Possess the… Possession? Wait, what?
The key to a “faux documentary” is sincerity. From brilliantly funny comedies like This is Spinal Tap and Bob Roberts to clever thrillers like Man Bites Dog and The Blair Witch Project, one lesson is clear: your movie only works if everyone keeps a straight face. And that’s part of what makes the creepy new horror flick The Atticus Institute so interesting: it actually feels like a “Discovery Channel”-style documentary that just happens to wander into some very supernatural places.
Written and directed with a keen eye for old-school documentary detail by Buried/ATM screenwriter Chris Sparling, The Atticus Institute is about a group of ESP researchers in the mid-1970s who come across a stunningly “gifted” woman. At first the decidedly creepy Judith displays some telekinesis here and a little mind-reading there – but once the tests start to get a bit more intense, that’s when a small section of hell breaks loose.
Turns out that Judith may not only possess extra-sensory powers; she may also be possessed by something straight out of you-know-where. Yep. (The Bible.) Given that we have no shortage of possession-centric occult thrillers these days, it’s great to see a new indie that manages to find a new entry point into such well-traveled material. The Atticus Institute looks, sounds, and feels precisely like the “standard” documentary film it’s trying to emulate, which allows the crazier, creepier stuff to make a stronger impact when it does show up.
Another benefit of the “fake documentary” approach is that, if you have a cool idea, a solid script, and a few good actors, your early exposition stuff is actually, well, interesting. One cannot have a half-dozen characters talking at the screen in a traditionally-told horror movie, but if you put together a clever documentary framework, it can make for a pretty novel presentation. That’s precisely what the filmmakers have pulled off here.
Aside from our central doctor (played by the always-good William Mapother), there aren’t many recognizable faces among the film’s interview subjects, which only helps to sell the “gimmick” of the piece. Special kudos to Rya Kihlstedt, who plays Judith, the gifted/afflicted/possessed woman who turns a traditional series of ESP studies into a full-bore nightmare. Not only does she give a strange, strong performance, but she does some remarkably creepy things in some enjoyably subtle ways.
The Atticus Institute is not exactly a “found footage” movie, in that it’s presented as a “true” documentary that just happens to capture some unexpectedly horrifying things – but as a fan of any scary movie that avoids a traditional narrative structure in order to give horror fans something a little bit different, I’d call The Atticus Institute a very solid effort and an unexpected treat. Doubly so if you love old documentaries.
Scott Weinberg (@scottEweinberg)
The Atticus Institute is out in the US on January 20, and in the UK from March 23.