The best – and, really, only – shocking moment in REC 3: Genesis comes early on, about 20 minutes into the film. In a fit of panicked exasperation, the bridegroom of a wedding party grabs the camera of a videographer, hurls it to the floor, and then kicks it several times, rendering it inoperable. Heretofore we’d been seeing the main action of the film via this camera’s lens, and its destruction, winking out with the fading red light of its recording bulb, signals a boldly unexpected tactical change in this agreeably terrifying Spanish horror series.
The central stylistic conceit of the first two REC films – shaky, handheld, first person P.O.V. video, purported to be found footage – was, if not exactly revolutionary in the horror genre, nonetheless so cleverly and efficiently deployed that it deflected audience attention away from its essentially gimmicky nature. In the first installment especially, from 2007 (before the recent spate of similarly shot American horror films, most typified by the inexplicably prolific Paranormal Activity series), co-directors Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero used the naturally limiting factors of a news camera – first person view; grainy washed out images; jerky, fast swiveling camera movements; poor lighting – to build and maintain such a high pitch of escalating terror and suffocating claustrophobia that it’s nearly as exhausting to watch as it is flat out horrifying. Few recent horror films have put audiences through the wringer with as much gusto and relentlessness.
After two films set in the same location on the same night – an apartment building sealed off from the outside world due to a bizarre viral outbreak that turns its victims into raving zombies (or possessed demons – the exact nature is left ambiguous) – REC 3 is poised on the precipice of becoming a broken record, both narratively and aesthetically. Sole director Paco Plaza (Balaguero receives producing credit) seems aware of the dangers of falling into this rut, and from the outset is intent on tweaking things a bit.
The film opens masquerading as the wedding video of a young couple, Koldo and Clara, starting just before the ceremony. The groom’s teenage cousin is wandering around outside the church with a handheld digital camera, talking to the guests. He then runs into the official videographer, who gives the teen a quick lecture on cinema verite, all but winking at the audience as he does so. Something is definitely up — the film seems, at this point, to be both self-aware and poking fun at itself.
REC 3 then switches over to the footage from the official videographer, who records the ceremony, and then the reception that follows. The video is higher grade, steadier and less jarring, a logical evolution from the first two films, since it’s using a more hightech camera. We see fairly typical wedding reception scenes: the couple cutting the cake; cutting the rug on the dancefloor; drunk couples hooking up. We occasionally see an apparently very drunk uncle staggering around the edges of the dancefloor, but pay no mind to him, focusing of course on the newlyweds.
So, at this point (and again this is about 20 minutes in) I thought, well, this is a good trick, a neat little change up, because of course weddings are a natural setting and occasion for just this type of video footage. It’s the next logical step, right, a slight evolution. REC 3 is having none of it though, because just as the mayhem begins to kick in – the “drunk” uncle, infected with the same zombie virus from the first films, starting to attack wedding goers, infecting them and turning them into ravenous rampaging zombies – the videographer’s camera falls victim to the heel of the grooms shoe, and then… well, now what?
The screen fades to black, the title comes up, and when we return, we are jarringly seeing everything in “film” film, like as in filmed on an actual movie camera, with proper aspect ratio, non-diagetic music, the whole bit. Instead of watching a horror “home movie”, we are now watching a straight up horror movie. As far as meta commentary goes, this trick is a doozy. Plaza realizes that with REC and its sequel, the films probably did as much as they could (or should) do with their limited back of tricks. Turning itself inside out, REC 3 declares the whole found footage subgenre over (in as dramatic and violent a manner as possible) and strike out into something breathtakingly new and shocking.
The problem, though (and it’s a big one) is that Plaza, having dispensed wholesale with the series overriding formal structure, doesn’t have any idea of what to replace it with. For the remaining 60 minutes, REC 3 veers wildly both in tone and content, ratcheting up the gore to near comedic levels, but never taking itself so seriously that genuine terror is allowed to creep in. And it also wants to be some sweeping romance, as our young couple – separated across the quarantined estate where the reception is being held – tries to reunite, navigating towards each other by the supernatural powers of instinct and love. And there’s some religious mumbojumbo thrown in for good measure.
It’s all a gross miscalculation of Plaza’s part, sampling broadly from other, better films – notably Shaun of the Dead, the Evil Dead series, and Peter Jackson’s splatter masterpiece of zombie-comedy gore, Dead-Alive – without capturing any of their verve, or soul. For a series that was previously so smart in never breaking “character”, this sort of fourth wall breaking, kitchen sink approach comes off as half-assed and lazy, rather than clever and postmodern. It works sporadically when it really goes over the top – the bride finding a chainsaw and mowing down zombies who have dared to wreck her wedding, screaming over and over again “This is MY day!” — but never really embraces the gonzo aspects of the zombie genre.
It also wants to somehow tie itself back to the weird, religious themes brought up in the first two films, and has a priest wandering around quoting the Book of Genesis (which, this was a big AHA! moment, since I’d thought that the Genesis in the subtitle was supposed to position this film as a prequel to the other two) and staving off the zombies with prayers and incantations. The weird garbled mysticism of the first two REC films, one of its most effective sources of terror, if only because it’s so ambiguously deployed, is washed out in literal deus ex machina solution to stopping the zombies. And when you factor in the love story, the film pulls itself in too many directions, basically pulling itself apart in the process.
If in the end I can give REC 3 some credit for wanting to shake things up significantly as it moves forward (and an inevitable fourth film is in the works), all such credit for this boldness is cashed in an almost across the board failure of execution. Let’s hope the filmmakers learn from their mistakes here and the final installment recaptures the minimalist perfection of the first two films while striking off in new and unexpected directions.
The main film runs a lean 80 minutes (that’s including credits), but the DVD extras run even leaner, nearly to the point of nonexistence. A handful of deleted scenes – none of them essential, but could have been included in the main film with little or no adverse effect – and some outtakes are all that’s offered (aside from some trailers) on the DVD version, reviewed here. As is the trend these days, the bulk of interesting extra features are solely on the Blu-ray, which boasts a rather in-depth, behind the scenes feature with the creators, who must explain in some detail their reasons for what they did, and how they did it (or not, as it were — or at least not well). Not sure that would’ve swayed my final grade, but it wouldn’t have hurt it.