What’s in a name? Everything. I’m not talking about some idiot politician or reality TV “celebrity” whose names are actually reflective of forgettable caricatures of humanity. This is about those among us whose names make us stop in our tracks and think about the world – and our next step. In the criminal kingdom, Keyser Soze helps parents keep their kids in check from ratting on bad guys, and for some Christians, the mentioning of Krampus during the holidays can puts kids into a freaked out coma, but for fans of horror, if someone brings up underground indie filmmaker Karl Atticus, grown men have been known to curl into a fetal position and sob.
In Mortal Remains, we follow filmmakers Mark Ricche and Christian Stavrakis on the trail of missing footage from Karl Atticus’s only known films. Why are they significant? The content was so abhorrent and reprehensible that audience members tore up the theatre in Baltimore where one was shown, and took the riot into the streets. What’s worse, Atticus supposedly used real cadaver parts in the films, far more than the Chinese government would in Men Behind the Sun some fifteen years later. Granted, horror fans would love to see a filmmaker use genuine body parts, therefore, I think Atticus actually murdered some of the actors on screen. This would clearly make Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust look like kindergarten movie time.
Before Mark and Christian can come to a conclusion about the nightmarish footage – they have to find it first. For one thing, no one has seen any of the material in roughly forty years, though some horror fans hint that they’ve seen a few seconds here and there. The second problem: Karl Atticus, the man at the center of the storm, is dead and gone. This happened soon after the theatre riot. As with everything else surrounding Atticus – and I dare you to find a birth certificate or an official death report – the stories surrounding his demise range from suicide to murder. From the extensive investigation of Mark and Christian alone, there is no way Atticus would have taken his own life, unless it was to somehow gain more dark power. Think resurrection of the antichrist. Regardless, Atticus, or whatever his real name is, became a ghost. Then again, maybe he always was a ghost.
This incredible, suspenseful journey of Mark and Christian will leave horror fans with a hearty lump in the throat. And even if you don’t sit on the edge of your seat, you will undoubtedly white knuckle the couch. I had the pleasure of watching Mortal Remains with my THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast cohost, Jonny Numb. We both had similar and intense reactions to the film. Hell, to engage with a horror that actually crawls under your skin is saying something, and to have one that leaves a lasting impression and plagues one’s thoughts is something much more. I still have those unsettling feelings from the first watch.
Moreover, many seem to hate the found footage or “mockumentary” sub-genre in horror. Right after Lance Weiler’s The Last Broadcast came the seminal word-of-mouth sensation, The Blair Witch Project and the sub-genre became cemented in the genre with usually low budgets, small crews, and no-name cast members. Yes, many found footage films seem to lack originality, and most viewers wonder why the videographer on screen doesn’t drop the camera and run for it, but Mortal Remains gets it right and that’s why it’s in my top three for best found footage films ever made (it’s in good company with Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity, followed by The Blair Witch Project and several others). Mark and Christian deliver a solid tale on a low budget that doesn’t fall into the usual pitfalls of bad acting, a weak narrative, and an unsatisfactory conclusion. The pair have created a great mystery that isn’t for the Scooby Gang faint of heart, and the story takes several intriguing turns until the outstanding ending that delivers an added chill and one hell of an exclamation point.
Now, I know some readers are scratching their heads: Is this a documentary about an evil Spahn Ranch wannabe or a mockumentary? Sure, I thought the whole thing was a conjured tale from Mark and Christian. Karl Atticus? Bah! Right after we watched the film, Jonny and I recorded an episode for THE LAST KNOCK where we reviewed Mortal Remains. Due to distribution deal negotiations between Cryptic Pictures and several entities, we had to hold onto the show. Two years later, the episode Jonny and I had worked on simply disappeared. As one who nearly lost an 80,000 word thesis in graduate school due to a damaged hard drive, I have external backups both onsite and offsite. Plus, I use Mac’s Time Machine and have a collection of flash drives. Nothing. The show’s gone. The only show Jonny and I ever lost – and man, was it a damn good podcast. Did Karl Atticus have anything to do with it? We’re not sure, but I can tell you this: Whenever I mention that crazy cat’s name to diehard horror fiends, they take a step back. The rumor now is that Mark and Christian’s film touched on things a little too deep and foreboding. Hell, even The Blair Witch’s maestro, the great horror director of Altered, Lovely Molly, and Exists, Eduardo Sanchez, will tell you about his own run in with the specter of the dead filmmaker.
Regardless of what truth you discover about Karl Atticus, and Mortal Remains, this documentary, mockumentary, whatever, is a powerhouse. Maybe the more horror fans engage with the film the less power Atticus and his cult of supporters will have. I don’t know.
But watch it soon. And watch it fast. Because my phone’s been ringing off the hook since I wrote this, and I’ve never seen the number before. Even so, I’m compelled to pick it up and say, “Hello, Karl.” More important, there’s someone knocking at my door, and I’m not expecting visitors…
A rock solid four-star film out of five.
Catch Cryptic Pictures on Twitter: @