HOFF 2011: ATROCIOUS Review

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
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Meet the children of the Quintanilla family. There is July, the teenage daughter. She is not quite rebellious but certainly chafes against her mother's care. And there is Christian, slightly older but in many ways simpler. All Christian wants is his video camera, a device that he is seemingly surgically attached to as he compulsively documents everything around him. Christian and July have a younger brother, too, but for our purposes and the purposes of Atrocious, these are the two that matter.

Together Christian and July investigate urban legends, record their findings and post them online. And they had their latest investigation all planned out until their parents threw a wrench into everything by taking them away to a remote summer house that they have not visited in more than ten years. There is nothing at all to do there, no friends and not even any television, but happily - at least for Christian - there is at least a local legend to occupy their time and so they borrow a second camera and the pair try to make the best of things by learning the truth behind the stories.

The latest in the current wave of moc-doc horror films, Atrocious demonstrates once again that people keep making these because when well done the films themselves keep on working. We've reached the point now where it's time to stop treating first person films as a sort of gimmick and recognize that they are a distinct subgenre unto themselves, a cinematic style with its own distinct set of strengths and weaknesses. In the right hands the first person perspective makes for intimate, powerful film and director Fernando Barreda Luna knows exactly what he is doing with the form.

After starting with a quick jolt to let you know what's coming, Luna lulls the audience into feeling safe by presenting the first half of the film as exactly what it purports to be: a holiday video made by a pair of bored teens with active imaginations and not enough to do while cooped up in a slightly creepy old house. The family has normal family squabbles, the kids explore the extensive grounds around the property, and they generally try to find ways to fill the time. Yes, there are local legends which are explored but for the most part Atrocious begins as an average holiday video shot by a pair of average kids. It's the sort of thing any one of us may have made when we were July and Christian's age except, of course, for the fact that we're told right from the outset that this particular video ends with the family dead.

Around the half way mark things begin to turn. Something is not quite right. Christian is hearing strange noises - something July puts down to his overactive imagination but his late night recordings seem to bear him out. Mother, who grew up in this house, becomes increasingly insistent that the children stay away from the garden labyrinth that borders the yard. And then the dog disappears ...

To go any further with specifics would be to damage the viewing experience but suffice it to say that once Luna turns the corner with his film it quickly accelerates into a mad race to simply survive, a race in which the audience - like the children - have no idea what is really behind the frightening events until it is far, far too late to do anything about it. The tension mounts rapidly, Luna cleverly keeping the camera in play as the night vision feature is the only thing that allows the children to navigate their dark surroundings. It becomes a world of shadows and noise, the aggressive sound design hinting at dangers lurking in the dark - dangers prone to lash out and do sudden harm.

A much simpler film than recent US entries of the type - The Last Exorcism comes to mind - the goals of Atrocious are very simple. One, help the audience get to know Christian and July so that we can empathize with them. And then, two, to take us through their experience from their perspective to share in their terror. It's a simple plan well executed and one that works very well. Atrocious is a very strong entry into this growing genre.
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