Slamdance 2011 Review: ATROCIOUS
Writer/director: Fernando Barreda Luna
If you’re in the mood to stumble around an overgrown labyrinth in the middle of the night, with only a camera to accompany you and the screams of your family members to guide you, you’re in a strange mood indeed and may want to look into that. But if you’re more prone to experiencing that sort of thing in the theater, let me introduce you to Mexico and Spain’s ATROCIOUS.
The film doesn’t mess around with a convoluted story – the Quintanilla family decamps from their native Madrid for a summer holiday in seaside Sitges. They are visiting the childhood home of Mama Quintanilla, a home they have not been to for a number of years (and, possibly, for a number of reasons). A boring vacation threatens the eldest Quintanilla kids, Cristian and July, but luckily enough, the two are obsessed with urban legends, and Sitges has its very own for them to investigate. Wait, did I say “luckily enough”? I may have misspoken – as least as that luck applies to the Quintanilla brood.
Writer and director Fernando Barreda Luna treats ATROCIOUS as a found footage horror film – we are to believe that the footage we are seeing was recorded by Cristian and July and found after some, well, atrocious things occurred in Sitges. For the majority of the film, we’re set to watch edited-together video from the Quintanilla’s ill-fated holiday, already knowing that it’s not going to end well, thanks to the people who are supposedly presenting the footage to the public (hint: it’s the police). What happens in Sitges, and what happens in the labyrinth woods behind the house, is the obstinate plot of the film – but it also asks its viewers to ponder deeper and darker stuff, like the labyrinth of the mind and how that influences what happens and what we see.
Technically, ATROCIOUS is incredibly well-crafted. In the most basic of terms, it sounds good and it looks good. The crisp sound design and editing bring scares from nothing (and, hell, sometimes something). There are a number of shots in the film that hold tight with the best of them – quick moments that Luna frames up perfectly, designed to scare you at first viewing, only to stay lodged in your mind long after the film has ended. And Luna’s story necessitates the use of two handheld cameras, adding dimension to the story’s scope and a bigger sense of involvement with Cristian and July.
Oddly enough, found footage flicks like ATROCIOUS work best when they reflect the limits of film. The constraints of a handheld camera remind us of what we cannot see – and the parameters of ATROCIOUS, especially when things start going really, really badly, work to ratchet up fear to almost unbearable levels. Not only are we limited to what Cristian and July can capture on camera, but Luna also sets the worst situations at night, so we are additionally trapped by what the cameras’ night vision and the kids’ flashlights can illuminate. And that night vision adds immeasurably to the chilling sense that we have no idea what is coming next. It’s somehow worse than total darkness – if something is there, it won’t stay hidden for long, it will emerge, it will be revealed. The limited scope of what we can see makes it hard to ever fully get our bearings, and that’s the full fear and force of ATROCIOUS.
However, after stringing along its audience (in the best way possible) for nearly an hour, ATROCIOUS wanders into some questionable plot directions in its last third. When it works, ATROCIOUS does so because of the fear it’s able to portray realistically, fear so deeply rooted in not knowing what’s going on, not knowing what we’re facing, so it’s jolting when loose ends get tied up so quickly that we don’t even have time to recognize that they were ever loose to begin with. The end of ATROCIOUS careens at us so quickly, especially after such a slow-burn beginning and middle, that it almost feels as if it belongs to another film.
For fans of the genre, ATROCIOUS will be a welcome new entry into the “found footage” world. It’s an adept horror film that will provide plenty of jumps and screams to movie-goers looking to be pulled right into some very dark labyrinths. At its best, the film will nail you with some pre-programmed human fears (the dark, oh, God, that merciless dark), while also tickling you with even deeper mental terrors, oddly neat ending be damned.