The Slamdance Film Festival (which is sort of the meth-head nephew of the Sundance Film Festival) used to screen films at theaters in Salt Lake City, but a few years ago they moved their whole operation to the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, in an obvious attempt to take advantage of Sundance‘s sloppy seconds. Skeptical of the new digs, I didn’t attend the Slamdance festival for several years, and missed 2008’s Paranormal Activity as a result, a fact that devastated me at the time. (Until I actually watched Paranormal Activity, that is, and realized how little I’d missed out on.) Slamdance has been frantically fondling itself ever since Paranormal’s unlikely (and some would say, undeserved) catapult to the top of the indie flick box office, desperate to recreate that level of success. Which may partially explain why Atrocious––a very Blair Witch-ey found footage flick with Paranormal Activity undertones––was accepted into this year’s festival.
Having never before attended a screening at Treasure Mountain Inn, I have to say, I was extremely disappointed in the venue. (Let me apologize in advance for this one-paragraph rant…if you choose to skip to the end, no hard feelings). Padded metal chairs were stacked in Army-tight rows on a barely inclined surface. Because the chairs rows were aligned perfectly––and not staggered––the ONLY thing you could see was the back of the head of the person sitting in front of you. People stretched and leaned to see more of the screen. Experienced journalists crowded the aisle, sitting on the snow-soaked floor, since that was the only way to really watch the movie, but I was not privy to such secrets. No matter how much I craned my neck, I could not see the entire bottom half of the screen…and Atrocious was subtitled. I ended up leaving after the short feature, feeling that it would be impossible to objectively review a movie under conditions so uncomfortable. Now I don’t want to come across like a movie snob––I’d be perfectly happy to watch a movie screened on the back of a building in 1950s Italy, no problem––but in this case, I simply felt bad for the filmmakers. Many of them were screening their films in front of their first public audience (some of which were reviewing the film for publication), and half of the crowd couldn’t even see the damn screen. Luckily, the publicist was kind enough to send me a link, so that I could enjoy the movie online at home.
And surprisingly, Atrocious turned out be a well-executed little film. It’s easy to dismiss it as just another POV shaky-cam spectacular, all heavy panting and night vision. But the film follows a very basic––and very effective––found footage template. The setting is established, the details of the setting are explored, mysterious items or landmarks are discovered, and then something unusual, bizarre, or scary occurs. In this case, the setting is an old house in Sitges, where two teenage siblings document the surrounding property with their movie cameras. Cristian and Lucy have been reluctantly dragged to Sitges by their parents for some sort of family vacation. They half-heartedly consider themselves paranormal investigators, and so they’re eager to search the area for ghosts.
For the benefit of their “documentary”, a family friend recalls a story about the ghost of a girl named Miranda, lost or fallen in a well, who will lead you home if you see her at night. The teens discover a rusty gate behind the property, which leads to an enormous maze of shrubbery that they immediately scour with their video cameras. In those initial moments director Fernando Barreda Luna perfectly captures that childhood experience of using your imagination to create a mystery to solve, a way to make yourself scared. When the teens find an old abandoned stone well buried in the maze of shrubs, their excitement is palpable. It’s a moment that recalls a giddy childhood fear, those times when a nighttime game of hide-and-seek turned suddenly, inexplicably terrifying. (With the Spanish accents and kid-centric sense of adventure, the first half of Atrocious is like something straight out of Spy Kids 4: Ghost Hunters.)
In strict adherence with the Found Footage Horror Code, events begin to escalate. Their father mysteriously demands that the kids remain indoors, so Cristian sets up a night-vision camera to record whatever drives the family dog into a barking frenzy each night. When the dog goes missing the next day, the two teens sneak out with their video cameras to investigate. Once past the rusty gate, the kids find a blood trail…that leads to the old stone well.
While it doesn’t know any new tricks, Atrocious is a dog that perform the old tricks just fine. As the camera whips through the trees in well-edited POV shots, there’s something about the long sequences of night-visioned hedge maze stumbling that are completely hypnotic. Being blissfully basic and only 75 minutes long, Atrocious doesn’t promise much in the way of plot revelations, and as a result, it’s not expected to deliver. It is what it is, a rock solid indie horror film made by an indie filmmaker who set out to make a rock solid indie horror film. Mission accomplished.