But, if the ubiquity of recording technology has made one piece of its developmental history novel, its also given rise to ethical questions and psychological ticks that are becoming hallmarks of found footage horror plots. When Jose, the youngest child, goes missing, mother Debora dispatches the two remaining siblings, Cristian and July, to search the dark night grounds for him. Cristian tells July to ‘get the cameras’ and she complies without question. We could question the sensibility of such a priority at that moment, but even the question presumes that the narrative should be functioning more like our own sensibilities–so, of course, the one raising such a point is really protesting a problem with their own suspension of disbelief, their own desire to think of what they’re watching as real. On the other hand, what if this behavior is actually acceptable to this narrative realm? We might ask if standards of normalcy more broadly are actually substantially different in this realm than we might be used to in our own. For a cross-genre example, see Kevin Willmott’s 2004 mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, in which popular politics–and american culture altogether–have developed quite differently since a civil war outcome that favored the South. Meanwhile, for a more visceral, horror-based example, we can look to ‘Parallel Monsters’, one of the stories included in V/H/S: Viral (2014). There, the entire premise is that a scientist who has made his way into an alternate dimension is lulled into a sense of security by all the things that look familiar; meanwhile, the very nature of humanity in this new territory turns out to be quite unexpected and difficult to adapt to. If we set this later situation as some extreme in opposition to, say, the various standards of our own reality, we might then think of films like Atrocious as falling somewhere in the middle: maintaining norms that we aren’t privy to but that don’t usually make the narrative run in any unfamiliar way, yet which could still affect the our reception in subtle ways that don’t so closely match our own experience. The narrative world is generally built with the narrative action at its center, after all, so there’s no reason strategic fuzz should be considered inconsistent or unusual with the very physics of that world.
Jose’s disappearance also opens the opportunity for another trope to pop up: the running scene. Next door to the family’s vacation home there lies an old maze–the aforementioned static occurred while the family dog stood at its gate. It’s an actual, planned-out labyrinth, but it’s also old and overgrown, so that walking through it is a little like walking through a maze and a lot like walking through the woods. Running scenes in the woods have become so ubiquitous to found footage that the view of the thick trees that greets the family as they roll up to their vacation spot at the beginning of the film should be a major clue that those very trees will eventually be run through. Blair Witch, by some counts the first major found footage horror film, was set entirely in the Pennsylvania woods, after all, as was much of The Bucks County Massacre.
And I call it a running scene specifically, rather than a chase scene, because, so often, the protagonist is running toward something: toward a lost child, toward the mysterious antagonist, toward an endangered friend, back to the house, the van, or even just further into the woods. In Atrocious, both Cristian and July are involved in running scenes at the same time, within the same set of woods. The fact that we’re getting footage from both of their cameras, intercut, then begs the question, again, of how and when that footage got combined in its path to us. That question of our own place nags at us even here.
So, perhaps to answer the question once and for all–or maybe just render it unanswerable on the same terms–let’s look back to the chain of delivery. The establishment of the chain starts with a police warning card at the opening, but that’s not the very first thing we see; instead, the film proper opens with a stylized quote and the title, then we’re shown clips of various points in the narrative as someone seems to rewind the film; it’s thereby established already that, whoever we might be, the viewing itself is not entirely within our control.
We soon land on a standard-looking police warning, almost like those you might have seen at the beginning of any videotape in the 80’s. It’s fuzzy, though, and I don’t know what it says specifically–really, more because it’s in Spanish. None of this prevents the card from serving to legitimize the, narrative seem in respect to its own world, though; how legit would a real-life classified document seem, after all, if someone just shoved it in your hands with no clear explanation?
But the look of legitimacy will, nevertheless, continue to be an issue for the rest of the run. For instance, the action of the film takes place over a number of days, as is made conspicuously clear through the inclusion of stylized, soundtracked intertitles. The problem in such presentation is that it then becomes too easy see the production of the entire film as something else: the point of the intertitles is not really to inform us of anything we need to know, but rather to appeal to us, to make us believe that what we’re seeing is entertaining, even cool. But, to do so, we then need to recognize that thing as an entertainment product in the midst of our viewing of it, and that’s a tough proposition for any narrative.
Not to say such a maneuver can’t work in found footage and its related forms (especially faux documentary), but it would seem to rely on the antagonist (or someone sympathetic to the antagonist) having a direct hand after the fact of the narrative, in producing the piece for our viewing. We see good examples of this in faux documentaries like S&Man (2006) and more ‘straight’ found footage horror, like The Last Horror Movie (2003), but these seem exceptions, and ones that rely specifically on a non-supernatural antagonist. Meanwhile, other premises, such as Diary of the Dead (2007), The Conspiracy (2012), and The Sacrament (2014) play up the real-world ethical problematics of the documentation of trauma, but do so without so thoroughly problematizing the position of the viewer.
Woo! This one’s really going, and there’s more yet! Come back next Friday for part 4!