The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Atrocious (2010) – Part 1 of 4

Writer/Director: Fernando Barreda Luna

“[The] public waits… to witness the accomplishment of… the transmutation of matter.  An ideally-shaped machine, tabulated and oblong (a shape well suited to suggest the secret of an itinerary) effortlessly draws, out of a heap of greenish crystals, shiny and fluted dressing-room tidies.  At one end, raw, telluric matter, at the other, the finished, human object: and between these two extremes, nothing; nothing but a transit, hardly watched over….  [Plastic] is less a thing than the trace of a movement.”

-Roland Barthes, ‘Plastic’, in Mythologies

Atrocious will prove to be a particularly complicated film to discuss, if only for the ways that it subverts even the few expectations of found footage that we’ve looked at so far.  But this is not to say it is a bad film.  Such a judgement is irrelevant here, in fact–for, again, we’re not concerned with qualitative measures but, rather, how a particular film fits into the conventions of the found footage form and how the forms of found footage fit into a particular film.  And this only in order to better understand those conventions, those boundaries, and how they themselves might be changing even as found footage horror and science fiction continue to emerge as genres.  Films like Atrocious violate our expectations, sure, but that’s largely the point: those violations show us what’s actually being created versus all this theorizing.

And how.  In fact, some questions the film invites can be asked even before the actual viewing.  Most of the films we examine here are chosen based on their accessibility: currently, Atrocious is viewable online via Hulu (where I went to review it for this article, in fact), or it can be mail-ordered for rent on DVD from Netflix.  In fact, the Netflix page for the film includes its poster, and the image featured there (and above) makes quite the impression all by itself.  If we might use a poster to guess at the specific content of a film–the title, Atrocious, having already given us some pretty clear indicators–my own reading of the image led me to believe that it was not just a horror film, but a slasher specifically.

And for a very simple reason: to me, it looks as though the face framed in the poster has had its nose cut off.[1]

got your nose

W00t!!!

But a slasher film versus what?  One of the big divisions that becomes functionally important in discussing horror is that between slasher horror and supernatural horror.  Though there are plenty of films that transgress and even fall outside these two broad categories, we’re functioning from the presumption that the bulk of horror, in general–and the films we’ll deal with here, in particular–features an antagonist that is either corporeal or not.  Though we could certainly have a found footage film about a natural disaster–say, someone filming themselves as they’re trapped in an avalanche–we might also be tempted to categorize that film as a human drama rather than an overt horror story.  If there are a few survivors and one starts eating the rest in a particularly horrific way–say, while they’re still alive–we’re going to say that that becomes a slasher.

Meanwhile, the nature of the antagonist in those more overtly-horrific found footage films (and non-found footage, really) gives direction to just what it is that we’re supposed to fear for; though any given ghost story may well include an abundance of gore, the general expectation is that supernatural horror isn’t as viscerally intense as slashers.  In supernatural horror, we tend to focus on the horrific nature of the antagonist while, in slashers, we’re more concerned with the horror of what’s potentially going to be unleashed on the protagonist.  Leatherface, for example, is quite intimidating by himself, just as an image, but it’s about what he’ll do with that chainsaw that would have anyone running for the hills.

Say what you want about it just being a movie shoot or the tool not having a chain; that’s still a real person with a real chainsaw and I would really shit my pants if he were really running after me with it.  Really.

But, then, there’s Atrocious’ premise, as summarized on its IMDb page:

“Cristian and his sister, July, travel from Madrid… [to] their old vacation home. They learn the legend of Melinda, a girl… [who] got lost in the labyrinth near the house…. Carlos, a visiting family friend, tells the siblings… more sinister versions of the legend. July and Cristian use two hand-held cameras to explore the labyrinth and investigate the mystery of Melinda, until something horrible happens.”

This pretty clearly points to the horror of the plot being supernatural–or, at the least, there’s nothing so substantial that indicates it’s a slasher.  But why does it matter, then?  Because, especially here, in found footage, the nature of the antagonist contributes considerably to the possibilities of the narrative itself.  For instance: can a ghost hold a camera?  Even if it could, would it want to and why?  In examples such as the Paranormal Activity series, the supernatural antagonist sometimes takes a passing interest in the means of recording, but it rarely becomes an active wielder of the camera–probably because such a mechanical device is irrelevant to its agenda of reigning torment and destruction down on the skin bags currently serving as its playthings.  Outside of, say, Freddy Krueger, supernatural cinematic antagonists just don’t tend to think that creatively.

Doc, here, has managed to buck the trend, though.  During the week he does his full-time gig with the Cenobites, but, on the weekends, he does some camera work at Kink.com

Doc, here, has managed to buck the trend, though.  During the week he does his full-time gig with the Cenobites, sure, but, on the weekends, he does some camera work at Kink.com.

But the relationship of the slasher–the physical, human antagonist of his narrative–with the camera is pretty radically different. If the ghost has no use for the means of recording, the found footage slasher seems to get a hold of the camera so often–in films like Mockingbird (2014), Home Movie (2008), and The Last Horror Movie (2003)–that we can mark the phenomenon[2].

The nature of the antagonist can also prove central to the elements that the plot itself would need to contain in order to be made sensible.[3]  A ghost is a ghost and ghosts just want to kill you, or so movie logic often goes.  Yet, if the villain is physical, motivations begin to get questioned: without some establishment of context–why the killer is killing–the viewer can feel confused or cheated.  Unlike the supernatural nemesis, the bad guy needs to be explained somehow, at some point, and the current conventions of found footage as found footage mean that that often gets shaped in particular ways.  Single camera perspective, for instance, is getting to be less predominant in found footage–Atrocious includes material from a collection of sources ranging from professional-grade to cell phone cameras–thereby creating more options and opportunities for us to become familiar with all the characters.

Part 2 coming next week!  Same time, same channel!


[1] This is, itself, a fundamental misreading of the image; it’s actually a frame taken from early in the film, a manufactured ‘glitch’ in the recording that conveniently provides split-second scenes that foreshadow the horror to come.  In these brief clips, though, it’s made clear enough that there’s actually a hand covering this character’s nose and mouth.  So, it could still be a slasher, but the poster doesn’t prove to be such solid evidence either way.

[2] Which we will, in later entries; the ‘killer’s camera’ phenomenon serves as the antagonist taking ownership of the found footage film itself.

[3] ‘To be made sensible’ is deliberate wording: we could certainly create a found footage movie in which things like motivations and origins aren’t made clear, and doing so might actually make the it all the more authentic-seeming, but at the cost of accessibility and coherence.  And horror is largely reliant on a clear plot to even qualify as horror.

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