Atrocious (2010)

I’m quite good at suspending my disbelief. Trust me, when it comes to horror, I have a very limber set of standards in that department.

And as much as I liked Atrocious, a found-footage frightener from Spain, I had some serious reservations believing that central characters July (Clara Morelada) and her brother Cristian (Cristian Valencia), would continue to schlep their camcorders around after figuring out that a fiendish killer is stalking them at their family’s rural retreat.

“Oh my God, there’s a fiendish killer in the house with us! Do you have a spare battery pack?”

Uh huh. It’s a shame too, because Atrocious has the makings of a crackerjack movie.

Teen siblings July and Cristian are spending their vacation with Mom (Chus Pereiro), Dad (Xavi Doz), and adorable kid brother Jose (Sergi Martin) at a Spanish country estate that comes equipped with its own massive hedge maze.

The pair fancy themselves as intrepid ghost-hunting, mystery solvers so they bring along two video cameras, which is a stroke of luck for the cops when they discovery that everyone’s been murdered about a week later.

After sifting through 37 hours of footage, the final cut serves as the movie itself. If you surmised that there would be an abundance of chaotic night scenes frantically shot by the protagonists whilst lost in the hedge maze, give yourself a gold star.

There is some first-rate fright footage here. And the actors playing July and Cristian are very good, very natural. Atrocious is worth the time it takes to watch, but the surfeit of film (not to mention battery power) is a contrivance that each viewer will have to sort out for themselves.

It doesn’t ruin the experience, but you may find yourself (as I did) shouting, “Oh come on, already!” at the screen on several occasions.

Grave Encounters (2011)

A ghost-chasing reality show crew makes the mistake of choosing a location that is actually, you know, haunted.

The intrepid Grave Encounters team decides to investigate the laundry list of paranormal events at the old Collingwood Mental Hospital, where “thousands” of patients were lobotomized, neglected, and otherwise discouraged in their quests for a sound mind.

Manic team leader Lance Preston (Sean Rogerson), loaded down with the latest in ghostbuster technology, hopes they’ll find evidence of a real haunting.

Careful what you wish for, dude.

It’s been a few moons since I reviewed a “found footage” feature, and I’m glad I found this one. Stylistic similarities aside, I dig Grave Encounters more than The Blair Witch Project. (Dig? Grave? See what I did there?)

True, TBWP came first, but to me, the scariest thing about that particular film, was the inability of its characters to camp successfully. Frankly, it hasn’t aged well.

Grave Encounters is a much less “subtle” movie, and the fright factor is much higher. Sure, most of the time, less is more. The suggestion of terror is more effective than beating you over the head with a bag of ghosts (see the original version of The Haunting, and the vapid remake with Owen Wilson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Or better yet, just watch the original.)

Here is an exception to the rule. The Vicious Brothers, who wrote and directed, like to reveal their spooks, but they do so in an artful manner, staggering the flow of genuine frights in unpredictable ways.

Some scenes build to an expected payoff—and then it doesn’t happen. But it will. Later. When you’re not looking for it. Original premise? Hell to the no. Fun? Affirmative.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006)

Humor in horror movies is a tricky thing. It’s a great tension reliever, but too much, too often, and you end up watching a “spoof.” (Spoof = lame). Director Scott Glosserman strikes a judicious balance of horror and ha-ha in Behind the Mask, a faux documentary about a film crew of college students shadowing a wannabe serial killer.

As Leslie, the cheerful, upbeat (but very focused) killer, Nathan Baesel brings vast amounts of nuance to a role that could have been a corny caricature. In fact, he kind of reminds me of Rob Lowe’s character in Parks & Recreation, a most amiable and chatty fellow.

He is by turns funny, cunning, weird, and frightening as a man who has chosen to do battle against the forces of good. (“There can’t be good without evil,” he explains.) The lion’s share of the film details Leslie’s extensive preparations as he stalks his victim, a pretty waitress named Taylor (Angela Goethals).

The real hook is that Leslie takes great pains to debunk the supernatural aspects of cinematic serial killers like Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger. He trains relentlessly, studies the disappearing tricks of Houdini, practices yoga, and gets sage advice from Eugene (the always excellent Scott Wilson), a retired killer who lives next door.

It’s a smart film and no one behaves in predictable fashion—unless it’s part of the stalking-and-killing ritual. Small parts featuring Robert Englund as Leslie’s “Ahab,” Dr. Halloran (a ringer for Donald Pleasance in Halloween), and tiny Zelda Rubenstein as the librarian with a red herring, add to the fun.

Behind the Mask is a highly ambitious little movie that brings brains to the table.