23rd Feb2015

Frightfest Glasgow 2015: ‘The Atticus Institute’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: William Mapother, Rya Kihlstedt, John Rubinstein, Sharon Maughan, Julian Acosta, Anne Betancourt, Jake Carpenter, Brian Chenoweth, Bill J. Stevens | Written and Directed by Chris Sparling


For over 40 years now, tales of demonic possession have been a faithful staple of horror movies. At least one major release each year dealing with a character – usually a young woman – struggling to shake off a particularly pesky poltergeist, spirit or even Satan itself, often with the help of an in/experienced clergyman.

As such, the market for these movies has become saturated with some pretty samey fare. Which is why it’s somewhat refreshing (if not entirely novel) to see The Atticus Institute tackle the familiar subject matter as a faux-documentary/period found footage piece. We start with a familiar scene – an impending exorcism taking place in a dimly-lit, possibly subterranean scientific facility – that naturally goes pear-shaped and are then introduced to the bulk of the cast in talking head form who set the scene for the mid-1970s ‘archival’ footage that follows.

Most of the characters are paranormal researchers who detail their attempts to unlock the potential of one particularly gifted candidate, but the cast expands to family members of lead researcher Henry West (William Mapother, or as I knew him, Ethan from LOST!) and military personnel who become more involved as the situation gets more dangerous. The past/present technique is an interesting choice for the film, though not entirely successful; a number of key characters are conspicuously absent from interviews which gives away a pretty huge hint at the final plot twist and some of the dialogue just, well…sounds like it’s dialogue. As someone who’s written many fictional video interviews in the past, I can tell you it’s a fine line between authentic real-person speak and jarring lines, and it’s so much easier to notice an actor performing when they’re trying their hardest to conceal that performance.

Marching to a wildly different beat is Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), the titular Institute’s resident telekinetic and eccentric weirdo, who regularly laughs for no reason and twitches in nearly every scene she’s in. It’s by no means a bad performance, but Kihlstedt is ill-served by having to play a filmic cliche rather than an actual character. The beats are telegraphed pretty plainly by Judith’s behaviour (alongside the requisite voiceover telling us that “they couldn’t have known what was about to happen”) and the whole thing is already forty years past so it’s hard to feel all that much tension throughout The Atticus Institute. Horror, I find, works all the better when I don’t know who’s going to make it out ten minutes into the movie.

Which isn’t to say the film is without merit. There are some fine performances from the ’70s-era actors, particularly from Mapother who goes from scientifically detached to morally compromised in a surprisingly subtle arc for a film so disjointed. I especially enjoyed the push-pull between the researchers and the military cadre who get brought in to ‘protect the nations’s interests’ but, again, it’s hard to get invested in that battle when you know the outcome. Still, the grainy 8mm footage, production and costume design all work exquisitely to capture the era (I assume, having never been alive in the 1970s) and create a proper distinction between then and now. But if the suits were the best thing about The Atticus Institute – and boy are they nice suits – isn’t that all you really need to know?

*** 3/5

The Atticus Institute will receive its European premiere at Frightfest Glasgow on Friday 27th February.

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