The Interrupted Journey.
When I was about eight or so, I remember watching a TV-movie that truly creeped me out; it was called “The UFO Incident,” based on a 1966 book called “The Interrupted Journey,” and it told the story of the alleged alien abduction of Betty (Estelle Parsons) and Barney Hill (James Earl Jones). The Hills were a real-life interracial couple living in New Hampshire in the early 1960s. In September of 1961, the Hills were returning from a vacation in Canada when they allegedly experienced ‘lost time’ and woke up 32 miles away, with matching cases of amnesia.
Under the direction of psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon (Bernard Hughes)–who hypnotized Betty and Barney separately–we see details of their close encounter slowly begin to emerge. Betty seemed to have the more lucid recall of the two, and she goes into great detail about her telepathic conversations with the diminutive alien doctor, who even shows her a map of his home star system. Whatever one thinks of the Hills’ admittedly outlandish story, the movie was one of the best made-for-TV movies of its time–with Emmy-Award caliber acting by Parsons and Jones that could sell even the tallest of tall tales.
Now, you’re feeling very calm and very relaxed. You’re looking at your screen–you can’t take your eyes off of it, nor can you make your arms and legs move, because you want to read all about this hypnotic TV-movie.
So, take a deep, cleansing breath, and let’s look back at…
“The UFO Incident.”
Note: The movie’s opening text tells us that the movie is based primarily on notes and even recorded transcripts of the Hill’s taped therapy sessions with their psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon. This explains the very natural-sounding dialogue during the therapy scenes, as well as the overall ‘no-nonsense’ vibe producer/director Richard Colla imparts to the film, which is very similar in tone to the 1976 TV-movie, “Helter Skelter”, which was based on prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s book, and offered a clinical recounting of the Manson Cult murders of 1969. The only difference is that “The UFO Incident” is based on an alleged extraterrestrial encounter, not a lawfully prosecuted series of homicides. Nevertheless, the movie’s sober tone and even lack of incidental music gives it far more credibility than this supposed case of alien abduction arguably deserves.
The story opens roughly a year or so after the alleged encounter (which took place in September of 1961), as the couple were driving through the rural roadways of New Hampshire. We see Betty (Estelle Parsons) and Barney (James Earl Jones), and their little dog, obsessively retracing their path through the woodsy roads, trying to find the exact spot where the amnesia began. Frustration leads to bickering, and the two drive home teasingly squabbling… knowing they will return to this road at the earliest convenience. Their obsession with their mysterious lost time and mileage have become a fixation that they can only share with each other, since they are too well respected within their community. During the drive, the Hills are harassed and later pursued by white racist teenagers who speed after them for kicks–a painful reminder that interracial marriage was still relatively uncommon in the United States of 60 years ago.
Note: Betty was a social worker, with a long bloodline in New England dating back to the 17th century. Barney was a relocated postal worker who was very active in civil rights and the local chapter of the NAACP. Both were divorced when they met and married in 1960. The couple’s mixed marriage would hardly raise an eyebrow today, but in 1961, both were keenly aware (particularly Barney) of an unaccepting world not far from their doorstep. Some believe that their encounter with aliens from a UFO might’ve actually been a psychologically-cloaked hate crime (as this opening scene subtly suggests). The trauma of that crime might’ve been deliberately reimagined as something more fantastical. Betty, a longtime UFO enthusiast according by some accounts, might’ve cast her dream with aliens in lieu of all-too-human racists, because it might’ve been easier for her to accept abuse from ‘space creatures’ than from her fellow human beings.
The Hills carry on, despite their obsession with their missing time in the back roads of rural New Hampshire. They entertain friends and carry on, though their obsession begins to creep over into the facade as well, when the couple begins bickering over anything and everything. They even fight in front of dinner guests, when Barney makes a remark about “you white people,” which gives his wife tremendous (and understandable) offense. A worrisome Barney is also having morbid thoughts of his own death, which greatly troubles Betty, who tells her husband she can’t imagine what she’d do without him. Under this thick cloud of depression, Barney is unable to work, and this deep emotional paralysis prompts the Hills to seek a psychiatrist, Dr. Benjamin Simon (Bernard Hughes), who is also a practiced hypnotist.
Dr. Simon decides to place Betty and Barney into separate hypnosis states, with their sessions recorded for later playback to each of them. Barney, a very reserved, intelligent man with an IQ of around 140, goes into hypnosis under Simon’s guidance, and we see the session intercut with images of his ‘lost time’ in September of 1961. The typically reserved Barney Hill becomes increasingly emotional and agitated as he comes closer and closer to the point of his missing time…
Note: In my humble opinion, I believe this 1975 TV-movie features the single greatest performance of actor James Earl Jones ever committed to film. Like costar Estelle Parsons, Jones ( “Star Wars”, “The Lion King,” “Field of Dreams,” voice of CNN) is perfectly cast as the buttoned-up Barney Hill, but his almost childlike emotional state as he hypnotically relives his roadside encounter with the aliens is downright uncomfortable to watch–it’s that good.
As Barney regresses further, he begins to remember that he and Betty were on the road in their car when they heard a mysterious beeping all around them. Betty sees a mysterious light in the nighttime sky, which Barney assumes is a satellite or an airplane. However, Barney becomes alarmed as well when he realizes that the object in the sky is following them.
Note: The scene of Barney Hill looking up into the nighttime sky from his steering wheel is very similar to a shot with Richard Dreyfuss’ own roadside alien experience in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, which came to theaters two years later. While the two movies have very little in common beyond the theme of UFOs (or UAPs–unidentified aerial phenomena–as they are now called), there are a handful of shots in “The UFO Incident” that seem to have either directly or indirectly influenced Steven Spielberg’s extraterrestrial opus. “The UFO Incident” was a highly regarded, popular, and groundbreaking TV movie in its time; it’s very possible that Steven Spielberg saw it, or was at least familiar with it, as well as the Hill case–like the alleged incident at Roswell, the Hill case is one of the most popular legends in UFO lore.
As the object casts a bright light overhead, the Hills pull their car off to the side of the road and see the object land not far from where they’ve stopped. In a panic, the hypnotized Barney begins to cry, scream and panic in Dr. Simon’s office, as he is unable to differentiate between his sleeping and waking states. Barney screams about getting his gun as he jumps onto Dr. Simon’s desk and tries to run away. It’s at this point that Dr. Simon puts a hand to his shoulder, and wakes him up. Barney has been crying, but is unable to remember what happened.
Later, Dr. Simon puts Betty under hypnosis in a separate session, and she experiences much of the same panic as Barney did when she remembers the landing of the alien spacecraft and the “men in the road” blocking their way out. At first, she thought these strange, short ‘men’ might’ve been stranded somehow, until she got a closer look and realized they weren’t human beings.
Note: Once again, when I speak of alien spacecraft, abductions, etc. I am not saying I believe that’s what happened to the Hills in real-life; I am merely going along with the narrative of the TV-movie. While I am a sci-fi fan (and a longtime member of The Planetary Society) I am also very skeptical when it comes to cases of alleged alien encounters and abductions. It seems highly unlikely that extraterrestrials would fly dozens or hundreds of light years just to probe human anuses or other naughty bits. Personally, I suspect that many of these alleged abductions are just publicity-seekers, vivid hallucinations, and/or a fictional architecture created to cover another kind of trauma, such as sexual abuse, or physical battery; this would explain why the alleged ‘aliens’ always seem so intent on examining human genitalia.
Still under hypnosis, Betty experiences the same panic as Barney. She screams about opening the car door in an attempt to flee, but the aliens surround the couple and escort them from their car. Barney walks with his eyes closed, as two aliens gently guide him by the arm. Betty begins to calm herself when she realizes the aliens aren’t going to harm her, as she initially feared. She calls out to her husband, but he continues walking along with the aliens in his trancelike state. Betty’s account of the incident is much more lucid than her husband’s, as she made greater attempts to communicate with them. Both Betty and Barney mention that the aliens understood English, but that their own communication was on a non-verbal implicitly telepathic level.
Note: Another reason for my skepticism with alien encounter stories usually comes with the aliens themselves; too often they are roughly humanoid, with four limbs, ten fingers, opposable thumbs, two eyes, two ears, a mouth, nostrils, etc. Considering the fantastic diversity of life on our own planet, and the random collisions of events that set the stage for the evolution of human life, the odds of aliens from worlds many light-years away looking even remotely humanoid are virtually impossible. Human beings aren’t a predestined shape for life, as we see all around us. The dinosaurs weren’t humanoid-shaped, yet they were on the planet for hundreds of millions of years longer than we. In fact, we have far more in common genetically with dinosaurs and even Earth plant-life than we would with extraterrestrials evolved in a different gravity, atmosphere, ecosphere, etc.
The aliens escort the Hills to a clearing in the woods where their spacecraft has landed; the craft is roughly the size of a two-story house, with an upper deck that has visible windows on the outside, along its silvery metallic hull. They board a ramp inside of the craft, where the interior is largely kept in shadows.
Note: There is a fleeting miniature shot of the alien spacecraft on the ground (with its opened ramp) that seems to have been composited on videotape, much like the visual effects of early “Doctor Who,” “Land of the Lost”, and even “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” While the actors are clearly blue-screened into the miniature saucer and landscape set, it’s kept dark enough onscreen so that it doesn’t call undue attention to itself as a visual effect.
Under his own hypnosis session, Barney Hill reported that the aliens wore uniforms and looked “like Nazis.” Betty’s encounter with the aliens was somewhat less fearful, even as she became indignant when they removed her dress and gave her a very painful ‘pregnancy test’ by injecting a large needle through her navel. In fact, the medical technology of the aliens isn’t too far removed from medical technology on Earth, circa 1961, with needles, scalpels, and strange instruments that left perfectly rounded marks on Barney’s groin. The aliens also remove skin samples using an instrument not unlike a letter opener. When Dr. Simon asks the hypnotized Betty if the aliens may have been curious as to why she and Barney had different skin colors, she answers that the aliens’ gray skin was different from both she and Barney.
Note: For beings who’ve conquered interstellar travel, these aliens sure seemed to have very backwards 20th century-style medical technology; you’d think they could just wave a damn tricorder over the Hills and get all the DNA information they needed, right?
Also of Note: Dr. Simon brings up the matter of skin color, which also suggests that he may have been thinking the Hill’s ‘abduction’ to be a kind of hallucinatory ‘disguise’ for some unspeakable hate crime committed against the Hills by an all-too human guilty party. This was also implied earlier when the young white punks harassed the Hills in the opening of the movie, and in Barney’s very specific characterization of the aliens as “Nazis.” For clarity, I don’t pretend to authoritatively know exactly what happened to the real-life Hills, but in the movie, there’s definitely a case to be made for a possible hate crime (and perhaps a dual sexual assault) covered up by Betty’s creation of fanciful ‘aliens’ on a benign mission of Earth exploration. It was well know that Betty Hill was a believer in UFOs before the alleged encounter, so this may have been a convenient fantasy architecture for her to exploit.
The alien doctor and Betty seem to establish a rapport. Betty notices a star map on a nearby wall, and she asks the doctor if he would point out their home star system for her. The doctor asks (via telepathy) if she could point out her own sun on the map. Admitting her ignorance of basic astronomy, the alien doctor then tells her it’d be useless for him to point out his own solar system to her without a common point of reference. Under hypnosis, Dr. Hill asks Betty if she’d be willing to draw a recreation of the alien’s star map for him, and she obliges.
Note: How Betty could remember the exact positions of stars she saw on a map while under hypnosis is beyond me–I’ve been into astronomy since I was 13, and I couldn’t draw a decent star map to save my life. Betty’s crude drawing of the alien’s map was later calculated (using questionable techniques that are little more than guesswork) to be in the neighborhood of Zeta Reticuli–a binary star system from which current space-based telescopic observations have yielded no signs of viable exo-planet candidates. Betty’s ‘map’ was so generalized that it could’ve been from almost any part of the nighttime sky in the northern hemisphere, so I question the methodology used to pinpoint the alien home system as Zeta Reticuli.
Betty is genuinely curious about the aliens at this point, and asks if she can take some proof of their encounter with her. The alien doctor offers her a book (they still have books?), but recants the offer when the other aliens object. Still under hypnosis, Betty cries out in frustration when recalling the alien doctor’s broken promise. The doctor tells her she and Barney will forget their meeting once they’re underway, but as Betty walks away from their spaceship, she turns to face the alien doctor, promising to never forget their encounter…
Days later, at a local beach, Dr. Simon meets with an old friend of his from the Air Force, General James Davidson (Dick O’Neill), and without divulging any specific details of his patients’ sessions, asks the general about the possibility of ‘real’ UFOs. The general officially answers that he doesn’t know, but offers that at least five percent of the reports of UFOs cannot be explained away, at least not yet (hence, the reason they are called ‘unidentified,’ right?).
The Hills finally reach the end of their therapy sessions with Dr. Simon in 1964, as Barney and Betty are both faring much better than they were the previous year. Dr. Simon is convinced that the experience was a unique shared dream between them, possibly triggered by their sighting of the object in the sky over rural New Hampshire. Barney politely but strongly disagrees with the doctor’s assessment–he knows that it happened; it was real. Coming to that realization has cured them both. Later, we see the Hills having a happy barbecue in their yard, and Betty tells Barney that if he were to die prematurely (as he fixated upon earlier), she will be okay. They hug.
A pre-credits screen text tells us that Barney Hill died of a stroke a few years later at age 46.
Note: A closing narration by former “Outer Limits” ‘control voice’ Vic Perrin makes the semi-absurd claim that astronomers somehow confirmed Betty’s star map, and that it included several stars that weren’t yet discovered until 1969. Perrin states that Betty’s vague map determined the alien’s home port to be the binary star system of Zeta Reticuli. If you’ve read my above notes in this column, you already know my opinion on that subject. To be honest, I wish this otherwise fine film hadn’t ended with such a heavy-handed slant in favor of Betty’s claim. I wish it’d left things more ambitious, so that the audience could draw its own conclusions. But, of course, this isn’t a documentary, and a movie’s gotta movie, so there you go…
Summing It Up.
“The UFO Incident”, whatever its inherent credentials in reality, is an intriguing, extremely well-acted piece of television drama. It also subtly broke new ground by depicting an interracial couple in a very natural and realistic marriage, at a time when such a relationship wasn’t yet commonplace on US network television. Parsons and Jones both deliver Emmy-caliber performances, especially during the hypnosis sequences. The moody, sober direction by Richard Colla (“Battlestar Galactica”) manages to keep it all together, even during the arguably less-than-credible alien abduction flashbacks (which are filmed using well-placed shadows, quick cuts and occasionally disorienting angles). With all that craftsmanship at play, “The UFO Incident” makes for a fascinating urban legend; but without the benefit of its eerie reenactments or high-caliber acting, one is left with little more than a tall tale–either created by deliberate attention seekers, or perhaps to cover a more traumatic, ugly hate crime. Watching the film on its dramatic merits alone, I find that I care less about the alleged ‘reality’ of the Hill’s story, and more about the effective, genuinely unsettling movie left in its wake. The purpose of a movie is entertainment, and “The UFO Incident” certainly does just that.
After seeing the film as a kid, I began to read a lot more about the alleged ‘Zeti Reticuli incident’ (another name for the Hill’s infamous encounter). Many of the facts simply didn’t add up, and there is also the ethical question of whether or not Dr. Simon unduly influenced his subjects with ‘suggestions’ of alien abduction during their vulnerable hypnotic states. Some allege that the Hills were simply lying, and that none of it ever happened–that it was all for attention. That Betty later became a fixture at UFO conventions (until her death in 2004 at age 85) lends some credence to that opinion. Apparently, Betty Hill was a ‘believer’ in UFOs before the alleged incident took place in 1961. For my own reasons that I’ve stated in the above notes, I do not believe the Hills were abducted by aliens. However, in fairness, the sleep-deprived Hills (coming home after their long drive) may have seen a bright planet in the nighttime sky and, either consciously or subconsciously, crafted their hallucinatory architecture around it.
Whatever one’s beliefs, “The UFO Incident” remains a fascinating piece of science fiction (or speculative drama), and it’s far more enjoyable if one watches the film in that context, and not as ironclad, unassailable truth.
Where To Watch.
Sadly, the movie is not released on Blu-Ray, and DVD copies available online come from less than credible sellers (not too unlike the real-life Hills’ story itself), so the easiest way to catch the film is on YouTube via the above link. With the Delta variant of COVID on an upswing (over 618,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S), I urge all readers to stay safe, get vaccinated ASAP, and if you’re forced to quarantine? “The UFO Incident” makes for a fine piece of YouTubing. Take care and stay safe!
EDIT: According to Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Twitter and FaceBook feed, a Blu-Ray of “The UFO Incident” is in the works, and is due for release soon. No actual date; here’s the link: Twitter/KLStudioClassics