October Horrorshow: [•REC]

October is upon us. Aliens are invading, wolfmen howl at the moon, vampires avoid mirrors, and the walls are bleeding. It’s the month of Halloween, which means it’s time for the October Horrorshow, a whole month of horror film reviews on Missile Test. The good, the bad, and the putrid will all be represented in these pages. It doesn’t matter, as long as there’s blood.

A couple years back, I gave the film Quarantine a poor review, while also coining an acronym to describe the subgenre of horror that films like Quarantine inhabit. I called them S.C.R.E.W.E.D. films, for Small Cast, Reclusive Environment, Where Everyone (almost) Dies. As it so happens, [•REC] (from here on out, REC, for simplicity’s sake) is a Screwed film, not just because of the plot, but because Quarantine was an American remake of REC, which hails from Spain. Got all that? There will be a test at the end of the month.

REC is not only the story of a small cast being menaced by insidious forces, it is one of a number of films that swept theaters during last decade’s breakout of the found footage technique, the faux naturalistic style of filmmaking meant to evoke realism through the use of shaky camera movements. If the camera shakes, so the theory goes, the audience will subconsciously make the association between the onscreen visual earthquakes and the easy photographic style of documentary films, lending a greater air of authority to whatever’s playing above. At one time it was clever, now it’s tired. Especially in a culture inundated with low bitrate cellphone vids, it almost seems cruel to make an audience sit through more than three minutes of grainy footage without a face plant as payoff. Bitter? No. I just appreciate a film that is well shot, even if it does leave me more conflicted than a gay Republican (see: The Human Centipede).

But, the wave of found footage horror flicks (the technique never seems to be used in other genres) is probably coming to a close. It was initiated by the new availability of cheap digital cameras. Tens of thousands of dollars cheaper than nice film counterparts, and still cheaper than the large amount of the cheapest film needed to complete a full-length feature, the digital revolution has been a boon to anyone with a little cash to burn and a story to tell. And things just keep getting better. The newest digital SLRs, cameras that can be had for a song, can shoot in full 1080p, with crisp colors and lines, little grain, and good sound. Plop one of those suckers on a tripod and watch a young auteur’s eyes glaze over as they immediately abandon their dreams of naturalism for visions of cinematographic majesty. So long, shaky camera.

From way back in 2007, REC, written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, follows a television reporter and her cameraman into an apartment building where strange things are afoot. The reporter, Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) had been doing a report on a local firehouse in Barcelona, when they received an emergency call in the middle of the night. Fire company and film crew then race to the scene, and there discover that some of the residents have turned into raving loonies, foaming at the mouth, red in the eyes, and capable of emitting metallic screams indicative of an overactive sound editor or Foley artist.

Very quickly the government swoops in and quarantines the entire building, wrapping it in plastic and forbidding anyone, under penalty of death, from leaving. The remainder of the film follows Vidal, her unseen cameraman, and a slowly winnowed cast as they try to escape the building and the clutches of the murderously infected tenants. And that’s what they are — infected. REC is not only a Screwed film, it is not only found footage, it’s also new wave zombie, where the zombies are not lumbering creatures of the undead variety, but instead are people infected with some mind-altering virus, leaving speed intact, but also, thankfully for the cast, mortality. One need not aim for the head with these baddies. What can kill you or I can do for them, as well. But getting away from them is a lot harder than barricading oneself in a Pennsylvania farmhouse.

Once it gets going, REC is one frantic chase from darkened apartment to darkened apartment, and there are many genuine thrills involved. Lest I trash found footage too much, the limited ability of one camera to show what is happening in the film’s claustrophobic sets is used to good effect in REC, as the audience can never be sure if there’s another infected person lurking just beyond the range of the spotlight. The finale of the film turns logic on its head, and I won’t spoil it here (just a warning, I will have no choice but to spoil it when I review REC’s sequel), but it was such an unnecessary 180 degree turn from what had been a far more plausible (but admittedly no more likely) explanation for what had been happening in the building. Despite this, the hectic nature of most of the film and then the weird turn in plot was capped off by a creepy climax in the penthouse apartment. While Balagueró and Plaza decided to employ some cinematic trickery that probably won’t hold up well over time, it is worth enjoying now. Very unsettling.

There is no great crime in REC — it’s not a bad film. It just relies a bit too heavily on gimmicky filmmaking and piggybacking on the likes of Danny Boyle. REC is a cut above normal, cheap horror fare, but other than the finale, nothing jumps out as being all that memorable.