Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Atticus Institute (2015)

What we have here is a fine little horror movie that uses the fake documentary format (the kind with talking heads, suggestive music, archival footage yet no commentary) to tell the tale of the horrible end of its titular little institute for paranormal research in the 70s.

After a string of failures and worse, the institute’s lead parapsychologist, Henry West (William Mapother) strikes what looks at first like gold with mental patient Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), whose various paranormal powers are ridiculously huge, particularly compared with the relatively small statistical changes most of the work of West and his people has been about before. However, apart from her abilities in telekinesis and such, something else isn’t right with Judith at all. She seems more than just disturbed, and the longer her stay at the institute takes, the more bad things begin to happen around her, her paranormal feats taking on a malevolent quality, as if she were trying to get into the researchers’ minds in the most threatening ways.

It becomes so bad, West’s colleague Marcus Wheeler (whom we mostly see in later interviews and played by John Rubinstein) decides to call in the government. Not surprisingly, from then on, bad things happen even more frequently, and not necessarily only at the lab anymore, with everyone involved getting closer and closer to some kind of breakdown. Soon, it’s quite clear to everyone that Judith isn’t some kind of super mutant but possessed by a demon. Of course, this being 1976 and this kind of movie, our government friends decide to attempt to weaponize her/it. Which turns out to be a very bad idea.

As I said, Chris Sparling’s film is a very fine movie. It tells an in principle utterly preposterous tale with great earnestness and conviction, using practically no jump scares (hooray), instead working with more advanced techniques like foreshadowing of doom, an escalating atmosphere of dread built from suggestions and suppositions, and demonstrates a fine sense for the ways to present an agency that’s actually Evil with a capital e. As the film tells it, there’s an inevitability to its story that doesn’t weaken its impact like it sometimes does in films that confuse the inevitable and the obvious but strengthens it, playing with the audience’s imagination in just the right ways, using the subtle shifts in the apparent film stocks it uses and generally believable original footage to make the whole story plausible. Even the reaction of the government to an actual proof for demonic possession seems plausible in the context it is presented here – the film is actually speaking about the hubris of power more than just reproducing a cliché, incorporating exactly the sort of phrases people in power have excused their unethical and irresponsible behaviour for quite some time now and using audience knowledge about the mood of the time The Atticus Institute takes place in.

It’s all very convincing – also thanks to a quality of unshowy acting in the talking heads sequences you get when you hire experienced character players of one kind or another for these kind of parts - and adds a further frisson to the film. This again demonstrates quite a sense for telling details and an ability to use clichés in productive and effective ways to create an oppressive and deservedly creepy mood. And I say that as somebody who generally finds religious possession movies rather yawn-inducing. My reaction might of course have something to do with the film’s decision to underplay the theological tones of its central horror – you don’t need to be a Christian to get freaked out by conscious malevolence after all. And hey, easy to please as I sometimes am, I’m also pretty happy with Sparling’s decision to not have his possessed float in a ceiling corner like a particularly inconvenient insect.

In hindsight, it’s also quietly impressive how effectively the movie draws you into its world despite using so many techniques – the talking heads, the “original” footage that mostly consists of non-private moments and therefore can only do its character work via the body language and positioning of the characters - that could/should distance the audience from what’s going on. In fact, the calm, after-the-fact way The Atticus Institute tells its story seems to make it more effective to me, turning its events into something feeling closer to the factual and real. Of course an effect many fake documentaries and POV horror films strive for, but also one that is often quite elusive.

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