In a horror landscape that has for some time now been inundated with terrible found footage movies and even worse phony documentaries, finding a genuinely good horror film among the rabble has become near impossible. So once I read the synopsis for The Atticus Institute I was less than thrilled with the idea of sitting through yet another version of Paranormal Activity or some other equally horrible attempt at being the next Blair Witch.
The game changer here was the talent behind the camera, writer/director Chris Sparling. I already knew he could scare me, he’d written the script for Buried (2010), a brilliant psychological thriller starring Ryan Reynolds (yes I used his name and the word brilliant in the same sentence) that redefined the meaning of the word claustrophobia and literally gave me nightmares; so what the hell, I gave it a shot. I must say that I’m very glad I did, because The Atticus Institute turned out to be a damn good movie. Also besides the talented director, Atticus has one hell of a strong cast, led in a very restrained performance by William Mapother (Tom Cruise’s cousin I think) as the ill-fated Dr. Henry West, the director of The Atticus Institute, a clinic devoted to the study of paranormal phenomena and the setting for pretty much the entire movie.
The plot in itself is not wholly original, but the execution and style do add a sense of uniqueness that other similar genre films lack. The movie is presented as a documentary, which normally would have me groaning, but there is an intense realism here and attention to detail, so much so, that one could easily forget that this is not in fact a documentary. But fuck if it isn’t done to perfection. I enjoy actual documentaries, but I’ve never once been so engrossed by one of these types of movies, but everything, e-ver-y-thing, from the tone of the interviews, the actors body language, even the camera movements all scream DOCUMENTARY.
The subject of this particular “documentary” is the institute itself and the one case study that destroyed all Dr. West had built, as well as the man himself (not a spoiler). The case in question was that of one Judith Winstead (a perfect Rya Kihlstedt in a knock out performance so intensely real you will be blown away) who was brought to the institute in the fall of 1976 and promptly abandoned there by her family. I’ve only ever seen Kihlstedt in one other film, a ridiculous evil mermaid movie where she played the mermaid and Carla Gugino’s cleavage and horrific British accent were the main characters…that was not a good movie, fortunately this one is.
Although seemingly innocuous, Judith possesses incredible, sometimes terrifying abilities and the story of her time in the institute is told by the doctors who tried to treat her, the government agents who tried to weaponize her and the whole is documented in pictures, security and laboratory camera footage. The cast speaks to the camera as if we are supposed to know who and what Judith was, because in this alternate history, Judith Winstead was the only government confirmed case of possession…that’s demonic possession, in case you’re wondering, although the words “demon” or “devil” are never once used in the film, so I can’t be sure really. Come to think of it, that’s pretty fucked up, not to mention non-committal, but fortunately the omission had little to no effect on the film itself.
If you’ve been following this blog, then you know I may be a slight stickler for details, and the obsessive compulsive side of my personality (basically all of it) giggles with glee when I watch a movie that I cannot pick apart (like an occasionally snarky, yet endearing, know-it-all). I’ve watched The Atticus Institure three times now, and I am still as impressed with it as I was on the first viewing, and that is just awesome.
All that aside, I do like a good possession movie, and this horror fans is definitely a good one, although I don’t think this is a movie for everyone. Some people may find the movie too subtle and controlled (or even kinda boring), there is no huge display of evil, no snarling, spitting, scabby skin or head spinning to grab one’s attention. In fact, none of the staples of your run of the mill satanic tale are present, which added enormously to the realism but also kinda kept the movie mostly low on scares.
Still, The Atticus Institute is an intriguing little film and in my opinion well worth a watch, regardless of whether you enjoy the found footage/mockumentary genre, which incidentally I really do not like.
Do let me know your thoughts on this flick horror fans, and if you like what you’ve read then be a bloody peach and click that Like button.