AUGUST 17, 2011
I love that the only one of the “Bloody Disgusting Selects” titles that I saw before its acquisition was also the only one in English. Given the mandated late timeslot afforded to the releases (10 pm on Wednesdays and 12:01 am on Saturdays, at AMC theaters), it’s a pretty likely bet that I’ll fall asleep anyway, but since they’ve otherwise all been subtitled foreign language films, it’s even MORE likely. And while that’s fine for the Saturday showings (because that would be Saturday’s movie (not Friday’s) and thus if I dozed off I could watch something else for the day), I opted for the Wednesday at 10 screening of Atrocious, which meant if I fell asleep for too long, I wouldn’t be able to review it and thus my streak would be over. But hey, I like a challenge.
And I am happy to report I did pretty damn good, only dozing for about 2 minutes somewhere in the middle of the flick, right around where the dog went missing. My review will assume that the two minutes I missed did not contain the information I thought the film could have used or hinted at, though if it did (can anyone confirm?), I apologize.
Anyway, I think this is the best of the “series” yet, or at least tied with the enjoyable Rammbock, which was also the first. It helps that I just watched a not-very-good found footage movie (Grave Encounters), so I can confirm that my disappointment with that film wasn’t just the result of me possibly just being sick of these movies as a whole. Blending Paranormal Activity’s haunted house/amateur “trying to get a ghost on camera” approach with Blair Witch’s crazy, frenetic treks through the outdoors (in particular a hedge maze of sorts in the family’s backyard), Atrocious is a good slow burn, spending half of the runtime on setting up the characters and back-story of the alleged haunting, and the second half on a nearly nonstop chaotic run through the maze and house as our characters are terrorized by something or someone unknown.
I’m on the fence if actually providing the answer was necessary. I think it might have been even creepier to leave it up to our imagination, or just assume it was indeed the ghost that they heard about (sort of like Blair Witch – if you assume that they are being killed by some unseen random redneck hunter type, the movie still works, as there’s nothing that proves that they WEREN’T). Instead, they give an answer, and while it’s a nice surprise, it also feels a bit out of nowhere. Again, perhaps in the two minutes I was out there was a lot of exposition, but it doesn’t seem like it would have fit in given what was going on before/after I slept – a skilled movie dozer such as myself can just tell these things!
Writer/director Fernando Barreda Luna also cheats a bit in order to preserve the surprise until the last moment. At one point our main character walks down into the basement and hears what sounds like a news report or something, and the subs (and presumably the Spanish audio) only give us a few keywords, making it nearly impossible to decipher. He then approaches the source of the audio (an old TV set) and the movie suddenly freezes, at which point we are treated to actual news reports about the family (spoiler!) being found murdered, including the character who was just holding the camera. It would have been a fun (or annoying, depending on your POV) way to end the film on these reports, but instead the movie then rewinds and we watch the basement scene again, only this time with all of the audio intact (as well as the outcome, i.e. his death). Again, there’s almost nothing in the previous 70 minutes that would suggest this information, so the fact that it comes via a “rewind” makes it feel even more tacked on. It would have been better to have the police reports at the top of the film, without actually spoiling who specifically was dead (just “police investigate the murders of several family members” or something to that effect), and then let the video footage play out sequentially, without any rewinds.
In fact, there’s a rewind at the top of the movie too; we see the final shot (without any context, obviously) and another scare bit, and then rewind, too fast to make out anything of note, all the way to the beginning, when the characters first begin filming their trip to their old family home for a vacation of sorts. I assume that this is to get a scare in there earlier, since the movie takes a while to get to its first chronological spook moment (which would be the conclusion of the missing dog subplot – obviously it ain’t pretty), and while it works better than the one at the end, it’s still a bit jarring and unnecessary. Obviously Blair (and possibly Paranormal) was an influence, but that didn't have this sort of thing, just the text at the top that vaguely suggested that things don’t turn out too well for the main characters (does it ever for these things?).
But once that manic chase into the maze begins, it never lets up, and provides some of the most tension and genuinely scary moments I’ve seen in one of these things in a while. One key element is that there are two cameras/operators, which allows us to believe that no one is “safe”, because one can get taken out and we still have a POV for the rest of the flick. I loved Paranormal but they never made it seem like Katie would ever pick up the camera herself should anything happen to Micah, so as long as it was him running around (and there was still a lot of movie left), you sort of knew he’d be OK. But here, I legitimately thought our hero could bite it while he was running around at the beginning of the chase. Ditto his younger sister (the other “camera”), who gets separated from him fairly early in the chase as they run around looking for their missing little brother (as well as their hysterical mother, who ran in ahead of them). It might get a bit repetitive (I don’t think this will hold up on repeat viewings), but the big scares play terrifically, and often just with sound – I was legitimately chilled by the sound of fast-approaching footsteps from behind our camera operating character, as well as the sounds of thuds and cracks as he/she/it tried getting into the house later on in the sequence once they finally find their way out of the maze.
And by setting everything pretty much the entire 3rd act in real time, you don’t have to worry about the usual “why are they filming?” thing. It’s dark/outside so they need the camera’s night vision (usual excuse), and they establish the house’s electrical issues early on, so they need it in there too. There are a few awkward “I will put the camera down gently and in a good spot to get the rest of the room” moments, but nothing too clunky – you have to accept such things in these movies if you’re going to bother watching them in the first place, and as long as they aren’t too excessively ridiculous (i.e. if a character picks up a camera in the middle of being beaten to death, then yeah, you can bitch), it just goes with the territory. In fact I think the approach is a lot better than most; in Blair they went too overboard with the “realistic” approach of a panicked person with a camera, and folks were getting motion sickness (or just avoiding the film altogether) as Heather and Josh got a lot of B-roll of sideways trees or the ground. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, we have Diary Of The Dead, where everything was perfectly framed at all times regardless of whether or not it made sense. But here it’s natural (the camera is upside down for a while) without being headache inducing - a good balance between the need to accurately present a frightened camera operator and the need to show the audience what the hell is going on.
This review is now longer than the movie (under 80 minutes*) so I’ll wrap it up. Obviously home will be where most of you see it if at all, but I was happy to see a fairly decent sized crowd for a largely unadvertised foreign movie showing at a late time on a weeknight (more than the audiences for Rammbock and Phase 7 combined, in fact). The rather unnerving scares (particularly the final shot) might even play better at home when you have to go off to your room in the dark instead of walking out into a bright theater lobby, and you can also skim some of the early padding (I had to laugh at the lengthy song credit part of the end titles, as all of the songs were in the overlong “driving to the house” sequence, heard for about 2 seconds each). It won’t change your mind if you just don’t care for this particular sub-genre, but it might restore your faith in it a bit.
What say you?
*The IMDB lists two runtimes, 82 and 75 minutes. This was clearly the 75 one; anyone know about that other 7 minutes? More exposition, or more shaki-cam shots of the hedge maze?