Friday, July 31, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

Once upon a time, Hollywood blockbusters looked a lot like The Untouchables: lush, stylish, operatic, and daring as hell.

Or, as critic Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times regarding De Palma's 1987 gangster film: "... it's a smashing work. It's vulgar, violent, funny and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful. After this ''Untouchables,'' all other movies dealing with Prohibition Chicago, Al Capone and the lawmen who brought him to justice (for income tax evasion) must look a bit anemic."

Boosted by a coruscating, pulse-pounding score from composer Ennio Morricone, De Palma's The Untouchables is actually much more than a period piece or a typical gangster genre film. Instead, it's the passion-laden story of a burg at war with itself and its ideals...and the valiant heroes who brought peace to that city at the cost of great personal sacrifice.


Now the setting here isn't classic in any sense. It isn't ancient Sparta (like 300), or The Trojan War (as in Troy). But make no mistake, De Palma brings to The Untouchables the same archetypal flourishes we might reasonably expect in any cinematic depiction of those legends. He transforms real historical figures into larger-than-life scoundrels, saints, and angels. As dramatized by De Palma, The Untouchables is nothing less than the Timeless Heroic Poem of Avenger Eliot Ness.

Let's Do Some Good...

Written by award-winning playwright David Mamet, De Palma's The Untouchables is a blend of the popular old TV series (1959-1963) of the same name and the popular 1957 autobiography of Eliot Ness penned by Ness with Oscar Fraley.

The film depicts Chicago of the Prohibition Era as -- importantly -- a "city at war."

The unofficial but acknowledged ruler of Chicago is criminal Al Capone (Robert De Niro), a self-satisfied gangster who has "bought" the loyalty of city cops, district judges, and even the cynical press.

Capone is treated as a celebrity and a king, and has the run of the city. He is a crook and a monster to be certain, but because Capone has so much money, the tyrant is respected and feared. Nobody crosses him. In light of this situation, we might even dare to view De Palma's film as a veiled critique of capitalism, with power going to the highest bidder. And as the film begins, Capone is tightening his grip on the small businesses of Chicago, using fear, intimidation and murder to making certain that he gets a "cut" of everything.

Into this war zone of escalating violence arrives a straight-arrow crusader, the impossibly moral Treasury Agent named Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner). After his first "sting" fails to nab Capone, family man Ness realizes he must work around the corrupt system, and therefore recruits a group of outsiders he can trust to the death. These men include his new mentor, an Irish cop on the beat, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), police academy graduate and sharp-shooter Giuseppe Petri (Andy Garcia), and nerdy accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

Importantly, not one of these men (especially Ness) declares any fealty to the government's (wrongheaded) policy of Prohibition. On the contrary, what this foursome defends to the death is the very principle that makes America great: the rule of law. This is the meat of Ness's inner crisis: can the rule of law be re-established by violating the law?

Over several tumultuous weeks, Ness puts a dent in Capone's illegal liquor operation in Chicago, but spurs Capone's murderous wrath. The gangster dispatches enforcer Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) to see to it that the four Untouchables are, in fact...quite touchable. Wallace is murdered in an elevator along with a trial witness against Capone. Malone is set up in his own apartment and viciously gunned down.

With his team in tatters, Ness recognizes that his last chance to stop Capone involves indicting the gangster for tax evasion. To accomplish this, however, Ness needs to intercept Capone's accountant at a train station...

Never Stop Fighting Till The Fight is Done

On the surface, the brutal struggle in The Untouchables appears to be one regarding law enforcement, but the movie's tone and visuals make it plain that this is not entirely the case.

On the contrary: this is total war, a fact De Palma makes plain via cross-cutting. Early in the film, he cross-cuts between Capone decrying violence as "not good business" and then a scene involving a little girl murdered in what, essentially, is a terrorist bombing of a local Chicago saloon.

While noting that "there is violence in Chicago" (but not by him, of course), Capone thus wipes out a business that refuses to cow-tow to his demands for protection money. The bombing is a crime, but a crime elevated to guerrilla war tactics (like those seen in the Vietnam War; another De Palma obsession). Another scene, involving Ness's first bust, sees the hero riding astride a vehicle that appears to be a kind of 1930s armored attack truck. It's the visual equivalent of putting a soldier atop a tank at the beginning of battle; a visual recognition that this is, for all intents and purposes, combat.

In constructing a mythic poem, it's crucial that the stakes are high, and that's what De Palma accomplishes in setting the key backgrounds of Chicago in The Untouchables. He makes plain that this isn't simple a matter of putting a criminal away, but of winning a war against a powerful, and heartless opponent. The soul of the city is on the line because Capone has his hooks in everyone. Ness's war is thus virtually an Aristotlean thing: "we make war that we may live in peace."

The spiritual nature of this dramatic war is made evident in one particularly important debate about battle tactics. With the ceiling of a grand cathedral serving as backdrop behind them, Malone and Ness discuss the pathway to victory. "They pull a knife, you pull a gun," suggests Malone. "He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way, and that's how you get Capone!" Again, the tenor of this talk is more akin to war than to crime-fighting.

In addition, Malone notes that "The Lord hates a coward," a sentiment that sounds more appropriate to a conversation in a foxhole (where there are no atheists...) than in a campaign to bring a mere thug to justice. What the audience comes to understand is that Malone is a spiritual man, but one who believes that anything worth fighting for, is worth fighting dirty for. This is a point of view Ness learns much about in the course of the film.

In defining the central struggle of The Untouchables as a real, dirty war, De Palma even recruits the old-fashioned war movie cliche about a man discovering himself in the crucible of combat. During the Western-style scene set in Montana, the bookish, diminutive accountant, Wallace -- a man who has never been in battle -- unexpectedly finds himself, under fire, a paragon of bravery: taking down Capone's men in a daring frontal assault. By contrast, Ness ends this engagement underneath a car...

What Are You Prepared to Do?

If the battle to unseat Capone from his throne of blood is a war, not simply a legal matter, then the men who fight him are great, larger-than-life warriors, and that's part of De Palma's visual vocabulary in The Untouchables as well.

On several occasions, the director composes shots meant to suggest the screen iconography of heroism. Above, I mentioned the interlude set in the wide-open country of Montana. Essentially, this set-piece harks back to the Old West (or at least our Hollywood memories of the Old West) and De Palma presents us with scenes of our stalwart heroes astride horses, carrying rifles and pistols...ready to heroically engage in combat.

The reflexive mental response to these images is to associate the G-Men -- the Untouchables -- with cowboys, or gunslingers...the heroes who single-handedly ride in and bring justice to imperiled frontier towns. Cowboys are part of our shared national mythology, as curator George Slosser, of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Collection at the University of California once observed: "They’re the embodiment of the American myth of the lone, rugged individual who comes into society and cleans it up. We all want to do it, but we don’t know how to do it. We live our everyday lives that don’t allow for this kind of simplistic vision. So we cheer for it."

Failing to discern De Palma's mode in The Untouchables, many film critics complained that a Western-style set-piece in a Chicago crime movie was distinctly out-of-place -- a glaring faux pas. However, if we gaze at De Palma's purpose here as one of elevating the heroes of The Untouchable to mythic, iconic status, it makes perfect sense that the director should mine the visual language of heroes that American generations have shared at the movies.

Outside the Old West-style sequence, De Palma on several occasions provides awe-inspiring group shots of the four crusaders -- shoulder to shoulder -- engaging in battle. They stride down the streets of Chicago, elbow-to-elbow, an "untouchable" line of heroism, approaching the camera...looming larger and larger in frame (and in our psyches).

In another sequence, as The Untouchables successfully take down a branch of Capone's operation in a warehouse, the music and the camera work practically swoon in simultaneous orgasm at the achievement. The camera spins dizzily around the four men, doing a celebratory victory dance or whirl. This is myth making, pure and simple.

Despite his cutthroat methods, Malone is practically elevated to the role of saint in The Untouchables; constantly associated with his belief in Christianity; his attachment to his Rosary beads, and so forth. Ness becomes the designated carrier of "righteousness" after a grieving mother (of the girl killed in the bombing) tasks him with the sacred mission of capturing and incarcerating Capone. Even Ness's wife is treated as a sort of immaculate Madonna figure; forever tolerant; forever supportive, forever accepting of the dangers in her husband's line of work.

It probably goes without saying, but these are not the stock characters of your typical crime-drama, shaded in naturalistic greys, but rather bold, iconic warriors...remembered for feats of great bravery. De Palma's camera-work again and again hammers home this point. For example, Malone is shot a hundred times (by a machine gun at close range!) and still lives long enough to share a crucial piece of information with the mourning Ness. The wise, cunning Malone -- in every way -- is the Obi-Wan Kenobi Elder of The Untouchables, the mentor and man who guides the hero (Ness) on his mythic, Joseph Campbell-style journey.

Oppositely, De Palma's technique is also to depict the villain, Al Capone, in a deeply unflattering light. After Capone murders one of his treacherous henchmen with a baseball bat, De Palma stages a terrific shot: a horrified withdrawal or retraction from the bloody action; an overhead shot that seems to literally recoil in horror as spilled, scarlet blood contaminates Capone's white table linens.

The cross-cutting, mentioned earlier, also serves to create a cause-and-effect feeling in regards to Capone. He states that he is not behind the violence; then we see the brutal violence conducted in his name for ourselves. The sequencing of these scenes makes the viewer aware that Capone is a liar; not to be trusted.

Finally, an effective villain must be powerful and menacing, and so in all of Capone's scenes, De Palma positions the gangster amidst almost unbelievable opulence. In the famous baseball bludgeoning scene, Capone dons a tuxedo to gain the appearance of respectability. Later, we see the crook sitting in an expensive seat at the opera house, crying his eyes out during a movingperformance (a nod to Coppola's gangster films...). Capone's hotel suite is luxuriant to the point of decadence and beyond.

Capone controls the city, and lives amidst absolute wealth, with absolute unchallenged power. This is the mountain that Ness must climb on his journey. He must defeat a man who controls all the channels of power; who possesses vast wealth; and who will use violence; who is deceitful and capricious in his bloody whims. We easily understand all this from De Palma's cross-cutting, production design, and choice of compositions. The script itself (and De Niro's interpretation of the character), seem to suggest some sub-textual resonance of Mussolini, only this is capitalism's Il Duce: a man who has gamed the system through money and intimidation.

The Odessa Steps Re-Framed: Homage, Intertextuality and Commentary

The most impressive scene in De Palma's The Untouchables is one that isn't even in the screenplay. Originally, Ness and Petri were supposed to nab Capone's accountant on a train, and there was to be a rather elaborate car/train chase. When this did not prove feasible from an economic standpoint, De Palma altered the scene to involve the accountant arriving at a train station, and Ness and Petri standing by to intercept him there.

During the attempted capture, there is a shoot-out with Capone's men, and two innocent by-standers are caught in the crossfire: a mother and her baby in a carriage. At one intense point, the carriage topples over the station's vast stone staircase in slow-motion. All around, bullets fly...and the carriage shakes and bumps as it careens to the bottom...

Again, this sequence is likely the demarcation point where some people will "get" and appreciate De Palma, and others will simply insist that he is a particularly gifted "thief." For in concept and execution, the staircase scene of The Untouchables is an intricate homage to Sergei Eisenstein's 1925 propaganda classic, The Battleship Potemkin.

In that film, the famous "Odessa Steps" sequence dramatized a massacre conducted by the Tsarist Regime, set atop a wide staircase. Civilians were brutally murdered in this bloody sequence, as Cossacks killed men, women and children. Famously, a baby carriage was depicted rolling down the staircase.

In original context, the Odessa Steps sequence was meant to demonize the Imperial Regime, to expose the fact that there was no depth to which it would not sink to hold onto to power in Russia. The scene is so famous in cinema history that some people have apparently believed that there was a massacre on the Odessa Steps even though the incident was a fictional one concocted for the film.

Those who accuse De Palma of lifting the Odessa Steps sequence from The Battleship Potemkin should take one extra step -- beyond that of accusation -- and ask themselves why? What purpose does it serve to feature a similar sequence here, in this movie?

On one hand, we can certainly point to the deliberate homage and intertextuality we see throughout De Palma's canon. But furthermore, there's a reflexive quality to this reference in The Untouchables. To wit: the battle for capitalist control of Chicago is occurring, roughly, in the same time period that The Battleship Potemkin was made and distributed (circa 1925 - 1930). In other words, by cutting and shooting a sequence just like the Odessa Steps, De Palma is actually reflecting something that the characters of the time might have themselves conceivably understood or known about.

Much more importantly, however, De Palma has created a thematic relative of Potemkin; a kind of "pop" form of propaganda; a heroic myth elevating the G-Men in stature and deriding a corrupt system and the criminals -- like Capone -- who exploited it (the capitalist equivalent of the Tsarists).

De Palma's point -- captured beautifully in the slow-motion shoot-out -- is that Capone's Regime (like that of the Cossacks...) boasts no moral compunction about the murder of the innocent. It will hold onto control any way it can, as we have seen in the corner saloon bombing and now with the imperiled baby carriage. Ness's task is much more difficult: he must eliminate the entrenched, powerful bad guys (the hench-men of Capone) and defend the innocent simultaneously. Remember how that grieving mother told Ness to get Capone? Well, here Ness lands in an even more urgent variation of that scene: finally in the position to prevent the death of an innocent at the same time that he takes down the guilty.

So, yes, De Palma pays tribute to Eisenstein's shock cutting in the famous staircase battle, but he has done two other important things as well. First, he has raised audience "ire" over Capone's actions in the self-same manner as Eisenstein did in regards to the Tsarists;" exposing" a corrupt regime in the process. And secondly, he has re-purposed the "lifted" sequence so as to make a point about the nature of the all-out battle Ness is fighting.

Amazingly, De Palma crafts an action sequence in the very film language appropriate to the era of his film, the 1920s-1930s. In his review, critic Hal Hinson called the staircase shoot-out scene De Palma's "greatest stunt," only-half impressed, but I suggest that given the context, given the reflexivity, given the re-purposing of a classic sequence for a like thematic purpose, it is much more than a stunt. This is De Palma conceiving and deploying brilliant visuals to chart for audiences the epic nature of the Capone/Ness conflict.

Why does The Untouchables succeed as a grand entertainment and as a work of art? The answer involves our history as a nation. Just over two centuries old, America is still a young country at heart. Because our ancestors arrived from a variety of other countries, the U.S.A. lacks the coherent, long-standing mythology of Greece or Rome, of England or France. In many ways, the short history of America has involved the fashioning of a fresh, new mythology that can serve as the sturdy vehicle to carry our ideals into an unknown future . The Old West -- the era of righteous gunslingers -- is one critical part of that new-fangled mythology. As I wrote in The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, I believe that superheroes have, to a large degree, replaced the cowboy in this regard.

But nonetheless, in The Untouchables, Brian De Palma takes Ness's G-Men -- who fought for the rule of law in Chicago, -- and elevates them to the same epic stature Americans typically reserve for cowboys, war heroes, or supermen. We don't have an American Robin Hood; or American Three Musketeers. But the heroic, saintly and courageous Untouchables - at least in De Palma's cinematic interpretation -- more than suffice for the film's running time.

A visual exercise in mythbuilding, The Untouchables is De Palma's mainstream masterpiece; a supreme and rousing entertainment that dispenses with the predictable "grittiness" of the gangster drama and audaciously serves us up a symbolic fable in its place.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 85: The Man from Atlantis (1977 - 1978)

The first American network series to be broadcast in China (and one immensely popular there to this day...), The Man From Atlantis is a short-lived superhero series from the mid-1970s; one that fits in with the pop-culture trend I term the Age of "Nostalgia" or of "Americana."

Programs of this era included The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, The Amazing Spider-Man, and even a set of very poor Captain America TV-movies starring Reb Brown (!).

What these many disco decade superhero productions share is a sunshiny overall atmosphere and a total -- even will full -- denial of the vast cynicism of their time period.

Created post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, these superheroes served as innocent, pure-hearted protectors who always fought for America, defending it from Soviets, space monsters, underwater monsters, robots...you name it. And America was always in the right. No matter what. The angst and broodiness we have come to expect post-"Dark Age" (The Dark Knight, The Crow, Blade, etc.) did not yet exist. But the Americana shows -- while charming and good for curiosity viewing -- were also strangely childish and occasionally downright slipshod in terms of production value.

The Man From Atlantis told the story of the last survivor of the lost continent of Atlantis, a web-fingered, young man named Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy). He quickly became a secret agent for the United States. I guess a lot of cases in U.S. intelligence circles occured underwater in the seventies, since Captain Nemo, once revived, also became an operative for our government (see 1978's The Return of Captain Nemo).

Now, as you may know, nearly forty years before The Man from Atlantis, Marvel Comics had already introduced its own Man from Atlantis–style character: Bill Everett’s Prince Namor, otherwise known as the Sub-Mariner.

That's a different guy.


Where Namor was the arrogant grandson of King Thakorr and alternately known as “the Avenging Son of Atlantis” or the “Prince of Blood," Mark Harris was a water-breather of a different stripe. He was a peaceful, even-tempered gentleman who more closely resembled Star Trek's popular Mr. Spock -- a friendly, peaceful resident alien -- than an angry avenger from under the sea. Spock had pointed ears; Harris had webbed fingers.

Patrick Duffy described his heroic character as "extremely, intelligently naive. He’s very quick. He’s unencumbered by hang-ups…. He has a total lack of that kind of ego that stops us from taking a different direction because we hate to admit that the one we took in the first place was wrong. He’s totally open to suggestion." (David Houston, Starlog # 9: "Patrick Duffy: TV's Man From Atlantis," October 1977, page 28).

No. Not exactly “the Prince of Blood” in concept.

Where Namor passionately hated mankind for polluting his home (the seas), Mark Harris was a relaxed, New Age, Zen, groovy kinda guy. The last survivor of Atlantis, Harris had no memory of his background, and had gills instead of lungs, which meant he could remain above water for only twelve hours at a stretch. Harris could also swim incredibly fast, and in a unique dolphin-like motion as well. His signature gait became all the rage at American swimming pools for boys eleven years old and younger.

On The Man From Atlantis, Harris worked with a nice, attractive scientist, Dr. Elizabeth Merrill (Belinda Montgomery); and mid-way through the series he even oined the crew of the Cetacean, an advanced, experimental U.S. government submarine not unlike the starship Enterprise (where, again, Harris was the resident alien). Harris’s unofficial boss at the Foundation for Oceanic Research (the United Federation of Planets?) was C.W. Crawford (Alan Fudge).

Stories featured on The Man from Atlantis were the typical clichés of science fiction and superhero lore so popular at the time. Harris time-traveled to the Old West to take part in a shoot-out in “Shoot Out at Land’s End.” He battled a genie (Pat Morita) who could revert people to their childhood in “Imp.” In one truly over-the-top outing, “The Naked Montague,” Harris traveled into the past to prevent the bloody demises of Shakespeare’s young lovers, Romeo and Juliet! Yep...they weren't fictional after all!

Villains on the series ranged from a deadly giant (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) to a colossal jellyfish ("Man O 'War"), to the recurring “evil genius” Mr. Schubert (portrayed by the rotund Victor Buono -- King Tut on Batman). The tone of the series bordered on camp and director Michael O’Herlihy went on record noting that it was this lack of a consistent (and serious) tone that ultimately hurt The Man From Atlantis with audiences:

"I don’t know if Man from Atlantis was science fiction or what the hell it was..." (Edward Gross, Starlog # 131 "Michael O'Herlihy, Storyteller of Tomorrow & Yesterday," June 1988, page 72).

The first season of The Man from Atlantis ran sporadically on NBC as a series of two-hour movies on Thursday nights. The second season settled down into a regular pattern, airing Tuesday nights in the fall of 1977 and spring of 1978 at 8:00 p.m., competing against the then-powerhouse combination of nostalgia sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley on ABC.

Ultimately, The Man from Atlantis got flushed by NBC after the seventeenth and last episode, which aired on June 6, 1978. Star Patrick Duffy re-bounded with a starring role on the CBS soap opera Dallas starting in 1980.

Today, the sort-of-silly, sort-of-charming Man From Atlantis remains a nostalgic favorite for many Generation X-ers, but is not yet available on DVD. Any day now, someone is certain to re-imagine the series...

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What I'm Reading Now: Beyond Hammer: British Horror Cinema Since 1970


"The majority of the films analysed within this book share this essential trait: first and foremost they exist to entertain by terrifying their audience but on a deeper level they are written as a response to the era in which the writer and film-maker are living: The Vampire Lovers blatantly communicates the fear of the emergent independent woman whilst The Descent explores the emotional collapse and consequential regression of one such woman; The Wicker Man critiques a society that embraces freedom and sexual liberation through its very opposite, the repressed Christian; whilst Death Line suggests an examination of societal ignorance towards the poor and the impoverished."

- James Rose, Beyond Hammer:British Horror Cinema Since 1970, Columbia University Press, 2009, page 9.

Monday, July 27, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: [REC] (2007)

With some notable and laudable exceptions (including Cloverfield [2008], Splinter [2008] and The Ruins [2008]), Hollywood continues to endlessly grind out colorless genre sausage like Friday the 13th (2009) and My Bloody Valentine (2009).

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.