Review first published by TwitchFilm
Straddling the grey area between found footage and faux documentary, The Atticus Institute purports to investigate the events leading to the sudden closure of an underfunded centre for parapsychological research in 1976, and the disappearance, maybe even demise, of its founder Dr Henry West (William Mapother).
Present-day interviews with West’s former colleagues and family as well as with the government personnel who became involved in the case are interspersed with footage documented at the time. The picture that emerges is of a group of young, committed ‘fringe’ scientists slowly building statistical evidence of paranormal abilities in their test subjects, despite setbacks from the occasional fraudster.
Seeking their own miracle worker to rival the Soviet Union’s Nina Kulagina, they eventually find one in Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), a schoolmarmish fortysomething brought into the Institute and then essentially abandoned by her older sister. Judith’s unassuming, if eccentric, exterior conceals physics-defying powers of psychokinesis and clairvoyance that are off the scale. But as Judith’s behaviour becomes more disturbed, and her abilities more frightening, the government is alerted and quickly moves in with its own malign agenda, leaving a horrified West to hover on the sidelines, dreading the turn that events are rapidly taking.
Chris Sparling is probably best known for writing Rodrigo Cortés’ contractor-in-a-coffin thriller Buried (2010), which he followed up with his similarly claustrophobic screenplay for David Brooks’ ATM (2012). However, his latest script, which he has also directed, is closer in spirit to the clash of science and the supernatural in Cortés’ later Red Lights (2012). It also reinvigorates the stale tropes of found footage by mixing its media and merging several subgenres: not just the in-camera devilry of Paranormal Activity (2007), but also the female possession of The Exorcist (1973), and the period-paranoia revisionism and military occult adventurism of Banshee Chapter (2013), Stormhouse (2011) and even The Men Who Stared At Goats (2009).
The result is an undeniably creepy confection in which Cold Warriors struggle to comprehend, contain and control an enemy far more dangerous than any Red Army, as those civilians present look on in increasing horror at the ensuing clash of ill wills. Sparling establishes the powers of the entity within Judith through an incremental series of set-pieces whose very simplicity only adds to their unnerving quality, crafting an effective – if somewhat familiar – demonic chiller. Yet it is for its broader geopolitical subtext that The Atticus Institute stands out. For as the good doctor and his benign, idealistic institution are infiltrated and taken over, not so much by the devil in Miss Winstead as by the malevolent, corrupting forces of the US military-industrial complex, intent on ‘weaponising’ Judith’s immense powers, we see a malicious destructiveness infecting everyone.
The methods that Defense Intelligence Agent Robert Koepp (Franklin Dennis Jones) uses against Judith – the restraints, the sack placed over the head, the sleep deprivation, the electric shocks, the music torture – are all painfully familiar from their use in interrogations documented in the Noughties. In this way Sparling offers, through the backdoor of genre thrills, an allegorical commentary on how easily West – not to mention the West – can be corrupted and turned into an agent of evil when the State resorts to improper and illegal practises, with the innocent always suffering the direst consequences in the end.
The Atticus Institute may be a fiction set some 40 years ago, during an East-West conflict that was even then characterised as a battle between good and evil – but much as the survivors of the film’s events remain troubled and haunted by them to this day, we too see the harrowing legacy created by opposing sides that mirror each other’s worst excesses, and we get a literal answer to the question of what keeps possessing the US to conduct itself the questionable way it does in war, whether Cold or on Terror.