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Atrocious (2010)
Director: Fernando Barreda Luna

review by Jonathan McCalmont

The cinematic horror genre is well known for its creative and economic vibrancy. The genre's vitality comes from the fact that the market for horror films is vast, highly structured and largely uncritical. The stability of the market means that it is relatively easy for a production company to rock up, dump some cash into a script and guide the ensuing film into distribution via a network of magazines and festivals that exist in order to connect fans with product. Operating with minimal budgets, minimal risk and minimal fuss, horror films can afford to be highly reactive to social trends and this reactivity means that all horror films contain the potential to be a breakout hit.

The economic and creative dynamism of the horror genre also means that horror spawns subgenres the way some films spawn sequels: every breakout hit produces sequels and imitations that flood the market with minor variations until the market begins to collapse and someone re-starts the process with something new. These movements from boom to bust are so rapid and so obviously market-driven that many film historians speak not of discrete horror subgenres but of 'cycles' such as the slasher movies of the 1970s, the postmodern horror films of the 1990s, the Italian mutant films of the 1980s, the on-going 'new French extremity' and the zombie films of the 2000s. One of the more interesting cycles of recent years has been the so-called 'found footage' films.

Drawing inspiration from films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Man Bites Dog (1992), The Last Broadcast (1998), and The Blair Witch Project (1999), found a massive audience by tapping into an emerging generational fondness for documenting and publicising the details of one's life. Both The Last Broadcast and The Blair Witch Project feature young people investigating urban legends but they could just as easily have been about the quasi-therapeutic process of unearthing family secrets or hidden desires. Sadly, while dozens of lesser films would jump on the Blair Witch bandwagon, it was not until Matt Reeves' Cloverfield (2008) that the cycle's confessional elements were brought well and truly into the foreground.

Cloverfield uses supposedly found footage of a monster destroying New York as a bridge between intimate images of a couple breaking up and staged reconstructions of the ubiquitous real-world footage from the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Situated half way between the intensely private and the intensely public, Cloverfield suggests that behind this generation's fondness for over-sharing lurks a self-destructive obsession with celebrity and misery. This generation shares its every waking thought with a wider world because it not only wants to be famous; it also wants to be romantically tragic. The found footage horror film holds up a dark mirror to the therapeutic process; we do not share in order to heal; we share in order to revel in our unique and special sickness.

Unfortunately, while the stability of the horror marketplace provides filmmakers with both the opportunity to experiment and the space to tailor their films to the concerns of the moment, it also makes it easy for unoriginal films to find an audience. Benefitting both from the current vogue for Spanish horror and the revival of the found footage cycle in the wake of Oren Peli's hugely successful Paranormal Activity (2007), Fernando Barreda Luna's Atrocious is precisely the sort of cheaply-made, under-developed and easily-marketed tosh that saturates the market, kills off a cycle and sets the stage for the next big thing. However, as wretched and boring as it may well be, Atrocious' highly derivative and formulaic nature does shed some interesting light on the strengths and weaknesses of the found footage subgenre.

Like many found footage horror films, Atrocious begins with a group of kids, a bunch of cameras and an urban legend. In this case, the kids are brother and sister duo, Cristian (Cristian Valencia), and July (Clara Moraleda), who embark upon a family holiday intending to investigate the legend of a dead girl who appears whenever someone gets lost.

The fact that Cristian and July are a brother and sister who holiday with their family is initially jarring given that both Valencia and Moraleda are clearly far too old to play the sort of characters who might go on family holidays, let alone share a bedroom. However, unintentional though it may be, this odd casting decision neatly contributes to a wider sense of unease in which familial relations are soured by unexplained secrets, unexpected departures and the bizarre decision to spend the summer in a long-abandoned house.

Why does the father leave in the middle of the night and not return? Why did the family suddenly return to the old house after so many years? Why are the kids not allowed to film in the garden? Who is the weird 'family friend' who appears and suddenly disappears for no apparent reason? By providing us with a sketchy urban legend and then introducing us to an under-developed family environment, Atrocious makes it quite clear that Cristian and July's investigations might as well be into their own family history.

Sadly, despite an opening act that promises an intense familial psychodrama, Atrocious soon devolves into endless footage of people running through mazes and basements. As Blair Witch demonstrated, the use of night-vision, shaky camerawork, sinister noises, shadowy figures and plenty of screaming, swearing, and terrified heavy breathing can be supremely effective in generating tension without the need for elaborate scoring or special effects. However, while Atrocious uses all the toys in the Blair Witch toy-box, it fails to realise that Blair Witch's effectiveness relied upon both a good deal of restraint and the effective use of exposition to prime the pumps. Blair Witch used its signature shaky cameras sparingly and always prefaced them with huge amounts of exposition so even if you couldn't really tell what was going on, you knew what you were supposed to see and your mind simply filled in the blanks.

Nowhere is this technique more evident than in the section where the camera crew's campsite comes under attack. Half naked and fleeing for their lives, one of the crew points off-screen and screams "What the fuck is that? What the fuck is that?" To this day, I swear that the first time I saw this film, I could see something out in the darkness but repeated viewings of the film have made it quite clear that there was never anything there. Aside from returning to the well so many times that the shaky camerawork ceases to be in any way frightening, Atrocious also completely fails to prime the pumps with adequate levels of exposition meaning that what shaky-cam footage the film contains must stand largely on its own cinematic merits.

In fact, Atrocious' exposition is in general quite poor. For example, having introduced us to a tense family atmosphere and mentioned an urban myth, the film then goes on to completely ignore these contextual cues only to pull a rabbit out of a hat once the film has shot its dramatic bolt. With bodies everywhere and characters dead and/ or insane, a ridiculous voiceover informs us that it wasn't the family or the ghost wot done it but a psychopath, thereby revealing the stuff about the family and the urban legend to have been complete red herrings.

Like many films that jump onto already over-burdened bandwagons, Atrocious clearly has the potential to move the genre forward but remains quite content to show us the same old stuff that we have been seeing in the decade or more since The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity hardly rewrote the rules on found footage horror but it at least bothered to keep track of the technology that might realistically be used to produce the sort of found footage that these films profess to be. While Paranormal Activity looked exactly like the sort of thing someone might piece together using a couple of digital cameras and desktop editing software, Atrocious looks like something spliced together out of film or tape.

Blair Witch Project looks the way it does because it is supposed to be footage shot by a bunch of film students on borrowed cameras. Atrocious is supposed to be footage shot by teenagers on low-grade digital cameras and yet it looks almost exactly like the footage from the Blair Witch Project. The phenomenal success of Paranormal Activity shows that, when it comes to horror, technical competence counts for a lot more than a capacity to innovate but Atrocious is neither competent nor innovative. In fact, given that it is poorly conceived, poorly written, poorly shot, poorly directed and poorly acted it seems fair to conclude that Atrocious is nothing more than poor. I'm tempted to make a joke about the film's title being particularly apt but even this would be to give the filmmakers too much credit.


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