Tuesday, October 21, 2014

31 Days, 31 Horror Movies: [REC]


[REC] is my favorite 'found footage' horror film and one of my favorite horror movies of the last ten years.

I saw the US remake, Quarantine, first - and if you're going to watch both, I think that's the way to do it. Quarantine is almost a shot-for-shot remake, so watching it after [REC] is really a recipe for disappointment. (I've avoided Let Me In for the same reason - I loved Let the Right One In and feel like I'll be disproportionally hard on the remake.) If you're only going to see one of them, however, watch [REC]. Quarantine is actually a good film, but it has two problems that [REC] does not - first, it uses recognizable actors, which is always a bit of a kiss of death in a film that's trading on being 'realistic,' and second, the poster (and cover of the DVD) is literally the last shot of the movie. There are spoilers and then there are big middle fingers to the viewer and Quarantine's cover crosses the line for me.

I've seen [REC]2, but not [REC]3 yet (a final entry, [REC]4: Apocalypse is supposed to be released this year). I liked 2, but not as much as the first film. The need to expand and explain always reduces the horror a bit, for me anyway. I like Michael Myers better when he was The Shape, not Laurie Strode's older brother.

The Medium
I finally found a copy of [REC] at my local video/music/game store (Bullmoose.com, they're awesome) just last week. I've been looking for a while, but there just don't seem to be a lot of copies in circulation, at least not in Maine. There doesn't appear to be a Region A Blu-ray release, but I'm not sure the film needs one - low quality shaky-cam footage is the rule here, and looks just fine in 480p. I do wish there were more extras beyond a short "Making Of" documentary, though.

The Movie
The setup to justify the found footage aspect of [REC] is that it's being shot by the crew of a local TV station, producing a segment for a show called While You're Sleeping. It's just two people, Angela (Manuela Velasco), the reporter, and Pablo, her cameraman. The segment is about life at a local fire station and Angela and Pablo ride along with two firemen - Manu and Alex - to a call about a woman trapped in her apartment.

Don't look so damn happy about it.

The genius bit of casting here is that Manuela Velasco is actually a TV personality in Spain. Not that it has the same effect for me, but it must have added an additional layer of verisimilitude when it was released in Spain. Even without that cultural knowledge, Velasco is very believable in her role and the 'behind-the-scenes' sequences - as she and her cameraman look for interesting shots and worry about which side to stand on in interviews - really give the proceedings that frisson of realism you hope for in a 'found footage' film.

At the apartment building the crew and the firefighters join two cops who were called as well. Investigating the apartment they find an older woman in nightclothes who is also pretty bloody. She sways and mutters and then, without warning, attacks one of the cops - biting him severely. Alex restrains the woman while everyone else hurries downstairs to try and get the cop outside to an ambulance. Pushing through the group of tenants that are gathered in the lobby they quickly find that the building is being sealed off by the authorities.

What did I just say about inappropriate happiness?

I love this building, by the way. I love the winding staircase, the huge doors, the long, narrow halls, the tall windows. I love the mix of residences and businesses. It's just such a cool location. You only get to see it in bits and pieces, which has the effect of making it feel like a maze, like you're never sure where exactly you are.

Just as people are starting to freak out over being sealed in a body falls through the stairwell into the lobby. It's Alex, who is both bitten and severely injured from the fall. This moment is pretty startling, in some ways even worse than the attack by the woman upstairs, because it's just so unexpected. People are shouting, arguing and then - *BAM* -  Alex falls to the floor in the background. Jumped the hell out of me the first time.

I'm not really sure they should have moved him...

The film crew, Manu, and the second policeman rush upstairs where they're attacked by the woman and the policeman is forced to shoot her. The sound of the gunshot in the narrow space is just deafening, like an explosion. The sound editing in general is top-notch throughout the whole film.

It transpires that there's some kind of infection in the building, and the authorities have quarantined the entire place until they figure out what to do. Eventually they send in an inspector in hazmat equipment who examines the wounded - Alex and the first policeman. The authorities throughout the film are annoyed and distrustful of the camera crew and Angela and Pablo are, for their part, kind of intrusive. All in the name of journalism, of course. Thankfully not a lot of time is spent defending their right to film or waxing over some journalism award.

When things start to go bad (well, worse), they go bad very fast. There's some handwavium explanation about the infection going slower or faster depending on your blood type, but after a certain point it appears that everyone has the "infected and attacking in 30 seconds" bloodtype. It didn't really bother me during the film, though - in fact, it ratchets the tension up significantly.

One of my favorite sequences actually requires the speedy infection: when Pablo, Angela, and Manu have to descend to the lobby to find the address (by checking mailboxes) of the man who has the keys to the building, they pass the chewed body of a woman. This is a mother who was bit earlier and was handcuffed to the staircase railing as a precaution. When a group of infected broke into the lobby everyone ran, but she was left behind and attacked and partially eaten. The group finds the mailbox and turns back to the stairs - and the woman is standing there, waiting. It's only been a few minutes, but the jump was so much fun I didn't care.

"Anyone else want to complain about handcuffing her to the rail? No? I didn't think so."

With multiple people infected Pablo and Angela end up having to take refuge in the penthouse, only to find that it is the source of the contagion. The apartment seems to have been set up by an agent of the Vatican who was researching a case of demonic possession. Saying much more would give things away, but it's a very different ending than Quarantine - at least as far as the foundations of the infection go. I go back and forth as to which version I prefer - but this time around [REC]'s back story won out. It's damn creepy (although I find Quarantine's to be more plausible - and frightening in its own way because of that).

I wish I could read all the crap nailed to the walls in this apartment.

I'm pretty happy with the quality of the 'found footage' aspect. Yeah, things are perhaps a bit more centered and steady than might be realistic if the camera was held by an amateur, but Pablo is a professional cameraman, so I buy it. And it's not like that all the time - there are points where the camera is turned on and not pointing at anything, there are moments of shaky running cam that are so bad I almost got nausea. Night vision is used sparingly and to great effect and only when they finally lose the use of the main spotlight. (Which is actually smashed instead of falling prey to 'plot-demanded mechanical difficulties.')

The last ten minutes or so are edge-of-your-seat tense. I've seen it before and I still caught myself holding my breath at certain points.

Not quite this literally, though.

The Bottom Line
[REC] is just an awesome horror movie and the peak of the 'found footage' genre. There are a few pieces of plot that don't make a lot of sense and some of the camerawork is, perhaps, a little too good, but it works so well as a whole that I don't really mind. The sequel is also good, though not quite to the same level as the first.

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