Meanwhile, the art of crafting great, affecting horror has apparently fallen to those countries former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once derisively termed "Old Europe."
I'm not being a snob about this, either. It isn't as though the European horror movies I'm discussing here are sedentary art-house films about gay cowboys eating pudding.
On the contrary, these new "foreign" horrors are visceral, violent and visually stunning. In particular, I'm thinking of Them (2007), The Orphanage (2007), 28 Weeks Later (2007), Let the Right One In (2008), and the film I just screened this weekend, [REC] (2007).
All those efforts boast a vitality decidedly absent from the myriad American remakes, re-boots and re-imaginations voided into multiplexes on a seemingly weekly basis. [REC] is no exception to that rule. On the contrary, this frenetic, highly-disturbing film directed by Jaum Balagueró and Paco Plaza lives up to high expectations...and then -- in an insane, mind-bending, stakes-raising final sequence -- surpasses them.
Like spiritual predecessors The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Last Broadcast (1998), [REC] is shot entirely from the viewpoint of a camera-man. This means that the film is a 78-minute exercise in immediacy that exploits the first-person point-of-view. A sometimes shaky, sometimes steady "eye" navigates the film's claustrophobic, terrifying world, and important events are often half-glimpsed, or occur entirely off-camera. Transitions occur simply -- when the camera is turned off. When re-activated, we're suddenly in a new scene...and the situation has grown decidedly worse. Sometimes, the camera is positioned in the back of a long line of people, peering over shoulders and heads, and trying desperately to make sense of the terrain...and the situation. Theis helter-skelter, news-footage-style visual approach heightens and accelerates suspense to a fever pitch.
[REC] is set in Barcelona on what seems, at first, a typical night. At a local fire station, a girlish reporter, Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her camera-man, the unseen Pablo, record the activities of the station and fire-men for a "slice of life" TV series called "While You're Asleep." Angela flirts with the officers, obsesses on her appearance and on-camera delivery, and then dutifully explains the night-shift routine (an impromptu game of basketball, etc.) to her invisible audience. All the while, she not-so-secretly hopes that the station's alarm bell will ring and something exciting or out of the ordinary might happen.
Before you can say, "be careful what you wish for," Angela and Pablo are riding a fire engine to an urban apartment building where some sort of strange disturbance has been reported. Inside, the firemen, police and camera-crew confront a mad old woman in her apartment, one drenched in blood and seemingly insane. This raving old lunatic bites one of the arresting officers on the neck before being subdued, and he nearly dies from the gaping wound.
After the immediate pandemonium, Angela and the others learn that the apartment building has been irrevocably sealed off by government authorities. There seems to a "BNC" (Biological, Nuclear, Chemical) protocol being followed to the letter...which indicates that the apartment building has been contaminated by something pernicious.
And boy has it! The injured cop soon becomes rabid, just like the old lady. And one of the residents -- a little girl -- is apparently sick too. Some sort of contaminant that spreads through saliva is the suspected culprit.
I don't want to spoil the many grotesque surprises of [REC], but events rapidly spiral out of control as apartment residents, firemen and even a shell-shocked health inspector (in Hazmat suit) deal with the infected. Angela and Pablo record every gruesome event, even while searching for an escape route. In the course of the film, we see the infected men and women shot and beaten with mallets, and the intense violence is bracing, particularly because it seems so very real. One harrowing scene involves the attempted capture of the contaminated child. She appears -- with strangely "chrome"-colored eyes -- and doesn't move or react as we might expect while the others attempt to restrain her. Another highly-realistic (and disturbing) scene involves a firefighter's fall from the top floor...to the lobby.
[REC]'s final, bravura scene follows the increasingly desperate news team into an apparently abandoned penthouse. What Angela and Pablo find inside this dank chamber of horrors represents one of the more ingenious (and frightening...) twists you'll find in a horror movie of recent vintage. Indeed, this unexpected discovery (vetted by a tape recorder and news clippings taped to the walls...) forces a re-interpretation and re-assessment of the outbreak, and the very nature of the film's threat.
That final scene is also lensed in total, blanketing darkness, with only the small spot-light of the hand-held camera for illumination. When that light breaks down, we are left with only very limited night vision to serve as our eyes. Meanwhile, a...thing...prowls nearby, in the dark. It can't see Pablo and Angela, and they can't see it. Unless someone or something makes a sound...
I'll put this bluntly (and honestly): I haven't found myself so deeply involved, so agitated, during a horror-set piece since perhaps the last, mad moments of Blair Witch, the ones exploring the witch's old house in the forest. In [REC], I felt I was prepared for every jump and bump that this valedictory sequence could offer and yet it still frightened me to my core; it still worked. I jumped at least three times in that sequence alone. The individual that we encounter in that sequence is extremely...unsettling...in appearance, demeanor and origin, and -- again -- seemed completely real. This scene is a doozy.
Contextually, [REC] lives and flourishes in the paranoid post-911 milieu, one in which every local disaster is met with Draconian over-response, and the rights of the individual are considered (rightly or wrongly) secondary or tertiary compared to community security and hidden, ideological agendas. Here, the residents are clearly deemed expendable as they are cordoned off, quarantined, and left to their own devices. In one thoroughly horrifying and unexpected shot, a character approaches a window calling for help...only to see a plastic shroud -- a containment tent -- drop over it.
Angela quickly determines to film everything because people deserve to "know what's happening." In microcosm then, we have a battle between freedom of speech and overreaching government (represented by the health inspector, and a "Voice of God" announcer outside the apartment who instructs the people trapped inside to "remain calm.") We also have a conspiracy conducted by an international organization; a conspiracy that threatens the world.
[REC] is smart, scary and boasts a strong sense of irony. Angela's series "While You're Asleep" is aptly-named, after all. While innocent people sleep unencumbered by fear, while they live their lives in peace...secret dangers lurk next door. The cinema verite approach makes the film seem spontaneous and unscripted (thus real...), and the meticulous camera-work and long-shot staging are spectacular and impressive. There's some nice observational humor (particular in the "talking head" interview with one resident who, uawares, is a racist...) too, but above all [REC] is dedicated to terrorizing you. Like Angela, the audience lands in a blender, uncertain who to trust, uncertain what to believe. With no exits...
And when you -- like Angela -- are most uncertain, most vulnerable, most desperate -- the film lands you in that room of total darkness, total entrapment...and then (with a sound effect...) opens the attic pull-down ladder. One last room. One face-to-face encounter with horror...
I know [REC] was remade in America as Quarantine, but I've determinedly avoided seeing the U.S. re-do until I saw the original first. I have no idea if Quarantine is any good, but [REC] is certainly one of the most effective horror films I've seen in a good, long while. How do I know? Because all night, afterward, whenever I woke from slumber...I thought of that final sequence, and of the terror lurking in the dark.