Friday, May 22, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Atticus Institute (2015)

(Beware of spoilers)

The new found-footage movie The Atticus Institute (2015) is just the kind of effort in this sub-genre that I really enjoy and appreciate. Specifically, it expands the definition or parameters of “found footage” a bit. 

The film is structured as a modern-day documentary that explores a strange event in the year 1976, and isn’t just an assemblage of someone’s raw footage, discovered in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy or catastrophic event.

Instead, the found footage of the bicentennial year is only a part of the visual and narrative tapestry.

The remainder of the film consists of talking head interviews with the survivors of the Atticus experiment today, in 2015, and B-roll footage of those involved, often consisting of nicely staged (and aged) photographs of the primary players.

The film’s opening credits are also played over a camera tour of the facility in modern times, abandoned, forgotten and in ruins.  This tour of the ruins -- a kind of archaeological curiosity in some weird way -- creates a powerful juxtaposition with the documentary footage we see unfold throughout the film.  

The visuals of the montage seem to mirror the progress of the experiment itself, revealing to audiences how a place of life and possibilities becomes a place of the dead, and was left forgotten.

Written and directed by Chris Sparling, The Atticus Institute is also a strong and nuanced character piece.  The various “talking heads” seen on screen -- including those played by Harry Groener and John Rubinstein -- discuss what is going on in the life of the film’s ostensible protagonist, Dr. Henry West (William Mapother). But the pictures subtly tell a different and highly intriguing story, one which the viewer must assemble and thread together with his or her own eyes.

Finally, there’s also a nice philosophical through-line in The Atticus Institute about the military mentality, and the desire to weaponize everything, even to the detriment of the human race. On one hand, it is interesting to connect this sub-plot to the events of the mid-1970s, when trust in government was at an all-time low because of the Watergate Scandal and the failures in Vietnam. 

On the other hand, the message plays as relevant today, as our military develops ever more fearsome and sophisticated ways of delivering death to our enemies.  Again, going back to the tour of the Atticus ruins that accompanies the opening credits, it’s fascinating to ponder how the two (parallel) time periods of The Atticus Institute suggest that if we don’t remember history, we are doomed to repeat it.

I’ve been on sort of a bad-streak with found footage movies of late, to my dismay. The Houses that October Built (2014), The Pyramid (2014) and the nutzo-gonzo Daylight (2013) didn’t do much to buoy my case about the sub-genre’s potential and longevity. 

So it’s a relief to report that The Atticus Institute is an intelligent and creepy addition to the found-footage canon, and one wholly worthy of recommendation.  There are a few jump scares in the film, but The Atticus Institute’s true success rests in the way it engages and galvanizes our attention and interest. 

Before long, we -- like the film’s haunted main characters -- begin to connect every event, random or not, to the horrors happening at the institute…and imagining worse ones yet to come. A strong atmosphere of dread and anticipatory anxiety is thus forged, and The Atticus Institute makes the most of it.

“We finally had the proof, not another hoax.”

A documentary about the Atticus Institute and the devastating events of late 1976 involves several affected individuals, including the children and wife of Dr. Henry West (Mapother).  Mapother was a renowned and respected scientist who in the early seventies, with his friend Dr. Henault (Groener) committed the Institute to a study of the paranormal.

It was a long, difficult slog, and the first psychic “prodigy” examined by the scientists proved to be a hoax. 

But one day, a woman named Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt) arrived at the institute and promptly demonstrate incredible, and then terrifying abilities.

Over time, the scientists in the institute began to grow afraid of Judith and her always-developing powers.  

Some came to fear that her powers were not psychic, but a result of demonic possession. Another doctor, Marcus Wheeler (John Rubinstein) contacted the military in hopes of better containing and understanding Judith’s powers.

But the military proved single-minded, hoping to harness Winstead -- and the entity possessing her -- for use as a battlefield weapon. 

The documentary charts the tug of war between the military, the scientists, and the Devil, and records the only chronicled case of demonic possession in American history.

“You’re inviting bad things into your life.”

The key to an understanding of The Atticus Institute, and its final twist, involves paying close attention to the first-hand testimony of Judith’s sister, and then watching the moment-by-moment disintegration of Dr. West.  '

In particular, Judith’s sister reports that Judith became more and more disengaged from her life with the family, spending time alone in her room.  She practically disappeared from life. And it was then, after so much solitude, that she began to develop strange powers, or demonstrate the incipient stages of demonic possession, depending on what you choose to believe.

But watch The Atticus Institute with a close eye and make note of how West starts out as a galvanizing main character, calling the shots and directing the research. Then, after Judith is introduced, we see him less and less frequently, until by the third act, he seems almost invisible.  We see him a few times in his office...and he doesn't seem well.  "It's like a shadow," he says of a dark presence at one point, "but it's not me."

When you connect the two “dots” (the testimony of the sister, and West’s diminishing presence in the “documentary”) you can begin to intuit what the demon is up to, and what, precisely it wants. 

I should note, this connection is never brought out in dialogue, even once. Instead, The Atticus Institute credits its audience with intelligence, and creates a story through visualization, and loose connections. Pay close heed, and see for yourself how West's journey mirrors Judith's.

On a more concrete level, I appreciate how the film explores an aspect of the “supernatural” that is rarely discussed.  I’ll use The Amityville Horror as an example. There, the family experiences a bunch of weird things -- flies in the house, bloody walls, foul odors, cold air, disappearing cash, and more.  But the Lutzs’ overwhelming fear in that case connected all the incidents together into one cohesive terror. Everything that was slightly alarming (like the wino who showed up at the kitchen door unannounced…) became a product of demonic interference.  Leaky faucets, loose doors, and unsealed windows were the work...of the devil.

The Atticus Institute makes an interesting case here that once the scientists admit they are “scared,” they too start to willy-nilly connect every bad thing in their lives to the actions and behavior of Judith.

This is not a small thing.  

The first portion of the film is all about the way that the scientists at Atticus scrupulously avoid making unwarranted and unsupported connections.  Even when they believed they had evidence for psychic powers, they understood that they also had to contend with “lucky guesses” and “false positives.”  

There’s also a subplot early in the film about a fraud, about a man claiming to be psychic who, in fact, uses magnetic manipulation to appear gifted.  He almost succeeds too, and that’s the point.  This kind of work cannot be undertaken lightly, with wild conclusions being drawn. Every result must be checked, double checked, and triple checked.

But after Judith enters the picture and proves so frightening and so powerful, the scientists lose their sense of objectivity and rationality, and their fear begets more fear and more fear. 

Exhibit A in this kind of madness involves Henault, who in one compelling interview session tells the story of picking up a paper clip from the laboratory floor, and putting it in his pocket.  What use that paper clip comes to is bizarre and terrifying.  

But is it random? 

Or is the accident it causes a result of Judith’s deliberate efforts and manipulation? 

It’s an interesting conceit about the way the human mind works, and more than that, a splendid avenue by which to explore horror.  As I often write about in my books and on the blog, we aren’t scared of the things we know.  We’re scared of the things we don’t know; the things that we are uncertain about. 

In this case, significant tension arises from the fact that Judith’s abilities may be wildly over-estimated…or not.  We can’t be sure.  Even Henault can’t be sure, and you can see the fear and uncertainty inscribed in every crack and crevice on his expressive face.

There are other moments of pure terror in The Atticus Institute, but to feel it, you have to be engaged, you have to be thinking.  The terror is cerebral in nature, as you start to play out things in your head.

Sometimes, it is more overt too.  The military attempts to make Judith into a weapon, and conducts one experiment in which they attempt to have her, remotely, put words in the mouth of a soldier in an isolated booth.  

When those words are revealed, your skin will crawl because they change everything about the nature of the Atticus experiment, and about our understanding of who the subject of the experiment really is.

The Atticus Institute ends in a way that will provoke and alarm audiences, and I must confess, my first thought was that I wanted a sequel. That there was more story left to tell here. Even forty years after the events of '76.

You know your found-footage horror movie is hitting all the right notes if, as it ends, you’re thinking that you want to see the next chapter of its story.  

I think I know what became of Henry West, but The Atticus Institute sparked my curiosity and engaged my imagination. 

This strange and unnerving tale thus speaks to the real potential of the found footage format. One character in the documentary, late in the action, suggests that even by watching this movie, you are "inviting bad things into your life."

But The Atticus Institute's dedication to cerebral horror and subtlety suggests otherwise. So go ahead, invite this carefully-crafted, well-made horror movie into your life.

Movie Trailer: The Atticus Institute (2015)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Maggie (2015)

(Beware of spoilers)

At this point, a full decade or so since the sub-genre re-ignited in a significant way, we have seen virtually every kind of zombie movie possible.  And on TV, The Walking Dead affords us our weekly dose of zombie apocalypse action too.

On one hand, it might be tempting to gaze at all these zombie productions and yell “overkill,” or some such thing.

I see it differently, however. 

The surfeit of zombie films -- in conjunction with the rise of indie/DIY horror -- has permitted the genre to expand in new and unexpected directions.  

If there weren’t approximately a hundred variations of the zombie film being made each and every year, would we have the creative space for perfect little cinematic grace notes like The Battery (2014), or this film, Maggie (2015)?

I suspect not.

By now, the parameters of the zombie plague are so well-known -- don’t get bitten, shoot the zombies in the head, etc. -- that some movies have chosen to innovate not by going big and epic, but by doing the opposite; by exploring the world of the walking dead on a small and intimate basis.

Directed by Henry Hobson, Maggie chooses this route. 

The film has received mixed reviews thus far, and I believe the negative reviews have more to do with audience expectations than any particular quality of the film itself. 

Some people think of zombies and they want another World War Z (2013) or some such effort: a gory war story told on a humongous scale. 

Maggie is pretty clearly not that thing.

On the contrary, it’s a sweet, unassuming film about a young girl who is going to die from the zombie plague, Maggie (Abigail Breslin), and her heart-broken, soul-broken father, Wade (Arnold Schwarzenegger).

In true Hamlet-like fashion, Wade is paralyzed about what to do for Maggie.  He can’t bear to kill her, or rob her of a minute of her life.

But nor can he allow her to continue suffering, or become a danger to others…including his wife and other children.

Tear off Maggie’s genre elements and what you get here is the simple story of a child with a fatal disease, a child with no possible future.  Her father wants her to experience that future, but knows it is not to be.  

But if he can give her one more day, or a day and a half of that future…isn’t that a victory?

Maggie is nothing more and nothing less than the above-description suggests. It’s a gray, grim character piece that happens to be highlighted by some surprisingly-effective acting from action star, Schwarzenegger.  He doesn’t do his standard action man shtick here: a wink and a gag, coupled with his unmatchable charisma and screen presence. 

Instead, we see the character’s crushed heart, and total incapacity to resolve Maggie’s dilemma. 

As is often the case, it behooves you, going in to a film like Maggie to know what sort of film you’re watching.  This isn’t a decapitation-a-minute gore fest.  This isn’t an action film at all. Maggie is a sensitive and at times heart-wrenching drama about a family that could be yours…or mine.

On those grounds, Maggie is beautiful effort, an elegiac father-daughter love story.

“You shouldn’t have brought me back.”

In modern America, a necro-ambulist plague infects much of the populace.  Urban areas are hardest hit, but some rural areas remain largely unscathed. The U.S. government has established a protocol for dealing with those infected; those who have been bitten by the walking dead. The suffering are allowed to go home with their loved ones for a time, and then -- when “the turn” goes into full effect -- are shipped off to quarantine camps, where they will die.

Weeks after she ran away, young Maggie Vogel (Breslin) is found by her farmer father, Wade (Schwarzenegger) in a hospital ward for the infected.  She’s been bitten on the arm, and it’s only a matter of time before she will die. 

A kindly doctor informs Wade that first Maggie will lose her appetite, and then she’ll get it back…but for human flesh.  A sign of the “turn” is an increased ability to smell…meat. Worse, Maggie’s disease is progressing more rapidly than normal.  She has very little time left…

Wade takes Maggie home to the family farm, where her step-mother, Caroline (Joely Richardson) is understandably anxious about her presence.  The Vogels’ two younger children are sent away with relatives during the duration of Maggie’s care.

Over time, Wade is forced to confront his responsibility vis-à-vis his daughter.  A neighbor has kept her daughter and husband -- both infected -- at home too, but they escape and present a danger to the Vogels.  Wade is forced to kill them outright, rather than let them attack.  He is warned by a local sheriff not to allow the same thing in his house; not to keep Maggie at home so long that she is a danger to others.

Meanwhile, Maggie confronts the idea that she has no future. She goes out for an evening with friends, including a boy who is bound for quarantine, and dreads the possibility.  Soon Caroline leaves the house, and Maggie watches as Wade agonizes over his choices.

Then, Maggie’s “turn” begins. Her eyes go black, and she begins to sense those around her not as people, but as food.

The time for action is coming, but Wade can’t bring himself to do what he must…

“Think about what you did today. And what you may have to do tomorrow.”

There are very few fireworks in Maggie.  The film is not about zombies overrunning our infrastructure, or laying siege to our cities and communities.  Instead, the film adopts a very simple premise.  Early on, a physician tells Wade what to expect, and then we follow Maggie through the stages of the plague. Remembering the doctor’s words, we understand where Maggie “is” on the plague continuum.  There is no happy ending and, indeed, no expectation of one.

One of the best scenes in the film sees that physician talking frankly with Wade about his options.  This in-mourning dad can take his daughter immediately to quarantine, a kind of hell-on-Earth death-camp.  He can give her a government-made death cocktail to kill her, but she will suffer immensely because the cocktail is painful. 

Or Wade can end it quickly, with a bullet to the head, ending Maggie’s suffering once and for all.

Not one of those options is a good one, pretty plainly. And Wade spends the majority of the film waiting, attempting to decide on his course of actions.  He waits and he waits, and Maggie grows worse. 

He waits because he can’t bear for her to die.

He waits because he can’t before her to live in her condition.  

As the father, I sympathized completely with Wade’s inaction. He knows he is going to lose his beloved child, but he doesn’t want to take one minute of life from that child.  He wants to wait till the last possible moment, till the moment when her humanity is eclipsed, and he knows she must die. 

But, moment after moment, encounter after encounter, he finds that there is some of “Maggie” still left in that “turning” zombie. Every time he sees that human quality, he -- again -- can’t act.  As viewers, we begin to doubt, frankly, that he is capable of doing what everyone tells him he must do.

I don’t know, honestly, that I could do any better, in the same situation.

My wife tells me she would choose option three for our son -- get it over with quickly and painlessly -- and then turn the gun on herself rather than live with the heart-break. Her reasoning is that it is wrong to let someone we love suffer.  I hear and understand that rationale, and perhaps I’m a coward, or simply weak.  But I don’t think I could pull the trigger on my son until I knew, 100% that there was no other option; that my child was really and truly lost. 

And even then, I don’t know if I could do it.

Maggie is the kind of film that makes you consider such questions. What would you do if your child contracted a plague, and was a danger to others?

On a more mundane level, what would you do if your child contracted, simply, a terminal illness? 

How would you talk to that child about the elephant in the room: the idea that he or she simply has run out of future? The parent-child bond is one about learning and preparing, conveying knowledge to the young.  Suddenly, that contract is broken, because the child will never grow up, never carry the responsibility to be an adult, and go through life. What’s left to talk about? To connect over?

We see in one scene, as Wade focuses on the past, and the way he and Maggie’s mother met.  Shared history is the only thing left when the future is gone.

Other characters in the film, including Caroline, periodically warn Wade that Maggie isn’t herself anymore.  And even Maggie coaches her Dad on what he must do. 

“You have to do it,” she tells him.

Yet still, Wade can’t bring himself to act.  Perhaps there is a part of him that would rather die with Maggie than live without her.  Again -- and as I think my wife was trying to express in her own way -- I sympathize with that instinct.

Overall, I appreciate how sensitively and intelligently (but not cloyingly…) the movie explores its themes. In particular, it seemed to recognize a key fact about human nature.

You are always certain how strong you are...until it is your loved ones who are in pain.  And then certainty flies out the window.  Maggie captures that notion splendidly.

Maggie presents a haunting scenario to think about, and Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a remarkable performance here.  He prowls the film with a hang-dog expression, and an air of defeat.  I remember being none-too-impressed with his performance as a grieving husband and Dad in End of Days (1999).  I didn’t feel he had the depth, there, to nail that fallen character.  But here, he absolutely nails the essence of his character, Wade.  He carries an invisible weight on his shoulders, and there’s a sweet gentleness to his interactions with Maggie.  Wade is never disgusted, horrified or scared by her. But he is a wreck, facing what for him is the end of his universe, the death of his child.  I have never seen Schwarzenegger give such an internal performance before, and his work here is accomplished and award-worthy.

Maggie’s denouement, finds an intriguing answer for Wade’s existential dilemma.  I don’t want to give it away, but it stems from Maggie’s strength, and --as it should -- from her love for her father.  Maggie’s final act in this life is one that takes her father’s experience fully into account, and goes from there.

What finally emerges then, is a portrait of a loving family facing a horrible situation.  The love that Wade and Maggie share for one another is the thing that makes the pain so difficult to contend with, but in the final analysis it is also the quality that gives both individuals the strength to go on and do what they must.

In terms of its imagery, Maggie exists in a kind of de-saturated world of gray, where all joy and hope has been chemically extracted from the visuals.  In a world without a future, how can the sky, the landscape, or the people be anything but gray?  The film’s visuals are quite lovely at times, though for some stretches it looks like the Vogel’s live on Matthew McConaughey’s farm from Interstellar (2014)

Maggie is a sad -- nay grim -- film.  Yet it is one I wholeheartedly recommend. You’ve seen zombies of all types before – fast and slow, brain-eating or not -- but Maggie’s gift to us is worth noting.  The film takes the world of the zombie apocalypse and makes it feel personal and close in a way that few genre films have managed.

Home is where the heart -- and Hell -- is. 

Movie Trailer: Maggie (2015)