Mexican writer-director Fernando Barreda Luna’s debut feature is simply begging for a whole heap of trouble with a title like “Atrocious” - but this subtitled, Spanish-Mexican, debut micro-budget effort, shot in only eleven days, just about gets away with it. It’s yet another entry in the “found footage” genre and is something of a spot-the-reference ‘greatest hits’ package, featuring all the very best faux video documentary devices to have emerged over the last few years during the development of the sub-genre. Perhaps the most persistent and informative referral point for what goes on here, is the film that is most often credited with starting it all, “The Blair Witch Project”: Luna’s duo of camcorder obsessives regale us with much the same sort of wobbly, dizzying, misframed, running-with-the-camera-still-recording-and- jiggling-about shots during the course of their self-monitored plight -- all meant to evoke the idea of something very nasty happening just out of the edge of the camera’s gaze (while the audience just feels slightly seasick with all the constant swishing too and froe), but during the course of the film Luna also mines the suggestive mythology associated with Hideo Nikata’s “Ringu” which, remember, also hinged on creepy video footage, in that case found by the ghost’s unsuspecting victims. Sandwiching a Sadako-like urban legend and much Blair Witch-aping imagery of its protagonists’ escalating panic are a serious of effective nods to all the more memorable touchstones of this now decade-old sub-genre. You can spot a lot of [*REC] in here, and also moments appropriated from recent success stories in the genre such as “Cloverfield” and “Paranormal Activity”. The story is all a bit of mishmash of “Ringu” and “The Shining” but there’s no denying that Luna’s calculated approach to his furtively recorded ghostly goings-on pays off with enough creepy moments to justify indulging the whole derivative enterprise.
The film is actually at its creepiest in the first half-hour build up, even if Luna’s “Atrocious” mythology feels slightly second hand. The edited camcorder content is bookended by “Cloverfield”-like title cards identifying the video footage we are about to watch as being the documented evidence in a police investigation. So straight away we know that the two smiling teenagers we see addressing the camera in a bedroom at the start, are most likely going to come a-cropper before the brief 70 minute running time is through.
The two kids are brother and sister Cristian and July Quintanilla (Cristian Valencia and Clara Moraleda), who have their own frivolous YouTube-posted ghost hunting show, in which they investigate local urban legends and document their results on hand-held digital camcorders. A family holiday Easter break with their parents and little brother Jose (Sergi Martin) back at their mother’s old rural farmhouse in Sitges, Spain, affords an opportunity for investigating the urban legend of ‘the Girl of Garraf Woods’, in which a lost child – Matilda -- who died after falling down a Well, is now said to come back to haunt anyone who also finds themselves lost in the surrounding area. The film benefits the most from the Spanish site turning out to provide a most suggestively haunted-looking location. There’s a moment when the two kids find all of their parents’ old childhood toys and possessions, stored away in boxes in the forbidding looking basement of their former (and now-sinister and abandoned) farmhouse like forgotten emblems of a disowned past, which is curiously disturbing for strangely undefinable reasons (they spend hours down there watching old VHS cassettes on a dusty old VCR, one of which is a Spanish dubbed version of “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage”!). The old house abuts a gated property which has been left untended and has become overgrown with weeds, the gate now all rusted and squeaky. Cristian thinks he can hear noises coming from it at night and the family dog is spooked by the area. The intrepid duo eventually investigate, both toting their cameras as they discover the gate to be the entrance to a labyrinth, now all decaying and unkempt and filled with crumbling sculptures and statuary -- and at the centre, a spooky-looking hand-built stone Well!
Those viewers who become impatient with the ensuing rambling footage of kids wandering about filming their arguments as they get more and more lost, and their relentless shooting of lots of irrelevant video of tangled trees and bushes and such-like flora, are missing the fact that any good ghost story relies on the atmosphere of a specific location and Luna has indeed found a creepy spot to pitch his wares. Labyrinths are intrinsically scary constructs as Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King have both illustrated. But whereas “The Blair Witch Project” stayed out of doors and dealt exclusively in undefinable spiritual terror, “Atrocious” builds to a bloody climax inside the spooky house, in which the horrors take a much more concrete form while remaining off camera until the final moments unveil a confused but effective twist. Yes, as ever with any film in this sub-genre, it is ridiculous and implausible that anyone would continue to film themselves as they’re being stalked, apparently by a murderous supernatural presence, especially when literally running for their very lives. Even when July seems to have been captured and is left bloody and bound like a sacrifice in the labyrinth by an unseen assailant, her brother keeps the camera running while he frantically attempts to rescue her! The film employs a tactic whereby we appear to be viewing the footage at the same time as an unseen personage who is also reviewing it, so there is much re-winding and freeze-framing which emphasises that the fate of the two protagonists has already been decided, bringing into focus the inevitability of the results of their hopeless struggle for survival.
Luna isn’t above the crafty cinematic cheat to enhance the effect of the film though, which he evidently hopes you won’t notice once you become caught up in the drama; but the constant jump-cutting in the opening minutes doesn’t seem like a device the teenagers themselves would ever have thought to employ in their video documentation of their holiday trip. There are also non-diegetic atmospheric effects used on the soundtrack, which I’m guessing the police didn’t dub onto the tape afterwards to make it play better in court?! In the disc’s accompanying 15 minute making off featurette, Fernando Barreda Luna reveals that the actors shot the movie themselves after being trained in the use of the cameras by director of photography Ferrán Castera Mosquera in order to add authenticity to the project. The two were not informed of the final act twist and were given scripts with false endings, and improvisation was encouraged in order to maintain style. Sometimes the recorded takes were played out differently to the rehearsals in order to get an authentically bemused reaction from them.
“Atrocious” doesn’t do anything particularly ground-breaking but it does actually work; it has the requisite air of creepiness, ghostly spectral images briefly glimpsed in the darkness, and even screen captures of what appear to be unintended simulacra, whereby a glimpsed monument in the labyrinth or the play of torchlight on trees creates what fleetingly appears to be a figure caught in camera night vision, until you realise otherwise. Effective, forbidding and, at the end, tense and extremely chilling, “Atrocious” is most definitely misnamed. Revolver’s disc features just the film and a making of interview with the director along with behind the scenes footage. It is available now on UK DVD simultaneous with its theatrical release and can also be accessed online from the likes of FilmFlex, BlinkBox and iTunes. A competition in which you can win your own HD camcorder is being run from the film’s website: http://www.atrociousthefilm.com.