Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Movie blames Nome disappearances on aliens

Families suspected a serial killer. The FBI mostly blamed alcohol and the cruel Alaska winter.

This fall, a movie distributed by a major studio and marketed as a “dramatization” of real events is offering another explanation for decades of disappearances and suspicious deaths in and around Nome:

Abduction by space aliens.

"The Fourth Kind," a thriller, hits theaters Nov. 6. Marketing from NBC Universal says it’s based on “archival footage” of a psychologist who stumbled upon “the most disturbing evidence of alien abduction ever documented” while interviewing Alaskans.

Spooky. Except it all looks to be a “Blair Witch Project” style fake-out.

No one has heard of the psychologist, including the state licensing board and president of the state psychologists association. And while there have indeed been disappearances in Nome — mainly people traveling to the hub city from surrounding Inupiat and Siberian Yupik villages — blaming a real-life tragedy on alien abduction is not sitting well with the non-profit that pushed the cases into the open.

“The movie looks ridiculous,” said Kawerak Inc. Vice President Melanie Edwards, who watched the trailer online Monday. “It’s insensitive to family members of people who have gone missing in Nome over the years.”

Universal Pictures is distributing the film in the United States. The star, Milla Jovovich, is a veteran of three “Resident Evil” movies about diabolical corporations and zombies. In the trailer, she introduces herself as an actress and tells the audience that “every scene in this movie is supported by archived footage.”

But it’s all fake, right? Did the film-makers ever go to Nome? What about the idea that all this trivializes a string of tragic Alaska deaths?

The studio has no comment, an NBC Universal spokesman said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Despite an FBI conclusion in 2006 that no serial killer was to blame, emotions over the missing and dead are still raw in the region.

Dallas Massie is a retired state trooper who has been filling in as Nome police chief since early this year. Soon after he arrived, a relative of a St. Lawrence Island man who went missing in October 2004 called. He had heard there was someone new at the police department and hoped to see a re-energized investigation.

The 2004 case is Nome’s most recent major missing-persons case, Massie said. Police, he said, are still looking for leads. Within reason.

“I have yet to hear anybody with the theory that aliens are taking folks out of the region,” Massie said.

After years of rumors that Nome had become a dangerous place for travelers from the villages, local officials in 2005 released a list of about 20 disappearances and deaths in the city. The cases dated back to the 1960s. At the time, a Nome police officer was on trial for the murder of a young village woman, and some residents mistrusted city police.

The FBI stepped in, reviewing two dozen cases, eventually determining that excessive alcohol consumption and the winter climate were a common link in many of the cases. Unlike other commercial hubs in rural Alaska, Nome is a “wet” city, with bars and liquor stores.

Some of dead were killed by exposure or from falling off a jetty into the frigid Snake River, authorities said at the time.

Delbert Pungowiyi of Savoonga still believes that foul play claimed his uncle, who flew to Nome in 1998 to buy a snowmachine and never came home.

Despite the FBI’s conclusion, Pungowiyi suspects racially motivated, serial murders are to blame in at least some of the deaths.

As for the new movie?

“Oh my god, that is ridiculous,” he said.

To be fair, “The Fourth Kind” seems to be telling a different story altogether. Movie trailers can be deceiving, but the victims shown in the short clip don’t appear to be visiting villagers.

The movie’s title is a reference to a measurement system used to describe varying degrees of contacts with aliens. Think “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” A UFO sighting would be the first kind of contact. The fourth kind is abduction.

According to promotional materials from Universal, the film is framed around a psychologist named Abigail Tyler who interviewed traumatized patients in Nome.

But state licensing examiner Jan Mays says she can’t find records of an Abigail Tyler ever being licensed in any profession in Alaska.

No one by that name lived in Nome in recent years, according to a search of public record databases.

Still, there are shreds of “evidence.”

Try Googling “Abigail Tyler” and “Alaska.” You’ll get a link to a convincingly boring Web site called the “Alaska Psychiatry Journal” — complete with a biography of a psychologist by that name who researched sleep behavior in Nome. Except the site is suspiciously vacant, mostly a collection of articles on sleep studies with no home page or contact information.

Another site,, features a story from the Nome Nugget about Tyler moving to Nome for research. The problem? The story is credited to Nugget editor and publisher Nancy McGuire, who says it's baloney and she never wrote it.

Both the news site and the medical journal site were created just last month, according to domain-name research sites.

Ron Adler is CEO and director of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Denise Dillard is president of the Alaska Psychological Association. They said this week they’ve never heard of the Alaska Psychiatry Journal, or of Abigail Tyler.

“The Fourth Kind” follows a Hollywood tradition of releasing films set in Alaska but filmed somewhere else. Recently, the horror flick “30 Days of Night” told of vampires invading Barrow during the sunless winter. It was shot in New Zealand, according to Internet Movie Database.

“The Proposal,” a romantic comedy released this summer and set in Sitka, was actually filmed in Massachusetts. The state has created a tax incentive program to encourage Hollywood to actually shoot its Alaska-based movies in the state. But film office manager Dave Worrell said some of the biggest activity lately has been reality shows about rural law enforcement and wildlife officers.

Filmmakers shot the “The Fourth Kind” in Bulgaria, according to IMDB. That may explain why the trailer shows a city surrounded by lush mountains rather than a flat tundra town at the shore of the Bering Sea.

Nome Chamber of Commerce director Mitch Erickson watched the movie trailer at the city’s visitor center Monday. That fictional Nome is a pretty place, he said.

“I wish we had those trees.”

(Can't get the trailer video to play at the top of this story? Click here for the official movie site.)

via Anchorage Daily News