America always gets it wrong. Most areas of societal living provide fruitful examples of this. Like Hollywood. It's been a joke for years, but it seems like its ironic detachment has gotten less ironic, and much further detached. It's a step away from adapting the color purple. Not the still-relevant Spielberg flick, but the pairing of prime colors red and blue. Maybe you've seen the bone-jarring Spanish horror [REC], and maybe you haven't. More probable is you've seen it's remake Quarantine. Its advertisements were quick and plentiful, but I estimate only one of five actually cited [REC] as the film's origin. I haven't seen Quarantine. I don't need to. I've read about it, and am not convinced it holds a candle to the spectacular original, or that it should even exist. Hollywood chooses American re-imaginings over distributing original works. When foreign films do get distributed, it's always through a back door, with as little fanfare as possible. And so enters the region 1 release of [REC], with all the bells as whistles of a block of wood.
Visually told from a news cameraman's point of view, [REC] immediately draws comparisons to The Blair Witch Project and similar films. (Fuck Cloverfield.) It's a fair cop, but quite disturbing that a simple visual style can't reach it's own heights without those comparisons. The DOOM disease. In any case, the simplicity of the story allows the effect to be used so convincingly that I never critically doubted the contrivances of somebody actually holding a camera when the shit hits the fan.
Speaking of story, the plot can be explained beginning to end without taking away from the movie's disturbingly unrelenting scares. A local TV news reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman are spending a night with a Barcelona fire crew at their firehouse. In the first seven minutes of the taut eighty-minute running time, we're afforded a light-hearted look into these firemen's lives. It lays down initial character groundwork. To be expected, there are no Will Huntings here. But foreign movies tend to dampen my ability to recognize mediocre acting and characters. Especially in horror, which generally equals reaction shots and screaming. Anyway, these firemen and a couple policemen are called to a small apartment building to perhaps rescue an elderly woman who hasn't left her apartment in a while. The tenants all follow along with the emergency personnel, in voyeuristic anticipation.
The lady in the apartment is something other than a lady by this point. She's been turned into something part zombie-part demon. She is quick and vicious and hungry. And she gets a hold of one of the firemen by the neck. The sequence is extremely tense, and is the first of at least a dozen moments that took me completely out of the movie-watching experience, and squandered me in pure sweaty-browed survival mode, wondering what in God's name I would do in a similar situation. This is where the cleverly blocked out camera-work and atmospheric audio effects make their impact. The word "intense" do them so little justice. Slasher films tend to present you with a vapid main character that you end up wanting to die by the end of things. In [REC], you don't even have time to care about body counts or genre conventions. Things have an eventual and deliciously urgent Titanic way of progressing.
As soon as the fireman gets bitten, the tenants freak out. Orders are called in from the beaurocratic upstairs, and a quarantine is put on the building, which is soon locked down and covered in sheets of heavy plastic. This only enhances the claustrophobic vibe, and the movie becomes Alien in hyperdrive. All the while, this opitimistic news team records almost every second, which leads to a few superficial squabbles with the firemen and other officials, but eventually, it's almost required for the camera to be on for the film to progress. And it won't have as much of an impact if you've seen Quarantine, which pisses me off. The supporting cast, used as they are, seem as if they were the people actually living in this real apartment location the movie filmed in. There's an amazingly scary child amongst the bunch, as you'll find in a deeply harrowing scene.
I don't want to ruin the rest for anyone. Suffice to say, if you've ever seen a horror movie, you know how it'll end up, but the actual final five minutes of the movie rival damned near any other five minutes in movie history for raw terror. I can only assume a similar moment would be when a game show host takes a annoying eon to reveal whether your guess was the correct answer or not. But that's a wholly different scenario. The creatures aren't given more than an ambiguously demonic background, which is great. Spain likes their possessive demons, and I'm all for it. American movie monsters have ceased to exist without elongated origins, Drag Me to Hell's witchery excluded. These guys scream and zip around awkwardly and everyone present screams as well. That right there is cause and effect, which is what horror is, and should be. I have to say this as a last remark, because it's the last thing I would have expected to say about any horror I will ever again see or review. It scared me.
I should have written more about the movie itself, because the disc is a stone's throw away from a videotape. Other regions have fuller discs. What the hell, region 1? The film is meant to look and sound like a news broadcast would look and sound. Video and audio aspect ratios are nulled. But the diminished quality is welcomed only when combined with the uber-realistic quantity of content. Our lead actress is pretty, but not glossy or polished. And by the end, her frazzled appearance even helps out her sexiness. The amateur online porn effect.
Where the gritty, dark tone of the visuals is altogether needed for this film to thrive, it is indeed the sound that transcends the scares from impressive gory made-up stuntmen to "Holy Moses, I'm in the middle of a Goddamned crisis." It yearns for headphones. The camera hears exactly what needs to be heard, and drops out precisely when the on-screen visuals are at their most disillusioning and hopeless. Though the use of night-vision helps to make the visual element all the more horrifying there towards the end.
There are, of course, subtitles, and that's the way to go. Dubbed movies are the pits, though it is an option here. The only special feature is a fifteen minute making-of featurette. It's not terrible. But even a single commentary, a DUBBED commentary, would have sufficed.
I love horror as a genre. Often the only thing that makes me question that devotion is actual horror movies themselves, which are so often an accumulation of misguided talent and blank checkbooks. The success is always in the idea, and never exclusively the execution. REC is the bread AND the butter, and it will bite and keep biting.
Reviewed By: Nick Venable