THE ATTICUS INSTITUTE
Pros: Not terribly bad as a mockumentary horror flick
Cons: Story covers familiar territory and the ending is a letdown
“Dr. Henry West founded the Atticus Institute to study telekinesis, clairvoyance, and other psi-related phenomena. Thousands of subjects were tested using the scientific method, many of whom expressed supernatural abilities that defied explanation by known physical laws. The small parapsychology lab operated for nearly a decade until it was mysteriously shut down in November 1976 by the US government.”
So reads the introduction to 2015’s The Atticus Institute, which plays out in the manner of a documentary examining the history of the titular establishment. We’re initially introduced to Dr. West, whose goal it is to prove once and for all that wild and bizarre psychic powers are indeed real. To this end, West opens his facility in Pennsylvania and begins to screen various unique individuals to determine their level of extra-sensory abilities. Though there are some promising findings, the credibility of the lab is thrown into doubt when members of the scientific community uncover a gimmick used by one supposedly psychically-gifted experimental subject. Just when it seems that any further research is futile, Dr. West and his team are introduced to a middle-aged woman named Judith Winstead whose psychic abilities are far beyond what any of the researchers had encountered before. When it becomes clear that the facility is unprepared to handle such a person, government officials are called in, eventually becoming interested in using Winstead’s powers for military purposes. As everyone involved soon discovers however, messing around with supernatural powers has its consequences…
To a large extent, The Atticus Institute resembles a found footage movie since the story is told mostly through “archival footage” which depicts events that happened in the 1970s. This material is complimented by interviews with various personnel involved in the events, including the researchers who worked at the facility as well as various family members and even government officials. The finished film then winds up not be so dissimilar to those Discovery Channel faux-documentaries that have been popping up over the past few years. I’ve often said that if things like the Megalodon or Russian Yeti program were marketed as B-horror movies, they’d find an audience who was willing to be entertained by them. The Atticus Institute establishes the fact that there is indeed a market for these types of films, but broadcasting them on “educational” cable channels just doesn’t seem to be the proper way to get them out there.
Consistent with the aforementioned mockumentaries, The Atticus Institute actually does a pretty solid job of selling the authenticity of its content – at least for a while. Archival footage and photographs seen in the film look appropriately washed out and sometimes shows evidence of deterioration – this is exactly what I would expect from materials produced some forty years ago. Viewers unaccustomed to really analyzing the images they’re seeing from a filmmaking standpoint might have a hard time distinguishing that this footage was actually staged, and it’s only fairly late in the going that a viewer’s suspension of disbelief is pushed to the breaking point. Eventually, one becomes aware that it would be highly unlikely that seemingly inconsequential personnel meetings and each and every detail about the ongoing experiments would be recorded – to say nothing of the fact that the camera operators seem to know things about to happen before they actually do (hell, maybe the researchers should have focused attention on their camera crew). Additionally, while the main story being told here takes place in the mid ‘70s, the Atticus Institute is virtually blanketed in CCTV coverage – this despite the fact that we’re told the lab was woefully underfunded.
In a way, it’s mostly beside the point to criticize this film strictly on the grounds that it doesn’t quite maintain authenticity: most viewers would know very well going into this film that it’s entirely fictional. What is more problematic in my book is the fact that, while the film does cover some interesting topics – namely, US government experiments related to supernatural abilities (research that actually took place) – it gets caught up in the usual type of paranormal movie content, becoming increasingly tiresome once it starts to do so.
Rya Kihlstedt as Judith gets to act like a crazy woman, but she actually seems strangely underutilized.
Early on, it’s kind of neat to watch as Winstead’s astonishing abilities start to manifest themselves in somewhat small-scale, subtle ways – there are several nicely-executed sequences in which objects are manipulated through telekinesis in the background of shots while more pressing action occurs in the foreground. As the film drags on however, The Atticus Institute becomes a sort of poor-man’s Exorcist, with Winstead now being declared to be “possessed” by some unknown force that the government seems quite interested in not only controlling but also exploiting. This “possession” tag of course means that Winstead now proceeds to speak in “animal-like” voices, vomit a black tar-like substance, and generally contort wildly while growling at anyone who comes close to her. This is the sort of ho-hum material seen in just about every demonic possession film ever made, and even the slight variation in how this particular film operates can’t excuse the fact that most everything in director/writer Chris Sparling’s script has been seen before.
Scary moments here are few and far between.
A further problem with the film is that, although it’s occasionally loud and flashy, with glitchy camerawork that seems designed to amp up a viewer, it frankly isn’t very scary. As might be expected, Atticus Institute has a few jump scares achieved by having something pop up suddenly in front of the camera, and I actually really did like a sequence in which the viewer watches as a series of CCTV camera perspectives are cycled through, waiting with building suspense to see what’s happening in one of the rooms being monitored. Still, partially because of the predictability of the script and partially due to the lousy execution of various sequences, there’s never a prolonged buildup of tension – I’ve seen numerous TV shows filmed in “haunted” abandoned locations that are much more creepy than anything here. A minor subplot in the picture deals with Dr. West’s increasingly fragile mental condition, a situation made worse by his dealings with the ever-more erratic Winstead, but there’s never any point to this story arc and it comes across as being pure filler. Furthermore, the film’s “big climax” is especially lackadaisical and disappointing, with an ambiguous ending taken directly out of the Paranormal Activity playbook. Ultimately, even if the film isn’t dull, it never quite satisfies on the level viewers would want it to.
The somewhat spotty CGI effects make it fairly obvious that The Atticus Institute was put together on a relatively low budget; that being considered, I have to give director Sparling some credit for turning in a film that’s fairly entertaining despite its imperfections and limitations. As mentioned, the faux-documentary structuring works out pretty well, and I thought the cast for this film (particularly the actors portraying the interview subjects) were much better than is the norm for this type of production. It’s nevertheless curious that Rya Kihlstedt playing the (one would think) pivotal role of Judith Winstead is actually given precious little to do most of the time: I’d almost say that she’s wasted in the part. When all is said and done, The Atticus Institute doesn’t wind up as a classic of the genre – even in the undeniably iffy genre of found footage-type movies – but a viewer is left with a watchable and perfectly tolerable time waster. I probably wouldn’t flat-out recommend this movie, but those who enjoy found footage horror flicks will probably get a kick out of it.
5/10: Not so much gory as somewhat disturbing in its imagery and story.
1/10: Maybe one or two instances of minor profanity.
0/10: Documentary-like format doesn’t allow for any salacious content.
6/10: It doesn’t break new ground, but The Atticus Institute is actually kind of fun for what it is.
“You don’t get to play games with the devil, and if you do, you damn sure don’t get to make the rules…”