Friday, May 22, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Atticus Institute (2015)

(Beware of spoilers)

The new found-footage movie The Atticus Institute (2015) is just the kind of effort in this sub-genre that I really enjoy and appreciate. Specifically, it expands the definition or parameters of “found footage” a bit. 

The film is structured as a modern-day documentary that explores a strange event in the year 1976, and isn’t just an assemblage of someone’s raw footage, discovered in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or catastrophic event.

Instead, the found footage of the bicentennial year is only a part of the visual and narrative tapestry.

The remainder of the film consists of talking head interviews with the survivors of the Atticus experiment today, in 2015, and B-roll footage of those involved, often consisting of nicely staged (and aged) photographs of the primary players.

The film’s opening credits are also played over a camera tour of the facility in modern times, abandoned, forgotten and in ruins.  This tour of the ruins -- a kind of archaeological curiosity in some weird way -- creates a powerful juxtaposition with the documentary footage we see unfold throughout the film.  

The visuals of the montage seem to mirror the progress of the experiment itself, revealing to audiences how a place of life and possibilities becomes a place of the dead, and was left forgotten.

Written and directed by Chris Sparling, The Atticus Institute is also a strong and nuanced character piece.  The various “talking heads” seen on screen -- including those played by Harry Groener and John Rubinstein -- discuss what is going on in the life of the film’s ostensible protagonist, Dr. Henry West (William Mapother). But the pictures subtly tell a different and highly intriguing story, one which the viewer must assemble and thread together with his or her own eyes.

Finally, there’s also a nice philosophical through-line in The Atticus Institute about the military mentality, and the desire to weaponize everything, even to the detriment of the human race. On one hand, it is interesting to connect this sub-plot to the events of the mid-1970s, when trust in government was at an all-time low because of the Watergate Scandal and the failures in Vietnam. 

On the other hand, the message plays as relevant today, as our military develops ever more fearsome and sophisticated ways of delivering death to our enemies.  Again, going back to the tour of the Atticus ruins that accompanies the opening credits, it’s fascinating to ponder how the two (parallel) time periods of The Atticus Institute suggest that if we don’t remember history, we are doomed to repeat it.

I’ve been on sort of a bad-streak with found footage movies of late, to my dismay. The Houses that October Built (2014), The Pyramid (2014) and the nutzo-gonzo Daylight (2013) didn’t do much to buoy my case about the sub-genre’s potential and longevity. 

So it’s a relief to report that The Atticus Institute is an intelligent and creepy addition to the found-footage canon, and one wholly worthy of recommendation.  There are a few jump scares in the film, but The Atticus Institute’s true success rests in the way it engages and galvanizes our attention and interest. 

Before long, we -- like the film’s haunted main characters -- begin to connect every event, random or not, to the horrors happening at the institute…and imagining worse ones yet to come. A strong atmosphere of dread and anticipatory anxiety is thus forged, and The Atticus Institute makes the most of it.

“We finally had the proof, not another hoax.”

A documentary about the Atticus Institute and the devastating events of late 1976 involves several affected individuals, including the children and wife of Dr. Henry West (Mapother).  Mapother was a renowned and respected scientist who in the early seventies, with his friend Dr. Henault (Groener) committed the Institute to a study of the paranormal.

It was a long, difficult slog, and the first psychic “prodigy” examined by the scientists proved to be a hoax. 

But one day, a woman named Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt) arrived at the institute and promptly demonstrate incredible, and then terrifying abilities.

Over time, the scientists in the institute began to grow afraid of Judith and her always-developing powers.  

Some came to fear that her powers were not psychic, but a result of demonic possession. Another doctor, Marcus Wheeler (John Rubinstein) contacted the military in hopes of better containing and understanding Judith’s powers.

But the military proved single-minded, hoping to harness Winstead -- and the entity possessing her -- for use as a battlefield weapon. 

The documentary charts the tug of war between the military, the scientists, and the Devil, and records the only chronicled case of demonic possession in American history.

“You’re inviting bad things into your life.”

The key to an understanding of The Atticus Institute, and its final twist, involves paying close attention to the first-hand testimony of Judith’s sister, and then watching the moment-by-moment disintegration of Dr. West.  '

In particular, Judith’s sister reports that Judith became more and more disengaged from her life with the family, spending time alone in her room.  She practically disappeared from life. And it was then, after so much solitude, that she began to develop strange powers, or demonstrate the incipient stages of demonic possession, depending on what you choose to believe.

But watch The Atticus Institute with a close eye and make note of how West starts out as a galvanizing main character, calling the shots and directing the research. Then, after Judith is introduced, we see him less and less frequently, until by the third act, he seems almost invisible.  We see him a few times in his office...and he doesn't seem well.  "It's like a shadow," he says of a dark presence at one point, "but it's not me."

When you connect the two “dots” (the testimony of the sister, and West’s diminishing presence in the “documentary”) you can begin to intuit what the demon is up to, and what, precisely it wants. 

I should note, this connection is never brought out in dialogue, even once. Instead, The Atticus Institute credits its audience with intelligence, and creates a story through visualization, and loose connections. Pay close heed, and see for yourself how West's journey mirrors Judith's.

On a more concrete level, I appreciate how the film explores an aspect of the “supernatural” that is rarely discussed.  I’ll use The Amityville Horror as an example. There, the family experiences a bunch of weird things -- flies in the house, bloody walls, foul odors, cold air, disappearing cash, and more.  But the Lutzs’ overwhelming fear in that case connected all the incidents together into one cohesive terror. Everything that was slightly alarming (like the wino who showed up at the kitchen door unannounced…) became a product of demonic interference.  Leaky faucets, loose doors, and unsealed windows were the work...of the devil.

The Atticus Institute makes an interesting case here that once the scientists admit they are “scared,” they too start to willy-nilly connect every bad thing in their lives to the actions and behavior of Judith.

This is not a small thing.  

The first portion of the film is all about the way that the scientists at Atticus scrupulously avoid making unwarranted and unsupported connections.  Even when they believed they had evidence for psychic powers, they understood that they also had to contend with “lucky guesses” and “false positives.”  

There’s also a subplot early in the film about a fraud, about a man claiming to be psychic who, in fact, uses magnetic manipulation to appear gifted.  He almost succeeds too, and that’s the point.  This kind of work cannot be undertaken lightly, with wild conclusions being drawn. Every result must be checked, double checked, and triple checked.

But after Judith enters the picture and proves so frightening and so powerful, the scientists lose their sense of objectivity and rationality, and their fear begets more fear and more fear. 

Exhibit A in this kind of madness involves Henault, who in one compelling interview session tells the story of picking up a paper clip from the laboratory floor, and putting it in his pocket.  What use that paper clip comes to is bizarre and terrifying.  

But is it random? 

Or is the accident it causes a result of Judith’s deliberate efforts and manipulation? 

It’s an interesting conceit about the way the human mind works, and more than that, a splendid avenue by which to explore horror.  As I often write about in my books and on the blog, we aren’t scared of the things we know.  We’re scared of the things we don’t know; the things that we are uncertain about. 

In this case, significant tension arises from the fact that Judith’s abilities may be wildly over-estimated…or not.  We can’t be sure.  Even Henault can’t be sure, and you can see the fear and uncertainty inscribed in every crack and crevice on his expressive face.

There are other moments of pure terror in The Atticus Institute, but to feel it, you have to be engaged, you have to be thinking.  The terror is cerebral in nature, as you start to play out things in your head.

Sometimes, it is more overt too.  The military attempts to make Judith into a weapon, and conducts one experiment in which they attempt to have her, remotely, put words in the mouth of a soldier in an isolated booth.  

When those words are revealed, your skin will crawl because they change everything about the nature of the Atticus experiment, and about our understanding of who the subject of the experiment really is.

The Atticus Institute ends in a way that will provoke and alarm audiences, and I must confess, my first thought was that I wanted a sequel. That there was more story left to tell here. Even forty years after the events of '76.

You know your found-footage horror movie is hitting all the right notes if, as it ends, you’re thinking that you want to see the next chapter of its story.  

I think I know what became of Henry West, but The Atticus Institute sparked my curiosity and engaged my imagination. 

This strange and unnerving tale thus speaks to the real potential of the found footage format. One character in the documentary, late in the action, suggests that even by watching this movie, you are "inviting bad things into your life."

But The Atticus Institute's dedication to cerebral horror and subtlety suggests otherwise. So go ahead, invite this carefully-crafted, well-made horror movie into your life.


  1. Anonymous10:24 AM

    So here I am, fresh from watching "The Atticus Institute", and I really have to thank you for reviewing this one. There's been so many demonic possession films released over the last few years that I must confess I've began to lose interest in them. To make matters worse, most of them have been pretty bad.

    This one, however, is great. I tend to gauge horror movies through their imdb scores, and usually anything below a 6 is unlikely to be excellent, but this film seems to be an exception.

    It's a very strong piece of work, done a disfavor by some rather shoddy cover artwork. The cover makes it look like any one of those lower-quality, straight-to-DVD horror flicks that seem to be coming out on a daily basis, but this movie is so much more than that!

    And while the name of the film is appropriate, it also invokes images of countless "haunted asylum" movies that, by and large, tend to be awful as well. I think the way this film was packaged hurt it quite a bit. Personally, I wouldn't give it the time of day if it wasn't for your review but now I'm very happy to have seen it.

    By the way, speaking of demonic possession films, you might want to check out Jeff Chan's "Grace" (2014), another possession movie that has fallen by the wayside, but one that has at least tried to do something different with the premise. I don't think it's as strong of a genre entry as this one, but it deserves a bit more attention than it got.

    Ratko H.

  2. Thanks for your review as I wouldn't have seen this without it.

    I really enjoyed this. Possession movies are the scariest kinds of Horror to me, but most are awful. This was good.

    And the moment when the guy being interviewed said that just by watching this movie, you are inviting evil in...yikes! Normally, breaking the "fourth wall" is dumb but it really got me in this case.