William Sachs didn’t set out to make the definitive mockumentary on the paranormal. “I was approached by Donn Davison, the producer and host of the film, about making a documentary about UFOs and other related phenomenon,” he wrote via email. “I think he wanted to rip off Chariots of the Gods and other Erich von Däniken-type documentaries.” That’s not what Davison got, not at all.
The Force Beyond (1977) is one of the great pranks of late seventies cinema. At the time, the documentary format was still young and filmmakers were grappling with how much editorializing they should insert into their films. Some took a hardline approach to the truth. Titicut Follies (1967) was Frederick Wiseman’s attempt at portraying the suffering of patients in a Massachusetts mental health facility in their own words. To accomplish this feat, the film forgoes narration. Patients and staff speak on their own behalf and the film becomes a series of vignettes chronicling those interactions. But other documentarians took great pleasure in exploiting the gap that exists between the truth and the screen. Orson Welles, that patron saint of all trolls, offered his own interpretation of speaking truth to power with F For Fake (1973). Ostensibly a documentary on the life of art forger Elmyr de Hory, the film is actually a meditation on the nature of truth, how it betrays us, and the fanciful stories we’re willing to believe in pursuit of it. In clear contrast to documentarians like Wiseman, Welles makes himself the central character and lectures at great length on hoaxes, but he’s an also unreliable narrator who enjoys needling the viewer with questions and lies as he guides us on our journey.
And then there were the pseudo-documentaries. Spun off from the weird world of the mondo film, these films emerged as a sub-genre unconcerned with documenting reality. Instead, they wanted to interpret it. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods (1970) was the first to capture popular attention. Based on Däniken’s 1968 book of the same title, it presents a number of alternate theories on humanity’s origins and argues that we might be (and probably are) descended from aliens. The success of the film spawned a legion of imitators, many of which came from Chariots’ American distributor Sunn Classic Pictures and had titles like In Search of Ancient Astronauts (1973), In Search of Ancient Mysteries (1974), and The Outer Space Connection (1975).
The Force Beyond was a response to this brand of stargazing woo-woo. It was a hoax targeting audiences accustomed to and all too willing to believe in hoaxes. It was a work of a young filmmaker looking to test his audience’s ability to separate reality from fantasy. The film was only Sachs’s second “official” project as a director — he hadn’t yet gained notoriety for B-movie masterpiece The Incredible Melting Man (1977). He’d cut his teeth on South of Hell Mountain (1973) by filming wrap-around segments in an asylum after the producers took the film away from its original director, but his first true feature was There Is No Number 13 (1974), an experimental Vietnam drama. Sachs’s work saving South of Hell Mountain impressed Force Beyond producer Donn Davison, a low-budget schlock maven known for his traveling roadshow of sex-hygiene films. Davison approached Sachs and asked him to make a quick cash-in. “Donn wanted it to be a straight documentary,” Sachs recalled, “but when I began to research it with my wife, Margaret, we realized there was no way I could make a straight documentary so I didn’t shoot it that way.”
The film is anything but straight. We’re greeted at the film’s opening by Saint Orson, because The Force Beyond begins by arguing Welles’s production of War of the Worlds was real. A brief introduction explains that aliens, in fact, did invade the United States on October 30, 1938. Sachs then sends us veering off course through a series of quick cuts between stock images pulled from war films, B-movies, and newsreels for the film’s title sequence, before pulling us back in with a conversation with UFO researchers. But this too is a trick. He positions himself and his crew in front of mirrors as he conducts the interview so we’re aware that he’s as much as a part of the story as the aliens. Before we can become comfortable we’re off again on a journey that takes frequent detours through Bigfoot, Atlantis, historical catastrophes, hypnotherapy, and a dozen other odd and seemingly unrelated subjects. It’s a brilliant blending of fact and fiction, an earnest attempt to engage in both world building and myth busting.
Perhaps more fascinating is that no one associated with the project had any idea that any of this was happening while Sachs was shooting the film. While the movie is clearly a fake with a capital F, the UFO contactees, Bigfoot enthusiasts, and psychics he interviewed were very much real. “All the people interviewed were completely serious about what they believed and behaved as they did in real life,” he wrote. That didn’t stop Sachs from finding unusual ways to frame their stories so he could highlight the unreality of their beliefs. “At the UFO convention,” he continued, “I started interviewing some of the people in close ups using a wide-angle lens, which distorted their faces. I also used it in some other shots. I felt the distortion accurately showed how I felt about what they were saying. I suppose in that way, the documentary is a realistic film, if you choose to see it that way.”
Adding to the paranoid tone is the voice of God, our unnamed narrator. “I chose a New York DJ named Rosko to do the narration because his voice was almost hypnotic to me,” explained Sachs. Rosko, aka Radio Caroline and Radio 1 DJ Emperor Rosko, delivers his lines with the aplomb of a man who has discovered reptoid overseers control our one world government and must now tell every man, woman, and child within earshot everything in breathless detail. He alternates between bursts of rapid-fire nasal flares and long passages of languid mouth noise. His voice perfectly captures the dizzying highs and droning incoherence of galaxy brain savants lecturing into the void.
However, the most amazing thing about The Force Beyond is that Sachs didn’t trick audiences once. He did it twice. After Chariots of the Gods became a surprise success in the United States in 1973, there was a rush to release films under similar titles to pull in some of the money the film was making internationally. There were the aforementioned Sunn Classic films and Chariots own director Harald Reinl worked with filmmaker Charles Romine to create the William Shatner redux Mysteries of the Gods (1976). Seeing an opportunity, producer Davison and executive producer Ed Montoro released their film under the title Secrets of the Gods in 1976. It was such a success that they released it again the following year as The Force Beyond. “The film is exactly the same other than the title change,” observed Sachs. “When Ed Montoro, the executive producer and distributor, saw that Secrets of the Gods was making a lot of money, he changed the title to The Force Beyond, and sent it out to the same theaters. It made a lot of money again.”
Like many similar pseudo-documentaries of its era, it disappeared from the public eye soon after its release. Repeat airings on late-night cable channels may have helped any number of genre films achieve cult statuses, sometimes even warranted, but the same is not true of The Force Beyond. It remains an oddity relegated to the fringes of a fringe, the type of weird cinema one must search for rather than discover. That isn’t a backhanded compliment either. It’s a true delight because once you’re on its wavelength, you’re in for a wild ride.
The film did help one of its writers find an audience. Sachs’s wife Margaret was able to make the jump from satirist to enthusiast. “[She] was approached by a literary agent after the film was released and subsequently had two books published,” wrote Sachs. “The second book, The UFO Encyclopedia, was published by Putnam. We turned the research, mostly from the UFO Encyclopedia, into a TV series presentation that was pitched to FOX. They considered it for around three months and suddenly passed and announced the X-Files, which ended up with a lot of stories that were in The UFO Encyclopedia, as well as other similarities.”