Review by Jay Bowman
With only a few minutes more than an hour to play with, the documentary Terror in the Skies tries to explore several aspects of American monster traditions without the focus needed to seriously dig deep into the subject. The underlying premise is an interesting one, focusing on a series of Mothman-esque sightings in 2017 that took place throughout Chicago. With this as the capstone, the narrative delves into hundreds of years of monstrous bird appearances in the Great Lakes region, dating back to Native American Thunderbird legends.
At points, filmmaker Seth Breedlove does an excellent job exploring the history of these different time periods. It’s partly a love letter to Illinois and its miles of old farmland and wilderness, at least in the first half, and it paints a vivid picture of an Illinois that has largely been forgotten by the rest of the country. Unfortunately, this same level of detail and devotion isn’t always taken when the monsters are discussed.
From the opening, the documentary establishes a mission to explore why people continue to believe in cryptids. To this end a small group of talking heads—historians, monster hunters, bloggers, etc.–take turns guiding us through stories of attacks, newspaper clippings, and the occasional photograph. There’s a good number of obscurities on display, stories that may have made national news in previous decades but faded from memory long ago. These are entertaining regardless of whether or not you believe they are genuine. Unfortunately, descriptions of these stories are presented almost entirely by our third-party experts. Short of two brief appearances, there are no interviews with eye-witnesses. This is understandable for some of the stories, given how old they are, but when the majority of the interviews are people describing blog posts and microfiche they’ve read, the question of why people believe is quickly lost: we aren’t exploring the “why” so much as saying that some people do. This is particularly jarring when, during the closing narration, we’re told that the people who tell stories of fantastic creatures are just as important as the stories themselves.
For the most part, the experts ride the line of healthy skepticism. They may believe, but they don’t jump to conclusions without evidence. This is a nice take in the age of Ancient Aliens. However, this suddenly changes as we reach the end, where everything from vague conspiracies to dimensional slips is proposed as a possible explanation for sightings. It’s a silly step for something that was so carefully researched to make, but I suppose it’s to be expected given the subject.
A great deal of effort went into making Terror in the Skies, but I suspect it may have been applied unevenly. Recreations of the monsters and some of their attacks are recreated in different animation styles, and they all look pretty great. It is by no means a cheap looking production. But if that same effort had been put into finding people more closely associated with the stories told, and perhaps with another twenty minutes run time, this would serve as a better primer for such an intriguing topic. Instead, it’s a rushed presentation that doesn’t quite live up to its own set expectations.
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