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Anatomy of a Perfect Sequel: REC2

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010
[REC]2 is one of the best fright experiences you will have with an already familiar premise and process.
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[REC]2

Director: Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Jonathan Mellor, Óscar, Sánchez Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso

(Filmax; 2009)

As film critics, we spend so much time pointing out the problems with film franchises that when a sequel comes along that does everything right (and then some), it’s shocking. Not only that, the results should be celebrated, set out as a solid example of how to do a follow-up right. In 2007, the Spanish horror classic [REC] blazed onto movie screens worldwide with little fanfare but lots of potential problems. It looked like a zombie retread. It was using a then nearly dated first person POV camera approach. It had subtitles for Christ’s sake. But like any gemstone carved out of lesser expectations, the brilliantly deconstructed thriller by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza took audiences on a rollercoaster ride of fear and fright so potent that Hollywood hacked into it almost immediately (for the decent if less effective Quarantine).


Now come [REC]2, a sequel that almost surpasses the original in creativity, style, and above all, scares. In order to discuss how Balagueró and Plaza managed to capture macabre lightning in a bottle for a second time, we will have to delve into some significant SPOILERS. If you want to know about the movie in general, take this mini-review with you as you track down an import DVD (Region 1 is coming sometime this summer): [REC]2 is one of the best fright experiences you will have with an already familiar premise and process. For those who don’t care about leaked plotpoints or spoiled surprises, feel free to read on. Hopefully, via the disclosure of key elements in the new narrative, you will see how Balagueró and Plaza avoid the trappings that come with a redux, as well as expand the mythology of their already engaging origins.
  
If you remember, in the first film, reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) finds herself in the middle of some horrific mayhem when a special report on firefighters winds up trapping her in an apartment building loaded with infected, insane residents. Like the living dead except without the standard lumbering gait, these fast-moving fiends are out to spread their contagion in any way possible. As the victims and gore-drenched bodies begin piling up, Angela and her cameraman seek refuge in the penthouse. Little do they know that it is there where a horrible experiment went incredibly wrong - and where the source of the sinister evil lays waiting. At the end, everyone appears to be dead and after unearthing the horror, Angela is dragged offscreen, the flickering lens and eyepiece capturing her attempt at saving herself. She fails.


In [REC]2, it’s been ten minutes since the first emergency call from the building. A concerned member of the Ministry of Health, along with a group of GEO emergency team soldiers, are about to enter the sealed off edifice. Using high tech equipment and helmet cams, we watch as the make their way past the protective entrance, walk into the front door, and head to…you guessed it, the Penthouse. There, we learn a series of sensational truths (FINAL SPOILER WARNING). This is not an outbreak of rabies or zombie fever. The residents have not all been infected with a kind of mass homicidal hysteria.


We learn that a doctor living on the top floor has been doing research on a caged child supposedly possessed by the devil. Under the auspices of the Vatican, he extracted some of her blood and mutated it, hoping to create an antidote. What he came up with instead is a biological means of demonic influence. It is this Satan bug that is spreading through the apartments, leading its victims to do vile, hideous things. Soon, the GEO guys are under attack, and they discover that their charge is actually a priest bent on getting a sample of the sanguine stuff to take back to Rome. Along the way, they run into some kids who accidentally stumbled into the secured location - as well as a couple of familiar faces. 


As an example of how to make a near flawless follow-up, [REC]2 is a revelation. Instead of replaying the same storyline over again, Balagueró and Plaza take the original idea and expand it, pushing the boundaries of believability while at the same time exploring other concepts and narrative possibilities within the idea. Of course it helps that the original [REC] was wise enough to set this all up - the mysterious pictures in the lab, the tape recording which hinted at the redolent religious angle, the terrifyingly lanky visage that’s apparently only visible via night vision. The directors then take this material and run with it, moving far beyond the standards of the original to bring in elements of action, philosophy, and straight ahead dread.


Indeed, [REC]2 often plays like a combination of The Exorcist, Aliens and Cloverfield, the military men (with their picture within a picture equipment) and the restless teens marking two sides of the same cinematic coin. One gets us to the point of possession. The other argues for what will happen should the Hell-based illness break out of the building. By adding layers of possibility, as well as the intuitive fear that comes from seeing the world through a camera lens, Balagueró and Plaza make the found footage category their own, finding both a subject and a style that easily bests the efforts noted for putting the cinematic idea on the map. After seeing [REC] and [REC]2, The Blair Witch Project looks pretty pathetic. Even better, this series seems ripe for revisiting. Every step of the way, Balagueró and Plaza are sure to include new mysteries which demand addressing (and appear ready for the already in progress [REC]3).


So why is [REC]2 the perfect sequel? There are actually three defining reasons. First, it doesn’t take away from the first film. Instead, it expands our appreciation of what came before - and what lies ahead. Second, it strives to explain as much as necessary while giving away as little as possible. Curiosity is a big advantage to any motion picture franchise, and the [REC] films just pile on the inquisitiveness. It’s what keeps us coming back over and over again. Finally, there’s the level of professionalism and polish at play. Balagueró and Plaza could have easily handed over their eventual international success to some hack (or as we saw with Quarantine, a less than aware Tinseltown talent) and let them drive their concept into the ground. It’s happened before with other fright film franchises. Luckily, [REC] has remained in-house, and incredible.


With a Summer outlook that’s short of spectacle and heavy on the ho-hum of “been there-done that” derivativeness, [REC]2 is a reminder of how special movies can be. It bounces off the screen like a devilish dervish and never lets up until the last drop of blood has been spilled. While it feels familiar, it definitely digs its own particularly potent grave. Whenever film fans hear the word “sequel”, they immediately begin lowering their expectations and hoping that, somehow, the new film won’t wholly embarrass its cinematic source. In the case of [REC]2, not only is it as good as the original, it lays claim to its own unique place within the motion picture paradigm. It is a flawless follow-up, and that’s rare indeed. 


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