The Atticus Institute

Year: 2015
Production Co: The Safran Company
Director: Chris Sparling
Writer: Chris Sparling
Cast: William Mapother, Rya Kihlstedt

Of all the films about ghosts, hauntings, demons and the paranormal the one that looms largest in my estimation is Ghostbusters . Not because it's funny (it is) and not because it's an 80s classic (it is), but because it's one of the few films that treats paranormal research as an actual science, where experts use tools and instruments and there's not a spirit medium or seance in sight.

When I became aware of what The Atticus Institute was about I got excited enough to put it straight on my list, and it didn't disappoint. Using the often-overused found footage device intermingled with mockumentary interview sequences, it depicts a serious study using scientific instruments and measurements into what remains (as the film declares with well-earned brazenness) the only case of demonic possession recognised by the US government.

Through present day interviews we learn about the research institute from the 1960s of the title, a small lab investigating the existence of paranormal phenomena. The grown children of the facility's leader – apparently with some awful fate having befallen him years before – along with the scientists who worked with him, set the story up alongside grainy video clips and security camera footage taken from studies, meetings and research.

Subjects try to see which card is being held up, read each others' thoughts and the like, and they think they've reached a breakthrough when a telekinetic shows promise. But after the very public embarrassment of it being exposed as a hoax, lead researcher Dr West (Henry Mapother) becomes even more determined to establish the institute's credibility.

A gift that seems to be a Godsend given the timing (but turns out to be from somewhere else entirely) subsequently falls into their laps in the form of the mysterious, quiet Judith (Rya Kihlstedt), bought in by her sister in desperation because she can't stand the strange and unsettling things that happen around Judith anymore.

West and his colleagues agree to study Judith and it soon becomes apparent they're dealing either with the most brilliant hoax in parapsychology or legitimate paranormal activity that includes telekinesis, clairvoyance and more. When it seems Judith's sister has dumped her with the institute – having disconnected her phone and moved away – West and his colleagues' studies of Judith grow slowly more malevolent.

Bad things start happening around her, including to some of the researchers in their own lives, and although West and his team are thrilled to realise they have the first documented case of the supernatural under their roof, they can't ignore the sense of threat. They call in the military to help and advise but they actually take over completely, subjecting Judith to ever-more invasive and inhuman tests, eventually drugging her and locking her in a purpose built chamber where they can study her but figure she can't do any harm.

West and his team end up at loggerheads over their treatment of what is still after all a human being, but as the handler installed by the government admits in his own present-day interviews, when they realised how powerful and dangerous she was, the plan was indeed to make a weapon out of her.

The story is plenty interesting enough to keep you gripped and while it's not the most terrifying experience you'll ever have there's an effective mood of threat and danger with a couple of effective jump scares.

But it's the seeming authenticity that will really win you over. The modern day interviewees look exactly like the people you can imagine would take part in the true life version of this story, and although the found footage conceit is way past its prime by now, the era-specific handheld 16mm scenes and black and white security footage of the institute not only look the part, they're blocked and staged in a way that looks so realistic you don't realise how well they choreograph the unfolding of the story.

Writer/director Chris Sparling has combined several familiar elements to make something in which the premise is fresh and the execution more than lives up to it. And that's interesting in itself because the last film I watched connected to him (ATM, which he wrote) had such a thin premise it had no chance of getting a fully fleshed out story out of it.

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