We know it will probably not end well for Cristian and July. That much we know from the trailer -- family found dead, 37 hours of recorded evidence recovered -- and even if you haven't seen the trailer, the opening moments of 'Atrocious' make it abundantly clear: There will be screaming. And running. And dead bodies.
'Atrocious,' enjoying its North American premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival tonight, rewinds to tell its story. Cristian is an 18-year-old boy with a video camera permanently glued to his eye. July is his 15-year-old sister. Together they investigate urban legends and then post their videos to YouTube. Their parents are 'forcing' them to spend their Easter holiday at a country estate owned by the family near the seaside town of Sitges, Spain, in the county of Garraf.
Anticipating boredom, Cristian has discovered a local legend and plans to check it out. The story goes that a girl named Melinda got lost somewhere in the Garraf woods in 1940. Ever since then, the ghost of Melinda appears to travelers who have become lost.
The family's big, old beautiful country home has been abandoned for 10 years. And what do you know, there are woods adjacent to the house! Cristian and July go exploring, discovering a labyrinth cut into the woods, in which they get lost for a while. Upon their return, their father remarks that their mother knew the labyrinth well when she was child, and then sternly warns them to stay out, with no reason given.
A visit from Carlos, an old friend of their father, adds to the mystery. Carlos softly but ominously tells the kids that the legend about Melinda, "the girl in the Garraf woods," is well-known in the area, passed down from generation to generation, and he takes it seriously.
That night, the family dog starts barking. Both Carlos and younger brother Jose (aged 6) hear something, even though July thinks it's nothing. The next morning, their mother informs them that their father has headed back to his office in Madrid for the day, giving Carlos and July the opportunity to explore again, starting in the mysterious locked basement.
Their explorations eventually lead them back into the woods, and the screaming and the running begins.
For a fair amount of running time, the "found footage" approach works well. A balance is maintained between strict POV (point of view) shots and static views, where the camera is resting in one position. That gives us time to get to know the teen protagonists.
Cristian and July are appealing in their eager innocence to explore. The dynamic between them as brother and sister feels authentic. Cristian teases July about her boyfriend, calling him "the goblin," and July becomes bored with filming "nothing but trees." Both chafe under their parents. At one point, Cristian refers to his father sarcastically as "El Senor," which the English subtitles translate as "Sir" but in the original language is often used to refer to Jesus Christ as Lord. (In any event, it's not complimentary when Cristian says it.) Julie has little patience for her mother, often referring to her as a pain, which is pretty typical for a 15-year-old girl.
Once the action begins in earnest, though, the limitations of the found footage / POV sub-genre become more apparent. We've been waiting for things to develop, and when they do, we want to see what happens. But because the footage is restricted to what is supposedly filmed by Cristian or July, we see more flying dirt and snapping tree limbs than anything else. When the camera pauses to allow us to absorb what's happening, we get glimpses that something horrifying is happening. Those glimpses are effectively rendered.
Glimpses are not movies, however.
It's a fundamental dilemma. In order to pretend that the footage is "real," the filmmakers must make sure that a fair amount of the action can be captured in some way by the supposed "real" people involved. The filmmakers, who are invariably trained professionals, must pretend that they are amateurs with limited knowledge of how to frame the action. The filmmakers also ask audiences to believe that amateur camera operators will continue taping the action with the same dedication as seasoned Middle Eastern war photographers, no matter what horrors unfold in front of the lens, even when a family member is in mortal danger.
Putting away the pretense that 'Atrocious' is "real," writer/director Fernando Barreda Luna is clearly talented. He includes tiny homages to what are probably favorite filmmakers (Scorsese, Tarantino, Argento, among others) without making a big deal about it. He has a good story to tell, featuring two believable teen siblings. For all the jittery, "shaky cam" footage, there's almost an equal amount that is calm and nicely framed. To its credit, the film keeps to a brisk running time, about 75 minutes, and endeavors to avoid overstaying its welcome.
Still, we've been in these woods before, so we have a general idea what to expect. Before the screaming and the running begins, 'Atrocious' tends to slack instead of steadily building tension, which minimizes the effect of the pay-off moments. It's hard to be frightened by things that go bump in the night if you can't feel the bump.
To be fair, if you haven't seen very many found footage movies, which tend to polarize audiences, 'Atrocious' may strike you in a more favorable fashion. The film has been compared to 'Paranormal Activity,' which also had a good number of effective moments without completely thrilling (or chilling) yours truly. 'Atrocious,' at least, wrings a couple of new wrinkles from a formula that needs shaking up. For that, it's worth a walk -- or run -- through the woods.