We’ve all had varying experiences with the plethora of faux-documentary horror flicks this past decade, all the result of the true (and worthy) progenitor of the genre, The Blair Witch Project. Many of those films, unfortunately, have been lackluster and uninspired; either watered-down derivatives of the original or poorly made copies of lesser offerings.
Still, very occasionally, a film is made that brings something new, something truly – and deliciously – terrifying to the genre. In the case of the 2007 Spanish movie REC, it was something even more than that.
Not only did REC prove a horrific, nerve-wracking viewing from start to finish but the film also manages to subtly editorialized pop-culture television, municipal politics, class systems and religion within its narrative. It does this by, of all things, redefining the zombie genre while simultaneously showcasing itself in real time.
REC begins within the safe confines of a local Madrid fire station as burgeoning and ambitious television reporter Angela Vidal, (played straight by the easy-on-the-eyes Manuela Velasco, herself a television presenter and actress in her native Spain), along with her cameraman Pablo, tape another lackluster episode of the fictional documentary television series While You’re Asleep. It’s there, during the evening shift, that the firefighters respond to the 911 call of an injured elderly woman who lives within a small but overly dense apartment complex. This turn of events, only ten minutes into the film, is what sets the REC roller-coaster ride of adrenaline and fright into high gear.
Residents of the building have amassed themselves at the foyer, a mix of various ethnicities, ages, and wealth, each one asking situational questions of the firemen. From the viewpoint of the camera, we, as the audience can relate: what’s happening here, in the middle of the night? It doesn’t take long to find out.
Of course, the injured woman is more damaged than what the 911 call had originally described – both physically and psychologically – and we quickly learn that it’s not a good idea to turn your back on mumbling old hag covered in blood!
Before long, local government, police and public health officials have barred and quarantined the doors to the building, afraid that a virus of potentially epidemic proportions is loose within the apartment complex. Residents have been locked in with little explanation while loved ones (or, perhaps, lucky ones) are being kept out.
The camera point of view is the greatest strength of REC. Instead of getting in the way, or seeming redundant like it can in other faux-doc horror films, the camera, here, plays a vital role. As viewers, we are the residents in this film; we feel the confusion, the anxiety and the panic of the various characters and, as the story develops, we learn of the underlying mystery here, a mystery that leads up the winding stairway of the apartment complex, to the foreboding penthouse unit.
The camera is a skillful journalist after all – more so than Vidal and her job of late night, television-filler, content reporter. Opportunistically, she makes the most of the situation, conducting interviews with residents in hopes of making her mark, all the while illustrating how insensitive media can be to victims of violent crime and illuminating prejudices and bigotries between neighbours. There’s so much horror at play here.
Cinematically, shadows, out of focus shots and backlighting all heighten audience horror. There are images here that you will not soon forget. And then there are the disturbing sound effects: low, guttural emanations from the darkness, high-pitched shrieks that echo in stairwells, creaks, moans, cries, whimpering and breathing. Lots and lots of out-of-breath breathing.
All the stuff of the best horror films.
Some viewers may not be able to get past reading the English subtitles. Believe me when I tell you that it only keeps you more focused, more intent on what is happening in the film. Watching REC in the native Spanish makes one even more vested in the experience. Sure, you can go watch the Americanized and, decidedly lacking version, Quarantine, but it won’t nearly be the same thing.
REC actually spawned a admirable sequel that, with its bigger budget, emphasized more action, more guns, more special effects and succeeding in deepening the storyline, steering it into uncharted waters. REC 3 and REC 4 look to continue the narrative, both to be released in 2012 – all completed by the same writer/director team of Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza.
I watched REC for the first time in the basement, on my own, late at night. Really, I thought I’d watch it to kill time while falling asleep. Once it had started, there was never, ever, any chance of that happening.