The Atticus Institute
February 5, 2015
William Mapother as Dr. Henry West
Rya Kihlstedt as Judith Winstead
John Rubinstein as Marcus Wheeler
Bill J. Stevens as John Pruitt
There’s a point in some films where an immense change occurs. A moment when what you thought you were in for – turns out to be a disappointing pipe dream. Let’s be frank – it’s that pinpoint of time when you drop the microphone, tolerate the harsh feedback from the monitor and step away from the edge of the stage with a final and disgusted, “I’m out.”
Such is the case with writer/director Chris Sparling’s The Atticus Institute.
I tried. I truly did. But at one point, I shut it all down. That’s not to say I turned it off – that would be unfair – but the slight hope of the film continuing to, or rather re-gaining my trust had vanished. From the get-go, I really was open to the concept.
As such, I will freely admit that the initial idea was intriguing. Dr. Henry West played by William Mapother (best known to genre audiences from his performances in Lost and The Grudge) and his group of para-psychologists, operate The Atticus Institute – a laboratory for the study of ESP, telekinesis, mind-reading and any other number of abnormal psychology specialities. What would happen if one day, in strolled a subject with such immense power and influence, that in fact – she wasn’t even gifted with such powers, but cursed by the possession of a demon? Therein lies the aforementioned intriguing concept – scientists searching for proof of super-skills end up instead stumbling upon a for-real demonic possession. Pretty cool set-up, right? Then the military catches wind of these studies and the woman’s powers and go all Scanners-y and Firestarter-y and decide to attempt to hone and control her abilities for their dark government purposes (i.e. the Cold War weapons race). But after a short time, this fun promise is pilfered and the movie becomes repetitive, derivative and sadly, a waste of time.
Now – prepare to pull a breath from deep within your expansive lungs – as this statement will no doubt be worthy of an exasperated sigh.
It’s another found footage film.
Go ahead, let it out. Drop your microphone as well – if you must. I sure did.
Yes, this found footage is acceptable, based on the world created by the film. It’s a laboratory, and for posterity’s sake – everything – including all sessions – is being recorded. We’ve also got security footage, and stills which were taken throughout the history of the institute. The film takes place in the present, with many of the now-aged scientists and military personnel telling the tale of these horrific events – with the benefit of hindsight. Thus, the found footage is the stuff from the early to mid ‘70s. Problem is, there are far too many stills and pieces of motion footage which are annoyingly inexplicable – photos of Dr. West looking glum in his office (why was this photo taken?). Photos of government agents walking the halls of their hallowed top secret offices (huh?). Footage of secret government meetings, crashed by Dr. West – as the military faction determines their next step when dealing with the entity and the host. These photos and some of this footage shouldn’t exist. Why was a video camera present for this scene? These oddities draw attention to themselves, and with the rest of the ingredients already floundering, these distractions seal the film’s fate.
On top of that, all of the photos from the ‘70s are made to appear aged. Not one was without scratches or fading. You mean to tell me that not one of these photographs were kept in pristine condition? This is nit-picky. I’ll give you that. But if you’ll pardon the pun, the devil is in the details. If these are the kind of things that your audience is noticing, you’re in big trouble.
The acting in The Atticus Institute was overall pretty atrocious – aside from a few supporting actors. As for the leads, Rya Kihlstedt as possessee Judith Winstead, took a page from the oft-copied work of such seminal possessed women as Linda Blair (The Exorcist) and Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). Certainly it’s a physical role and she does what she can with this poor material – allowing for some uneasiness from and sympathy for Judith.
Technically, the period costumes and the overall ‘70s look were pretty solid.
I will give kudos to a couple of effective “boo” moments. Nothing earth-shattering or horrifying images which will keep you up at night, but the few good jumps and certainly some creepy still photographs of Judith will give you a little thrill. At one point in the never-ending study of poor Judith, the researchers captured some stills using some sort of spectral photography. And what we see surrounding Judith in these photographs is actually quite terrifying. But a couple of spooky bits can’t lift this picture to the heights of greatness.
And the biggie clue-in that it wasn’t a good film-going experience? At least two times, there were characters commenting on the danger and creepy events of the picture – and the dialogue in those moments perfectly allowed for a snarky retort from yours truly. The most memorable was a soldier reminiscing about how the military and scientists shouldn’t have been messing with this force. How there shouldn’t be a film made about these events, and at the end, he looks to the camera and said something along the lines of, “And bad things could happen to those who end up watching the film”. Need I describe my reaction? I didn’t think so.