resonant today had he not so memorably contextualized it in his 1994 movie. “Not as much,” he replied, although he acknowledged that The X-Files, which premiered a year before his movie, also played a major role. “But The X-Files wasn’t just about Roswell,” he stressed, “it was all over the place dealing with a lot of different things. Roswell was just a little part of it.”
Today, Davids considers the Roswell Incident to be a “national institution… massively ingrained into the public consciousness, as much as any other story from the history of our country.” It is hard to argue with that statement, and it is harder still to underestimate the seminal role Davids’ movie played in that ingraining process.