The Atticus Institute (2015)

JANUARY 21, 2015


Now that we've come to our senses and the found footage sub-genre (which it sadly became, even though it's not a genre) has died down considerably, distributors will hopefully be more choosy when it comes to the titles they select to push. Gone are the days where "Oh it's like Paranormal Activity!" can entice anyone, so the filmmakers still trying to cash in on the trend will see their films bought for pennies and dumped on budget packs, while the more interesting ones like The Atticus Institute will get a nice blu-ray release from Anchor Bay. It's not going to revive the dying style, but it's certainly a step above the dreck that we were inundated with in the earlier part of the decade.

Of course, part of that quality upgrade stems from the fact that it's not the usual found footage thing - it's a full blown (fake) documentary, with video footage from the experiment in the 1970s mixed with present day talking head bits featuring the people who survived what happened 40 years ago. It's a rare approach to take with this sort of thing, and thankfully the filmmakers didn't opt to put old age makeup on the actors - they're just played by different people (including the great Harry Groener). Sure, they don't look all that much like their counterparts (though the one main military guy is a decent match), but that actually kind of works in a way, if you look at the 1970s scenes as recreation of a real event, sort of like how Unsolved Mysteries worked. Indeed, this is basically a feature length UM episode - the ending is ambiguous, and the survivors are still looking for closure on certain things. All that's missing is Robert Stack and his trenchcoat (don't you dare invoke the Dennis Farina era on my watch).

Another thing working in its favor is the involvement of the military in a possession tale. The story hits all of the beats of your average Exorcist wannabe, complete with a 3rd act priest who hadn't been involved in the story (actually he never appeared at all, so that's more of an Exorcist III homage), but it's fairly rare to invoke the usual black-suited hardasses who of course just want to use the possessed woman (Judith) as a weapon. Since she can read minds and use telekinesis, the idea is that she'll not only be an asset for intelligence ("Hey, read that crazy dictator's mind - who is he planning to attack?") but also assassinations - who could possibly identify her as the killer if she just sat there and used her powers to transfer a heavy object into someone's noggin? So it's got Exorcist DNA, but also The Fury, which I must respect - not enough people reference that one, as far as I'm concerned.

However, it feels a bit stretched thin, particularly in the middle section when we know what's going on but have to wait until the exorcism attempts can begin. There's a good 3-4 minutes devoted to Groener telling a story about how he found a paper clip in Judith's cell and a week later it fell out of his pocket at his nephew's birthday party, which resulted in the dumb kid sticking it into an outlet and being electrocuted (and presumably killed, unless I missed it they never actually say, though they do talk about him in the past tense). Not sure why a kid would be off by himself fucking with paper clips at his own birthday party, but this is too long and complicated a diversion to be really scary - it's not even directly chalked up to Judith's actions! There's a far better version of the same idea earlier in the movie, where Judith gets under another scientist's skin by mocking her for not being there when her mother had died - it's direct, it's creepy (she obviously would have had no idea that the woman had been carrying that guilt), and it causes an immediate reaction - the scientist leaves the room, upset... and then runs back in and attacks Judith, who has a shit-eating grin on her face. For the Groener character, he just quits and feels terrible - there's not even a scene of his 70s counterpart confronting her.

I was also bummed to see a wholly terrible CGI effect in the film's closing moments, when someone is killed via psychic gut exploding (like the head in Scanners - just lower!). Not only does it not look good in the slightest (and the blood pooling on the chest seems to shift around unnaturally - it looks more like someone dropped some tomato sauce or something on your TV), but the movie had otherwise done a fine job of recreating 70s aesthetics with its footage, and this spoils the illusion at a crucial time (i.e. when the movie's just about over and you're about to pass your final judgment). The clothing and hairstyles are a solid match, but that's easy enough - I was more impressed by the set design and even the video footage - it looks dated, but they don't overboard like far too many filmmakers do when aging their footage with filters. With at least half of the movie set in the 70s, it'd be really grating to see excessive scratches, specks, glitching, etc over all of it, and thankfully writer/director Chris Sparling (directing a feature solo for the first time) understood that. Less is more!

(side note - Sparling's name seemed familiar to me, and I was surprised to see he was the writer of ATM, one of the dumbest goddamn movies I've ever seen. Hopefully that and not this was the fluke.)

The Blu has an OK brief making of featurette that sadly ends with the cast (including William Mapother, giving his scenes some Dharma Initiative flair) getting spooked by an off-screen banging, claiming that the production has been haunted like that. Come on guys. You can do better. Otherwise it's a decent little piece, with Mapother explaining the difficulties of getting into character to create so many tiny little bits (photographs, surveillance footage of walking down a corridor, etc), though I wish they had spent more time on putting together the retro sets on a low budget. The deleted scenes collection is of more use; nothing essential but it adds to something that was my overall favorite thing about the movie: it was really fleshed out for something that was completely made up. I was actually momentarily fooled into thinking maybe Atticus was a real place (it's not), as they do a fairly good job of establishing its credentials and history, with lots of superfluous details that just make it feel more "lived in". So the scenes just add to that, even if on their own they're not particularly exciting and belonged excised.

It's a shame the mock-doc genre got so flooded that a movie that's just pretty good seems like a breath of fresh air; like 3D I think this approach can be a terrific tool and a fun/interesting way to present certain narratives, but greedy producers just applied it to everything and got the audience turned against it; striking while the iron is hot rather than ensure it stayed that way. It'll likely be a long time before it can be revived again by something really special, the way Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield did in 1999 and 2008, respectively - but until then I'm fine with perfectly decent entries like this helping to wash the bad taste of dreck like Amber Alert and Zombie Diaries out of our mouths until we are able to look at the aesthetic as something to be excited about again.

What say you?


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