The Dispatches Review – Found Footage Series – Atrocious (2010) – Part 2 of 4

But the killer doesn’t really get a shot in the director’s chair in Atrocious, nor do we know for certain that antagonist’s very nature–human or not–for much of its run.  Indeed, if found footage is often criticized for being too flat and predictable, Atrocious’ blind paths, which can lead us to believe the film is of a type it isn’t, might be a great argument for the form’s originality and dynamism.   I kept running notes during my viewing and, in the last few scenes of the film, I was reminded of the Barthes quote I include in the opening of this article; a narrative might be said to be a machine that manufactures perception and expectation.  Maybe not completely, maybe not uniformally, but it’s an experience for the viewer nonetheless, and that viewer will walk away from the viewing with new thoughts in their head.  In any narrative we’re new to, we will have various questions as we begin–questions of genre, plot dynamics, character archetypes, etc..  We presume a sensibility in the arrangement of the narrative, but we’re not yet privy to how that sensibility is specifically shaped, what genre sensibilities it most conforms to.  Thus, there can come a point in the consumption of a narrative when the definition of the very experience we’re engaged in isn’t clear to us–much as in life–when the narrative is very much in motion, like the hidden workings at the center of that molding machine Barthes describes–when the shape of the final product, the completely-told story, with all its twists, with all its effects on the viewer and their attitudes and their perceptions and their sense of themselves and their place in relation to what their are seeing, their complicity, is still very deliberately unknowable.

My assumptions almost all prove incorrect, in fact, so that I eventually just decide I’d be wrong no matter what I guess and (try, at least, to) stop assuming altogether.  Meanwhile, about my own place as the viewer: I can say I am the observer, but not much more than that.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if that particular mystery of definition ends up being resolved neatly, in a way that might creep me out and play on that sense of complicity or otherwise make all the built-up tension explicitly pay off.  That would all be nice, but, whatever the outcome—slasher, ghost story, aliens, something else–what is being produced in the watching, according to Barthes, is those expectations and, by extension, our conditioned responses to such stimuli.  This is especially the hope if there’s an effecting clash in priorities tossed in there somewhere, such as twang on our sense of complicity, that produces anxiety.  Could that guilt carry at least a little of the realism with it that found footage is trying to help us experience in the first place?  And for more of a reason than we’re ever given in real life: defying the viewer’s expectations over and over again means those expectations cannot remain static.  What’ really being manufactured, then, is a dynamic set of responses to a dynamic set of narrative stimuli.  Take out the ‘narrative’ modifier and that sounds a lot like a description of a regular old human discussion.

I hurt because I care. It's just tough love...

I hurt you because I care. It’s just tough love, really…

So if, in viewing Atrocious, one is effectively in the midst of that productive space that is also a mysterious space–a discussion–the question of that viewer’s in-narrative role only becomes more relevant;  I’m me, the guy that cued up this movie on my Roku and who’s writing about it now as part of a review series.  But in the act of viewing, I’m also playing a role that others in the narrative may be aware of: I’m being positioned as ‘the viewer’, the receiver of a narrative written and delivered within its own realm.  But that means that the expected responses of the in-narrative personality need not replicate my own;  Ghostwatch (1992), for example, features a narratively-legitimate haunting, and the viewer, intended to be watching a live-televised pop-documentary/investigative-ratings-grab piece, could place himself as removed spatially from events that are, nevertheless, happening ‘now’, at the moment of viewing.  WNUF Halloween Special (2013) stars with a similar-seeming premise, but where it ends pretty well forecloses against the possibility that what we’re seeing is supposed to be entirely composed of live footage–or that we might ever see any such stuff televised.[1]

Seriously!? But, I'd JUST changed my pants after the Leatherface thing...

Seriously!? But, I’d JUST changed my pants after the Leatherface thing…

This seems a good time to mention a small thing, but one that’s seen often in found footage horror: the idea of a chain of delivery implies an effort at authentication, and so replicating that sort of sense of authenticity is one of the practices a lot of found footage fiction, horror or not, is built on.  In short, the chain of delivery is pointed into the real world[2]its job is to better make the footage feel like a ‘true’ product of our own reality.  But, in order to achieve that function, certain elements are often incorporated into its making like so many filters that render the final piece more obviously processed and, therefore, less-than-legitimate if legitimacy in the telling is what we’re looking for.  Found footage fiction is also, often, ostensibly amateur footage, so part of what makes it particularly convincing today is that fact that it’s largely set in today; the few period pieces, like  Frankenstein’s Army (2013) or Apollo 18 (2018), not withstanding, found footage films are acceptable within our media culture because consumer level video recording technology has become so sophisticated and pervasive that we can just film whatever on our phones.

I do it all the time. Don’t you?

The kids in Atrocious film everything because they can, but their tech, for all its ubiquity, doesn’t seem to match our own in its actual quality.  On night [_???___], as Cristian is filming the family dog as it stands spookily still by the gate to the neighboring topiary labyrinth, the scene is subtly cut by static. Were this film older–or at least set earlier–the growing ubiquity of video-recording technology, and the commensurate improvement in average quality, wouldn’t be so obvious of an issue.  But, like the dial tone that today’s youth only recognize from period films and tv, so digital static is more and more encountered anymore as a narrative strategy than a real phenomenon.[3]   This might seem pretty typical, a detail hardly worth noticing, but it’s really a tougher spot than that: static being used to simulate a sense of authenticity can, anymore, actually manage to become disruptive if your phone camera doesn’t actually look like that when it crashes.


Those screen freezes can still be super-frustrating, though.

Part 3 coming next Friday, so come on back!

[1] And doesn’t that sound fun!? Look out for reviews of Ghostwatch and WNUF Halloween Special, coming soon!

[2] Unless it’s not, as we might have with a film set entirely in the future, including references to the unfamiliar that would require a special kind of contortion of our suspension of disbelief.  The SciFi Channel’s (back when it was The SciFi Channel) short-form series, FTL Newsfeed, might come close, though it is quite firmly a fake news broadcast versus found footage.

[3] Examples like this and others, such as the bizarre timing of weapons breakdowns in sci-fi narratives, makes me wonder if, more generally, good genre narrative just tends to need the technology of our fictional universes to be more advanced but less reliable than the real-world equivalent.


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