At this point in the subgenre, the found footage film has its highlights ([REC]), it’s lowlights (The Last Exorcism), and it’s beleaguered benchmarks (The Blair Witch Project). It has its big budget spectacle (Cloverfield), it’s lo-fi lameness (Paranormal Activity), and it’s auteur adaptations (George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead). There’s nothing more that can be done with the concept save for actually finding some real live snuff footage and mixing that into a wholly fictional film – and there are several homemade horror hucksters who are claiming such a creative con job (sorry – no real death imagery exists out there, fright fans). This is the arena that the Spanish thriller Atrocious walks into. Thankfully, writer/director Fernando Barreda Luna knows enough about building suspense to overcome the movie’s many shortcomings.
Siblings Cristian (Cristian Valencia) and July (Clara Moraleda) ‘host’ an online series where they investigate – and sometimes, debunk – urban legends. Unfortunately, their next case has to be postponed as Mom and Dad are taking them to their spooky country house for the Easter holiday. The duo haven’t been there in over ten years, and the home (and its surrounding hedge maze property) has fallen into disrepair. Still, the area contains fond memories for the Quintanilla family, and Cristian and July believe that can use their cameras to record an old ghost story about a little girl named Melinda who supposedly haunts the woods. What they capture, however, will wind up becoming evidence in one of the most vicious and violent crimes ever. After five days in Sitges, the police find nothing but dead bodies in the Quintanilla house…and two video cameras full of clues.
Thus we have one of the best set-ups ever for a first person POV horror movie. Though suffering from the same “why are they still filming” conceit that complicates many a found footage film, Atrocious knows its premise and then delivers on its deadly promise. Sure, it takes a long time getting to its pay-off – perhaps way too long – and offers up illogical motivations and amateur acting, but for the most part, once you get past the prolonged set-up, you end up with an undeniable experience in dread. Luna understands what makes audiences care. If he can’t create characters we want to root for, he’ll instead create circumstances that we don’t want to be in. This is especially true of the overgrown maze that sits outside the property. With its weird statuary and secret areas, it’s like a supernatural playground where anything – anything evil, that is – can happen. Then the film illustrates just how horrible things can get…and then unleashes us in the location, in the dark, with imagery flickering by in disconcerting waves.
Indeed, the last 20 minutes or so of Atrocious are so unsettling, so anxiety-inducing in their claustrophobic, close-off aperture view, that it’s almost impossible to watch. Since we know that there is a threat out in this underbrush, a threat that is more than capable of shedding gallons of blood, we worry that our guide will run directly into it – and that we will be witness to the slaughter. The very best thing about this movie is the way in which it builds suspense. Luna creates a scenario, peppers it with the kind of plausibility we need to consider, and then throws us into the middle of the minefield. We may not care if the onscreen players suffer a sinister fate – we just don’t want to be there when the scary shit hits the fan. Then Luna goes the extra mile, saving us from the outdoor terror only to bring the fear back into the house. The last five minutes more than make up for the languid approach to the first hour.
Which raises an interesting question – why don’t we care more for the Quintanillas? Why does their existence not move us to higher levels of concern? Well, for one, we see most of this world through the eyes of Cristian and July, and they are not very good filters. She is sheepish, going along with almost everything her brother wants to do. He, on the other hand, is an improbably device, a weird combination of character and cameraman. This notion that “modern” kids live with a lens in their face is, quite frankly, rather ridiculous and always sounds like an excuse for what is obviously a filmmaker’s need. Without the guy holding the camcorder as the giant alien overtakes Manhattan, Cloverfield wouldn’t exist. Who cares if he was recording a goodbye tape for his bound-for-Japan pal. The minute the monster shows up, all video options should be null and void.
In fact, this is the biggest hurdle still facing the found footage film. Unlike something similar to Paranormal Activity 2, where plausible surveillance imagery makes up most of the narrative, having a frightened and apprehensive character carry a camera around, always keeping the terror within some manner of framed composition, is unrealistic. Therefore, it takes a lot of work on the part of the filmmakers to suspend our disbelief. [REC] and its sequel succeed because of why we are in harm’s way in the first place (new story gone wrong, military reconnaissance). On the other hand, once Heather, Josh, and Mike realize they are lost in the Burkittsville woods, the equipment should have been ditched and they switch to survival – not cinematic – mode.
Atrocious suffers from a similar fate – at least, at first. But once the maze becomes the main focus, once we forget about the sudden disappearance of Dad or the fate of the family dog, the movie manages to crawl directly under our skin. There will be many who don’t cotton to the continual slow burn of the beginning, who will wonder why we spend so much time in static shots of night vision nothingness – and they would have a point. But to deny the movie its last act pleasures, to suggest that there’s not a heightened sense of horror as we wander, aimlessly, through a dark and ever dangerous wood is wrong. Atrocious may not reinvent the found footage subgenre, but it doesn’t embarrass it either.