Sunday, February 26, 2012

Atrocious: Rewind, Fast-Forward, Rewind, Fast-Forward

It's weird - ever since I wrote about how sick I was of found-footage movies, I've ended up watching more of them than I did before. I don't know if this is masochism, the result of thinking more about them in general, or an indicator of how many there are out there, but I'm crossing my fingers that it's just a phase.

So anyway. One of the things that makes found-footage films tricky is that they have to walk an even finer line in terms of plausibility than conventionally shot films. The whole conceit requires that the camera be an element in the narrative as well as a means by which to convey the narrative. Put simply, you've got to find a reason to have somebody filming all the damn time, even under circumstances under which any sane person would put a camera away and run. Some movies handle it better than others, but when it starts to become a stretch, it'll take you right out of what's supposed to be a very immersive narrative style. Anything that reminds you that you're watching a movie, rather than the only existing evidence of the mysterious events surrounding someone's last hours, is problematic. 

So in that sense, Atrocious is kind of playing with fire.

A family of five is getting ready to take a vacation in the Spanish countryside, and the kids are bored before they even leave. Oldest son Cristian and middle child July investigate old ghost stories and urban legends for fun, and now they can't finish up their most recent project. They're going to an old house that's been in their mother's family for ages, and just remodeled after ten years of sitting empty. Supposedly, the ghost of a little girl haunts the countryside and leads people lost in the woods back home. So maybe it won't be a total waste on the ghost-hunting front after all.

The house is suitably out of the way, so there's no danger of the kids getting into town to have any fun. Cristian and July are stuck there with their little brother Jose, playing cards and being restless. There's a decrepit hedge maze out behind the house, closed off with a rusted gate. A perfect place to get lost, in hopes of seeing a little girl ghost. Of course, a friend of the family points out that there are many versions of that old ghost story, and the little girl isn't so friendly in some of them. In fact, in some of them she's the vengeful spirit of a little girl who fell into a well and died. A well very much like one Cristian finds in the hedge maze.

This is all well and good as ghost stories go, and pretty decent fodder for a found-footage movie, but the director decided to start the movie by showing us brief flashes of the climax first, followed by a rapid rewind through the rest of it to take us back to the beginning. Sort of a more intrusive, less elegant version of beginning in medias res and then cutting to a title card that says "X days before" or something like that. The beginning proper is a title card indicating that the footage is police property. So then the conceit is that we're seeing raw footage of some terrible event, captured by the kids' cameras.

For the most part this works out well - there's a good mix of innocuous footage with apparently-innocuous-but-not-really footage, and for the most part everything is underplayed. It takes awhile for the tension to spin up, maybe a little too long - some of the things we're supposed to find creepy are hard to discern, and it's just not the same when you have actors saying "wow, that's creepy" about something we can't see. But there are still the strange noises at night, their parents' weird insistence that they not go outside at night, and then the mysterious disappearance of the family dog. For starters.

And this is where things get problematic. Part of the tradeoff for well-constructed "found" footage is some ambiguity - a realistically handled camera won't frame shots perfectly, and there's always the danger that something will get missed. The climax is somewhat prone to this, but just as it starts to build up a good, coherent head of steam, just as we're about to get some payoff, everything gets fast-forwarded and we get treated to photos and newscast footage of the horrible events we were just watching mere minutes before. That segment concluded, we get yet another rewind, another look at the final events of the climax, and then we get our payoff. Which, narratively, isn't so much of a payoff because there's very little to telegraph it for the observant viewer, even subtly. Sure, you could call it a twist, but it feels more like a last-minute substitution, and unearned at that. The end result is sort of like listening to someone start to tell you a story, stop, restart, stop, restart again, and then end it in a way that doesn't make much sense given everything else they've said up to that point. No, wait, it's not like that, it is that.


  1. Very far from the best of the found footage movies. Much too much running around and a silly ending that wasn't particularly surprising or clever. 'Evil Things' had it's moments if you fancy another dip in the found footage pit of despair.

  2. I think I've got Grave Encounters and The Tapes on deck, but I want to give the whole thing a rest for a bit.

    "I'm sick of found-footage movies!"

    *writes about nothing but found-footage movies.*

  3. Beware Grave Encounters!! The stupidest film i've seen in a while