By Andreas Charalambous

Following the sudden and mysterious closure of a parapsychological research centre in the mid-70s, the premise of The Atticus Institute is an investigation into the previously classified events leading up to its closure – which also includes the disappearance of its founder Dr Henry West (William Mapother).

Part-mockumentary and part- found footage, we see present-day interviews with former employees and family of the missing Dr West, and government officials who were involved in the lead-up to the institute’s closure. Coupled with documented footage from the time of its operation, we see a group of young scientists who were slowly building evidence of people possessing paranormal abilities – of course, coming along the occasional fraudster along the way.

One such genuine test subject is Judith Winstead (Rya Kihlstedt), who possesses extraordinary powers of clairvoyance and psychokinesis. As Judith’s display of these powers become darker and more disturbing, it is not long before government officials move in on the grounds of national security, with their own Cold War agenda.

The Atticus Institute reinvigorates the found footage subgenre by mixing its media – we see the in-camera spooky goings-on a la Paranormal Activity, and the female possession tropes of The Exorcist, with a smidge of The Men Who Stare At Goats, along the way. With each display of Judith’s unnerving abilities, we soon find ourselves viewing a demonic chiller. Within the geopolitical backdrop of the Cold War, The Atticus Institute becomes a destructive battleground between two corrupt forces in the devil in Miss Winstead and the US military who intend on ‘weaponising’ her.

With strange echoes of the US governmental interrogation techniques that came to light at the turn of the millennium, Defense Intelligence agent Robert Koepp (Franklin Dennis Jones), uses various methods of ‘persuasion’ on Winstead to ensure she complies. In the meantime, Dr West and his group of idealistic scientists helplessly look on in horror.

The fictional events of the film are set 40 years ago during the East-West conflict, but it also focusses on the conflict between good and evil. Many of the ‘survivors’ appear to remain troubled by the events to this day. The use of the talking heads and archival footage, give the feel of a genuine documentary. It is well-paced and precise in its development – setting the central premise in the first 20 minutes. Director Chris Sparling paces the anxiety well too, letting the eerie location work its way into your psyche. As expected, the film does have jump scares but it does not rely exclusively on them. There is a lot more going on than the odd cheap scare.

The casting is impressive too, as they all succeed in sucking you in to the premise. Mapother plays Dr West very well, seeing subtle changes to his character as the narrative progresses. However, it is Kihlstedt’s portrayal of Judith that really makes The Atticus Institute. Here, we see an unassuming and unthreatening lady who transforms into a brutal force of nature. Kihlstedt’s feral performance at the height of her possession is very powerful indeed – all the more impressive when you compare this to her most subdued state elsewhere in the film.

One could quite easily pass up on the opportunity to view The Atticus Institute just by reading the basic description of the film alone. Yes, it is essentially a demonic possession film that incorporates found footage and mockumentary traits – and although a great number of current (and not very good) horror film releases fall under these well-worn categories – one should not be deterred from viewing The Atticus Institute. Good pacing, intense atmosphere and impressive performances all come together in a decent package that offers a slight twist on the conventional and is ultimately an enjoyable viewing experience.

Frightfest Glasgow review: The Atticus Institute
3.5Overall Score
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