This review may contain plot spoilers hiding in the shrubbery – please watch before reading!
Spanish horror movie Atrocious (2010) follows the Quintanilla family on their journey to their Spanish farmhouse retreat in Sitges and what happens during the five days after they get there. We learn of the family’s (clearly signposted as not to be very pleasant from the start) fate through found police footage now turned by a chancer of a production company (probably aided by Roger Corman, who knows) into a scary movie on the cheap. That’s actually the plot by the way – not my observation on the movie.
The old farmhouse is rusting away right next to a creepy old wood. The creepy old wood is smitten with legends of ghosts and especially a malevolent child called Melinda. The parents haven’t been to the farmhouse for many years. On one occasion, something bad clearly happened to the mother – maybe a shock, or an encounter with a ghost. She doesn’t talk about it, but her two children are curious. They already have their own amateur ghost-hunting show filmed on a video camera probably bought by daddy. I’m guessing that the only people who get to watch this show of theirs are a few friends and themselves – Most Haunted this clearly isn’t. Still, they are kind enough to film the entire family holiday for us, from start to finish. Just like the kind (now dead) souls in Paranormal Activity once did, or the students in The Blair Witch Project tried to do.
The storyline of Atrocious isn’t especially unique or original, but it is unnerving. We do get a strong sense – from the outset – that we must be missing something. The parents are acting strange all the time and the dad even decides to disappear on a business trip without telling his children, halfway through the holiday. Mum sleeps all day. The dog barks at shadows in the dark. The eldest son, Cristian, keeps filming every damn thing that creaks. Oh hang on – that’s a good thing. There’d be no movie otherwise. Their daughter, July, keeps telling her older brother that his filming everything even through the night isn’t normal – and even, at one point, switches his camera off, just past midnight. End of movie. Bad, bad idea! No not really as the next morning the camera is back on and the family dog is missing - well, well, well (that’s a clue by the way)! If only they’d left the camera on, maybe they could have discovered what the demonic child (you know, the one that got lost in the woods as a girl and died in the forest and now either leads you to your doom or tries to save you – I don’t think even the director is entirely sure on that one just yet) did to their dog.
Red herrings leap out of the spooky old wood like disturbed bats at the screen faster than you can say ‘hold the camera straight kids’. There’s the stubble-faced ‘family friend’ who comes to look after the house, but probably has an axe stored in the shed to help him sweep up the leaves. Then there’s the old cellar that nobody ever goes down. The brother and sister do. And down in that cellar they find old videos and CDs, books and toys – especially creepy is a glass-eyed doll that seems to be looking at them, pleading for the children to run. This is the point I thought the film was about to go into Chucky the killer doll territory. Instead, the two siblings choose one of the old video tapes and grab the VCR that also happens to be down there and go upstairs.
Luckily there are a few nods among the VHS tapes to such great horror directors as Dario Argento to make sure we all know that the director of Atrocious knows his Landis (John) from his Lansbury (Angela). Although actually, if you’ve ever watched A Company Of Wolves, and the forest full of childish horrors within, you would half expect the two young ghost-hunters here to also pick out a creepy old grandmother waiting for them in a sweet-sticky hut in the middle of the forest they keep exploring even when the mother forbids them to (in a message passed on by their father one night).
Of course, their old man was right. Not only has the dog gone missing, but pretty soon so does the dad, then the younger brother (oh, I forgot about him – but then for most of the film, so does everyone else), then mum, then the cute sister, until only the budding Spielberg of a big brother is standing. By the end of the movie, he’s found all his family, but I won’t tell you how he finds them all, just don’t presume anything at all as there’s a good few surprises in store, or in cupboards and in other places I won’t mention, except to say; yes, if you go looking that way, you’re getting hotter. But then, just when you think everything’s going to be sort of ok, something even more wicked this way comes – heading down through the door to the cellar. At this point you may well shout at the screen: why did you go down into the cellar you stupid boy? But then, it’s not the director, scriptwriter (also the director) or producer’s (actually I think there’s about nine of these) fault that we may encounter the odd unlikely plot twist in this movie as these guys just found/ stole the lost footage and edited it all together for us to watch - remember?
The two young stars of Atrocious, the brother and sister ghost-hunting duo, are fairly endearing to follow, less so the brother perhaps - but he’s meant to be a little annoying at times. The director does a good job of holding all the decay (of location shooting) and horror (in the build-up to the big reveal at the end of the film) together. But it’s unclear how much of the film is his own, so to speak, as the young cast were trained to use the handheld cameras and much of the resulting footage is their own work. As too is the dialogue, as improvisation was an essential part of the movie. An old trick used by directors to elicit genuine surprise on the face of a member of their cast is to not tell the actor what to expect – the scare the life out of them. Perhaps shove a frog down the mouth of a statue that they have to reach in and touch or pull a chair away from them as they go to sit down, that kind of cruel-to-be-kindness!
A scene set in a bathroom with the son racing upstairs to see if his mother is ok after hearing glass smash, was – in the limited script at least – supposed to have been set up to have the mother upstairs waiting for her son’s arrival. Instead, the director told the actress playing the mother to hide. She did, and the boy’s clear surprise is convincingly befuddled. When his younger brother steps in to the room to see if the actress is behind the door he is told by the boy playing his older sibling not to go any further as there is glass everywhere. It’s unclear whether, at this point, it’s the actor or the character speaking.
These kind of amateur discovered footage movies are confusing like that – you don’t know who's faking it and what’s the real deal after a while. I was even one of those who believed that The Blair Witch Project clips, found on a dedicated website pre-movie release; those supposed snippets of 'real' found footage of a strange disappearance that may not be supernatural - but sure didn't make any sense, could be genuine. There really may be a witch in them there woods! That’s probably why the film did so well, and why so many Witch Project clones have been made ever since. People like me helped this happen - we are the ones to blame! I don't think I probably ever really believed the hype but this was one of the first movies of its kind that was fun to try.
Similar ‘is it or isn’t it’ tricks were played down in the cellar in the process of filming 'Atrocious'. The brother and sister had to open boxes to see what they contained but hadn’t been told what to expect, so the discovery of old tapes and books, photos and dolls is unexpected and according to the director, a lot of fun for the cast to get rummaging through. The kids go upstairs and play the horror tapes they find, watching along with their younger brother. The mother is nowhere to be seen. The little boy’s eyes widen in terror at what he is watching. Bad mum upstairs asleep! Still, maybe they were watching one of those Dario Argento movies, if that was the case – not such a bad mum! Personally, if I had been one of the two siblings exploring those boxes, I’d have been pretty excited, thinking of eBay and my brain going: Kerching! Kerching! Kerching!
Oh, did I mention they also find some old ‘real’ amateur video footage in the cellar. Yep. Some scratchy tape of a patient in an asylum being examined – could this be the little lost girl in the woods, or her family, or a demonic spirit just waiting to get free? Personally, I didn’t guess the big shock surprise at the end of the movie, but I’m sure many others did, in fact – the person I watched this film with told me they thought it was obvious from the start what the ending was going to be. I think I was too busy admiring the gorgeous shrubbery.
Because the real star of this movie is the location. The director, Fernando Barreda Luna, found an old abandoned garden on a huge estate that was authentically overgrown and ancient enough of years to be unnerving and spectacularly eerie. It’s like the maze in The Shining in broad Spanish daylight (and moonlight). There are weird sculptures and glades, wells and monuments, covered in moss and ivy and undergrowth.
In the fascinating Behind the Scenes extras in the UK DVD release from REVOLVER ENTERTAINMENT, the director tells us about how the closed-off gardens and the big gate that denies anyone access became the star of the show. The location was discovered as an abandoned garden, ready to be chopped down and redeveloped. Right up to the day before filming, producers held out hope that they would get permission to film within this naturally beautiful and sleepy woodland grove, once a proud stately enclosure, now rotting away naturally, stone pillars claimed by the undergrowth and a maze filled with memories now about to be wiped off the world forever by approaching contractors refusing them permission to film inside the grounds, one final visit to the garden that waited.
I get the feeling that director Luna, would, if he could have, have snuck through those rusted iron gates – wrought iron constructions tall enough to contain a giant, let alone a demonic child, and shot his film subversively. In the end, there was no need – permission was granted to go inside, and the result is clearly astoundingly location shooting, both lovely and haunting.
In fact, I’d go as far to say that I don’t think there have been many better uses of location (or the gorgeous interiors of the achingly open and empty family home either, which were filmed in a villa some miles away from the woods) in the history of horror cinema. The first third of the film has the two siblings skirting round the decaying maze repeatedly and some critics complained that this was boring and repetitive. I loved it. It was a new and naturally unsettling way of filming horror - a sinister, ground-breaking and sensory approach to terror where real-time exploring, and nothing much horrible happens while doing so except for the fact that the place being explored reeks of resident evil (was this the case in real life too as there seems to be something inherently bad about the place being explored, some reason for the sheer decay, that overwhelms the obvious beauty?) and makes the expected shocks that surely come at the end, more awful in the waiting.
Yes – The Blair Witch Project also had effective use of woodland location, and slow build-up too, but in Atrocious, location isn’t just a tool to lay clues within and to use to elicit shocks. Instead, the clues seem pretty much already laid out, inside the woods, down the well, (CGI by the way was used here to convey a wonderful, seamless sense of depth that the original didn’t have but the one use of trickery doesn’t show) and under stone shelters as if the old place knew the film crew was coming to visit. Now that’s what I call real horror, when a film makes you think such thoughts and even half believe them! I even wonder if the location is really no more - or whether the making of this film extended its teeming, curling, ancient ways and grand old life? I hope so. But I doubt it very much.
Atrocious then, is a horror film that pushes boundaries in terms of location and authentic build-up to some pretty good scares. The plot is too familiar to be given too much credit, although for me, I was happy enough with the shocks presented and genuinely creeped out by the big reveal at the end. There are few if any jump-out-of-your-seat moments, and it’s hard not to compare this film with the hand-held likes of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity. The cast are good, but haven’t gone on to make any other films as yet, although Cristian Valencia, who played the brother, has appeared in subsequent shorts and TV roles. Director Fernando Barreda Luna, has yet to offer a follow-up to this movie. A shame - as master of ceremonies here, Fernando does a good job in making sure the camera frames the right nooks and crannies of the house and explores the right patches of dense undergrowth.
Clara Moraleda as the sassy sister gets the best patch of horror at the end, the most blood to cope with, and even gets to be able to scream the most convincingly. I thought this young actress, with her wide-eyed fright, and creepy contact lenses (ask no more about that truly weird bit of night vision within the temple in the woods – but just you wait!) and convincing Gretel lost in the forest routine with a rather oafish Hansel beside her, was outstanding and deserves to be seen in other movies soon – Spanish casting directors; you know where to look! It’s a shame in the end that Atrocious has neither a very good name or even very striking poster art, but beneath these limitations lurks, at times (especially when not shot in the dark) one of the best Spanish horror films in ages, lurking quietly in the undergrowth. I wanted to go and explore more decaying, forgotten countryside after watching this movie, but also not be dragged into the brambles by demonic dead kids – or the thought of such creatures - while doing so. I think you can call that a result.
The week after watching this film, I actually did end up walking in a lonely and suddenly very eerie stretch of deepest Kent countryside with a friend (the same friend I had watched Atrocious with) and for a while we became lost – guess what film I mentioned as we tried to find our way back out to the right path, through thick brambles and sudden isolated clearings, in the ever more looming approach of dusk? “I spotted that ending from the start,” my friend reminded me. The path home, of course was just around the corner. “Oh, yeah - not me,” I replied, slightly disappointed that my friend wasn’t feeling the fear factor too, as the branches closed in on us, and Gretel cackled nearby. “I didn’t guess it at all.” The car park was in sight now. “You should have spotted the clues – the sleeping during the day bit or the old fireplace.” I tried to think: the old fireplace was just an old fireplace what kind of a clue was that? And sleeping too much – seemed natural enough too. The path became cluttered with other walkers nodding their heads at me - they’d obviously guessed the ending of the film as well. “Yes,” they nodded again - “we all did.” The car park was in view now. I was suddenly quite disappointed to find myself so obviously – and quite so easily - saved.
Words: Mark Gordon Palmer