If you’re like me, you Fellow Fans out there probably have an affinity for spooky documentaries and exploratory studies into the paranormal. You might have a touch of the conspiracy-theorist in you, be an amateur UFOlogist, or ponder over the existence of creatures such as the elusive Sasquatch or Nessie; you may even be an “all-of-the-above” person. I find that imaginative minds (like most horror-types have to be) are drawn to those “behind-the-facade” tales of the horrors that may actually exist, but are seldom seen, and cable channels like TruTV and The History Channel have no shortage of programming to fill this craving. Often, these shows focus on (or at least hint at) those things that may be carefully and meticulously hidden from our eyes, things that some ominous “powers that be” decide is too much for we the masses to be aware of. It’s strong fuel for the horror fan’s imagination to think that there’s an alien intelligence that may be in collusion with earthly constituents, or that the eldritch powers and terrifying creatures and spirits of medieval (and older) legend may have really existed…and may quite possibly still be with us.
The Atticus Institute is the latest film from writer/director Chris Sparling, done in a very matter-of-fact, documentary style, utilizing footage from a past event balanced with current interviews from people that were there…very much resembling one of those aforementioned cable shows.
In the early seventies, Dr. Henry West and a few like-minded colleagues felt that preternatural skills such as ESP and telekinesis had roots in hard science. They felt that only proper research and documentation was required to prove this, much the same as with any other scientific endeavor. In the previous decade, the Soviets had brought forward a woman named Nina Kulagina who allegedly showed exceptional abilities in moving objects using only her mind, and West and his companions were certain that such things could be possible in others. The good doctor created the Atticus Institute for the purpose of the empirical study of individuals who claimed to possess such seemingly supernatural abilities, with the goal to prove the theory that not only do such abilities exist, but there is actually a logical, discernible basis for the phenomena. After hundreds of interviews and test sessions with individuals (including one embarrassing fake that caused serious damage to the scientific reputation of the team), a woman, Judith Winstead, is brought to the institute by her sister with reports of odd behavior and…strange abilities.
Very quickly, the woman displays a level of aptitude that is so unheard of by the team as to prompt one of them to refer to it as “godlike”; however, the excitement this breeds is quickly overshadowed by Judith’s unstable, at times quite violent attitude. It’s not long before even the learned, clinical scientific team comes to believe that the poor woman is suffering from demonic possession. After Judith has a particularly harrowing overnight stay at the institute, the scientists seek government help for continued research, counting on federal interest to provide funding and better facilities; however, as the level of Judith’s “skills” is shown to be beyond all expectations, the Department of Defense becomes far more interested in something more than simple study…but all they will ultimately discover will be the truth of what one witness testified:
“You don’t get to play games with the Devil…and if you do, you damned sure don’t get to make the rules“.
Before I say anything else about this flick, I have to give props to Sparling for creating such a convincing looking film; I can easily see how, visually at least, this could be mistaken for an actual cable network documentary.
The set decoration in the 1970’s “archival footage” was spot-on, and although I’m sure some sharper-eyed folks might find some anachronisms, I myself was unable to. Having been a child in the time period, everything looked familiar and accurate in my admittedly thirty-plus year recollection (even first aid for a nosebleed was accurately portrayed for the era; it’s certainly not the same now as it was then). Moving on to the script, I was impressed with Sparling’s narrative, easily accepted with any kind of knowledge of alleged (and some confirmed) experimentation with mind-altering drugs and ESP done by the U.S. government during the time. The modern “interviews” in this pseudo-doc are well-acted and believeable, with the bonus of actors that really, really look like their “younger selves” in the “archival footage”. As far as that footage is concerned, it’s interspersed with a lot of still photos and audio-only segments, just like you’ll find in the kind of television-doc that the film imitates. The acting in these segments is also well done, with William Mapother as a convincing Dr. West, showing emotional chops and strong characterization, especially considering the “snippet” methodology that is used with his scenes.
Most impressive (and really, what the film hinges upon) is the performance of Rya Kihlstedt as the possessed Judith; no heavy make-up or spinning heads here, the possession is illustrated simply with her sinister expressions, wild actions, and ability to contort her body and features into something horrific. Effects-wise, there aren’t a lot of visuals beyond things moving of their own accord, but in the context of the flick they’re fitting and effectively done. The few graphic set-pieces you will see are convincing and at times shocking, however there are a couple of CGI moments that are unfortunately pretty obvious; balanced against the rest of the film, however, I found them forgivable.
Going for the look of a TV documentary, the film sells itself pretty damned well; it’s not going to impress the hardcore “possession” crowd that’s looking for high-end demonic manifestations and a lot of effects-heavy exposition, so if that’s your bag, you might want to skip this one. Fans of the kind of shows that I’ve talked about throughout this review, however, just may find some real entertainment here; while it may not be an in-your-face demon-fest in the vein of The Exorcist, it acquits itself nicely in the areas of pseudo-realism and general creep factor.
Two-tenths of a dime lighter.
Anchor Bay Entertainment releases The Atticus Institute on Blu-Ray, DVD, and VOD January 20th, 2015.
JUST CLICK HERE