Poster image of Chris Sparling's possession film The Atticus Institute

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Dr. Henry West (William Mapother, The Mentalist), a scientist and a family man, founded the Atticus Institute in the 1970s in order to research Psi abilities—everything ranging from clairvoyance to telekinesis and E.S.P. When a woman named Judith Winstead was brought in for testing in late 1979, West and his team of scientists were not expecting much. Judith, after all, appeared to be nothing special. She was the sort of woman who was easily looked past, skipped over and forgotten. But she outperformed every subject they had ever come in contact with on whatever test was laid out before her. Her abilities were not merely impressive, but they were described by one person in attendance as “God-like”…which ultimately became quite an ironic statement, once the truth came to light.

Judith was not just some gifted psychic, but was instead harboring a biblical evil that nobody in the lab could hope to comprehend. That’s when the government stepped in to assist, though their true intentions proved not to be so noble. They were not looking to help Judith Winstead so much as to help themselves. Possess the possession became their mantra, as they sought not only to contain the demon that was residing within Judith, but also to control it. To weaponize it. To force it to do the dirty work for the United States government that even their covert black ops teams were unable to do. But when you tussle with the devil, you’re likely to get burned.

Told in a mockumentary format, switching between talking-head interviews and archival footage, The Atticus Institute feels like a genuine piece of semi-exploitative tabloid evidence that one might stumble upon by accident while flipping through the myriad true crime cable stations—or, rather, it would if not for the supernatural subject matter. But the fact that it offers this illusion of authenticity speaks highly of the production values if nothing else. Nearly the entire film unfolds in a single location, but the styling of the characters and the effects shown in the “vintage” footage effectively captured the feeling of a bygone era.

There is certainly no shortage of possession films on the market today, but The Atticus Institute remains one of the rare ones in that it is told not through a religious eye but rather through a scientific one. A priest does show up at one point, but he genuinely has very little to do with the proceedings. For the most part, nobody is waving scepters and reciting bible verses. They are instead extracting tissue samples and reciting previous studies. Writer-director Chris Sparling (who had previously penned 2010’s claustrophobic Buried) has given us a fresh take on something that we have all seen dozens of times before.

Rya Kihlstedt (Dexter) exuded a proper menace in her portrayal of Judith, showing the character’s range of a shy and tormented woman to a raving and vicious animal. Her contortions and facial expressions were enough to leave you feeling uncomfortable, and her blank stares made you question just what was going to happen next. It’s a dynamic and refreshing performance that doesn’t rely too heavily on special effects to convince you of the evil that exists inside her. In fact, pretty much all of the performances by the major players were commendable, and none of them faltered to the extent that it took me out of the film (even a few brief but questionably-rendered CGI effects didn’t manage to do that).

No, the major problem with The Atticus Institute is that it just isn’t very frightening. Aside from a few jump scares, and the occasionally tense moment, it just isn’t a very scary film. Don’t get me wrong: it was always interesting and always entertaining, but once the movie is over, there is no lingering feeling of unease. Meaning that it is a pretty damn good movie…but it is not a great horror movie.

The importance of that distinction will be left up to the individual viewer, but I for one will still be revisiting this particular institute again in the future.

WICKED RATING: 6.5/10  [usr 6.5]

Director(s): Chris Sparling
Writer(s): Chris Sparling
Stars: Rya Kihlstedt, William Mapother
Release: January 20, 2015
Studio/ Production Co: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Language: English
Length: 92 minutes
Sub-Genre: Possession