It doesn’t happen that often, so when it does, it truly is cause for celebration. The horror genre has been so blatantly mismanaged by Hollywood, reduced to a series of unnecessary remakes, forced franchise fodder, independent null sets, and Westernized takes of better foreign frights, that when a solid movie macabre comes your way, you really do have to stop and settle the shivers. And it’s more than the dread onscreen working your frazzled nerves. No, when something as remarkably effective and downright scary as [REC] arrives on your plain, PG-13 doorstep, you have to seriously contemplate the reasons why - and wonder just when America is going to show its dearth of creativity and cannibalize the thing.
It’s a typical night for reporter Angela Vidal. She’s on location doing another of her insightful “While You’re Asleep” segments. This time, she intends to follow a group of firefighters as they go about their evening routine. While she hopes for an alarm, the journalist recognizes the dead end elements of her assignment. Without warning, the company is called to a local apartment building. Seems an old woman was heard screaming - that is, before she went quiet. As they investigate, they notice the nervous nature of the other tenants. Sure enough, there is reason to be anxious. The lady isn’t dead. As a matter of fact, she may be something much, much worse. Soon, the government is quarantining the building, trapping Angela, her cameraman, and several unsuspecting victims. They all appear to be the potential targets of a biological plague that may have a more suspicious, supernatural source.
[REC] is ridiculously good. It’s a show-stopping terror trip through something that really shouldn’t work all that well. Employing the by now tired first person POV perspective (everything is captured through a cameraman’s omniscient lens) tied to a ‘happening in real time’ panic strategy, this exercise in style cries out to be complained about. On the negative side, we do see little characterization. Our heroine seems perky enough, but everyone else is just bloody bite fodder. True, the narrative is more inferential that assertive, giving off hints and possibilities without coming up with clear, concrete answers. And since it trades in something standard within the always overworked horror dynamic (innocents against the monsters), we openly doubt if it will have anything original or clever to add.
The answer, happily, is a big fat “YES”. [REC] routinely argues that good ideas will always trump a lack of flawless execution. There’s no way this film could work within a typical creature feature mise-en-scene. By the time the apartment dwellers started dropping like flies, we’d grow incredibly blasé and bored. But thanks to the talent of directors Jaume Balagueró (the main man in charge) and Paco Plaza (our witness with the handycam), the visceral nature of the approach avoids any such lulls. Framing can really help a fright film, our inability to see what’s going on within a composition adding to our sense of unease. These Spanish scare masters rely on this device time and time again, images lagging in the background as our players interact, their movement slowly making their menace known. Even more impressive is the filmmaker’s dedication to the all important ‘anyone can die’ ideal. Nothing emphasizes a potential threat better than a truly random danger.
Something new to the otherwise familiar fright works however, is the concept of hopeless indestructibility. All throughout [REC] , we wonder why the standard kill methods don’t work. These ‘things’ are shot, stabbed, and smashed, and yet they continue to come - angrier and more aggressive than before. There is never a moment when we figure all is safe. Instead, Balagueró and Plaza play continuous mind games with our sense of safety. Sometimes, the threat is all too real. At other instances, it’s merely the figment of some adrenalized individual’s highly over-stimulated and susceptible imagination. Make no mistake, however - anything can spell disaster here, from a small child to an ‘abandoned’ penthouse. [REC] never plays fair with its fear, and that’s why it’s so wonderful.
Equally interesting is the stunning display of old school Blair Witch-ery. Back when the found footage ideal was indeed unique, some felt the gimmick would eventually run its one note course. Instead, contemporary filmmakers have found interesting and inventive ways of making it viable, from the zombie zeal of George Romero’s Diary of the Dead to the Godzilla on growth hormones of Cloverfield. Here, Balagueró and Plaza don’t try to impose structure on what is filmed, sticking to a recognizable storyline. There are never moments when the camera is somewhere it shouldn’t or couldn’t be. In fact, where this film triumphs over the original Burkittsville ballyhoo is in the notion of purpose. Unlike the improvised idiocy of that film’s scareless downtime, [REC] just keeps the creeps coming.
The result is a return to those glory days of audience angst and edge of your seat shocks. Like gore for the lover of sluice or tension for those desperate for a helping of Hitchcock, [REC] gives hope to a demo frequently capable of giving almost any genre jive the benefit of the doubt. It’s a wonderfully evocative, thoroughly engaging experience, the kind of jump jolt joy ride that instantly satiates your panic proclivities…and then some. The last few minutes will truly mess with your mind, sticking with you long after the credits roll. While Balagueró has been celebrated in his native land, he’s relatively unknown on our side of the Atlantic. A film like [REC] would likely offer said ramp up in recognition - that is, if US studio suits weren’t already ready to release their own remake of the title.
Yep, come this October 2008, Screen Gems (responsible for upcoming cash grab revamps like Silent Night, Deadly Night and The Stepfather) has Quarantine ready and waiting. Starring Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter and employing the same hand held cinematography, it will be interesting to see if this red, white, and blue construal will have the same gut level effect. One senses the translation will be less than successful. Hopefully, that means that more disillusioned fans will flock to their local B&M once the tie-in DVD is released. [REC] truly deserves to become a fright film classic. It represents one of those rare instances when concept, construction, and completion all work to make a memorable, horrific experience. It really is a reason to rejoice.