Friday, August 20, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: [REC] 2 (2009)

The first [REC] (2007) was an hour-and-a-half of nerve-jangling, throat-tightening, first-person pandemonium, followed by one of the most terrifying, hair-raising and unexpected denouements in recent horror cinema history.

The sequel, [REC] 2 (2009), skillfully re-creates the pandemonium...but little else.

Juame Balaguero and Paco Plaza's follow-up picks up mere moments after the conclusion of the visceral first film. A SWAT team equipped with helmet cameras enters an infected apartment building in Barcelona.

Soon, the team -- led by the mysterious Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor) -- is in search of a blood sample belonging to the unfortunate Medeiros girl...who was demonically-possessed, experimented upon by the Vatican, and is the wellspring of the zombie-styled outbreak.

Owen notes grimly that the building is "infested with the damned...with demons."

Naturally, matters continue to spiral out of control inside the quarantined apartment building. The Vatican has secretly been experimenting on children, an element of the tale which is, perhaps a veiled metaphor for the recent (but ongoing...) priest molestation scandal in the Church. Children are but tools to be used and manipulated by the ostensibly altruistic organization. These demonically-possessed tykes crawl around air ducts, race across ceilings(!) and attack the flustered, frightened team-members. And some moments featuring these terrifying, blood-thirsty creatures (particularly a hasty retreat through an air-duct...) really get the blood flowing.

Our protagonist from the first film, Angela (Manuela Velasco) has also, miraculously, survived her encounter with that nightmarish creature, the Medeiros girl, and eventually joins Owen's team. Despite the overwhelming danger, Owen won't permit anyone to leave the premises until he has recovered the Medeiros blood sample. And he can enforce his orders. Only his voice authorization can enable release from the quarantine zone. If he dies or is incapacitated, no one gets out.

Give the directors of [REC]2 lots of credit for their stylistic ingenuity. The first-person, handicam approach of the original has been repeated and augmented with a half-dozen or so inventive new flourishes. For instance, the cameraman capturing all the dynamic, helter-skelter action now boasts the capability to switch views between SWAT officers, presenting a screen-within-a-screen dynamic for some important sequences.

In a first-person-styled movie -- where viewers can only see what the camera sees as the camera sees it -- this device permits the filmmakers to switch perspectives in a pinch. The technique not only maintains a sense of pace and chaos, but actually acts as the equivalent of cutting-between-scenes in a traditionally-structured movie narrative. Nice.

This sequel also provides two crucial switches in perspective to keep matters unpredictable. We begin with the SWAT team helmet cameras (and the picture-within-a-picture conceit) in the first act and then transition to the amateur home video of three local kids (who sneak into the quarantined building) in the second act. Finally, in the third act, we return to Angela's camera...the lens through which the saga began.

If only Owens had bothered to check Angela's footage...

Another ingenious scene, near the end of the movie, challenges our sense of reality itself. In particular, a camera set on night-vision reveals secrets not visible in the light. I'm not talking about a simple monster reveal here, either (like that splendid jump moment in The Descent [2006], for instance). Rather, I'm talking about a "prison of darkness" barred from our human eyes, our daylight illumination. This scene is daring, creative and unlike any other sequence I've seen in this type of experiential, first-person film. It's a spill-over into a (supernatural?) dimension not quite our own. It's an intellectual conceit, and presents a kind of creepy, cerebral horror not usually featured in the intense, violent fast-moving films of this sub-genre (think The Last Broadcast, Cloverfield, etc.)


Again, credit the directors with devising and executing these really terrific twists on their original formula. And this sequel is undeniably intense too, for sustained spells. You'll be perched on the edge of your sea throughout.

Yet, in the final analysis, [REC]2 never truly equals, let alone tops, the experience of the original film, which I count among the ten best horror films of the last decade. In part, [REC] succeeded because it played so ably against expectations. The audience believed it was trapped inside a first-person version of 28 Days Later, but it was actually participating in The Exorcist...on steroids. This sequel starts from that familiar endgame and doesn't vary in approach. or setting. [REC] 2's last scene is thus doubly disappointing then: an explanatory "the killer talks" moment that just can't compare in horror impact to the hair-raising, pitch-black finale of the original.

Another way to describe the problem: While [REC]'s ending was legitimately mind-blowing, [REC] 2's ending...sets up a sequel. All audience questions are answered on camera, and the franchise's scintillating ambiguity, its amazing sense of imagination, bleeds out. The climax here is obvious, commercially-based, and thus totally deflating. Couple that with the familiar setting, the almost-interchangeable, unappealing SWAT characters and the worn-out milieu of the fast-running zombie/infected person...and all the good stylish invention in visualization is arguably mitigated.

I absolutely need to be clear on this subject. If you're into the idea of [REC] as a continuing horror film franchise, this first sequel is a perfectly serviceable, imaginative, and occasionally-inspired effort. It's a "good" installment with bumps and jumps and some cool curve-balls. I can recommend it on that basis, as an effective 84-minutes of horror.

Yet plainly, this sequel is not the perhaps-one-of-a-kind artistic masterpiece that its predecessor was. It's a nasty little trap, really...I'll be the first to admit it. If [REC] hadn't been so damned- good, this sequel -- with all the inventive touches -- wouldn't seem disappointing in the slightest. It's only in comparison to the fine original that this sequel suffers. Think of the difference in quality between John Carpenter's Halloween (1978) and Halloween 2 (1981), and you start to get the picture. Are both those films enjoyable? Yes. Are both scary at points? Yes. But Part 2 is nonetheless a step down from greatness.

I look at [REC]2 and I see some great visual conceits in search of a workable narrative. I have the distinct feeling that the directors could have applied these trail-blazing techniques to a better story and more interesting characters, given just a little bit of time and patience. In that scenario, perhaps they could have devised a sequel that looms as large in the imagination as [REC] does.

But I suppose the desire to produce a sequel fast -- to strike while the iron was hot -- was too much to bear. I understand two further sequels are simultaneously in development.

Maybe the devil made them do it...

4 comments:

  1. I'm going to take this one in, for sure. Your fantastic review of the original [REC] was so spot on, and the film so horrifyingly original, all of it still lingers. I'm with you that it was one of the best horror films of the last decade. The sequel sounds technically clever (with a good bit of energy behind it), but the helmet cams and "picture-in-a-picture conceit" have been done before. Remember James Cameron used it very effectively in '86 with the Marines attempts to rescue the colonists in ALIENS. Still, I have to see it, even if it's the first step away from the greatness of the original. As usual, your posts and reviews serve as an appreciable starting point for your readers. Thanks very much, John.

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  2. What was the purpose of a sequel? the original ended where it should have...with us on the edges of our seats, and just left us there...hanging...it was great!!
    Sigh, does every horror film have to be made into a lame franchise, consistently churning out bad, less well made, watered down versions for years to come? Only then one day to have the original remade with mostly disasterous results? (yes, there are rare exceptions to the rule. But the remake trend has reached all out mania with the upcoming remake of The Thing which was itself a remake! We are now making remakes of remakes!! We are sitting through Saw film, after Saw film, after Saw film! When movie doesn't sit well with audiences or doesn't make enough money...heck, now they do a re-imaginings or reboots, scrap the originals, and do it over again! The Hulk is a prime example as is the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot.
    Please, film makers world wide...please stop!!! No more bad Nightmares, F13's, Halloweens, Hellraisers, Saws. No more remakes when the original is a wonderful classic...why do you think it's a classic to begin with?
    Where is original thought? Where are the Louis and Clarks of the film industry, ready to move into unexplored areas of film making and story telling? Why has the art of film making been pushed aside or underground in the quest for the almighty dollar? We can churn out all the lithographs of a Picasso we want, it's still just a cheap imitation of the real master piece.
    Ooops...sorry, slipped off my soap box.
    Dreaded Dreams
    Petunia Scareum

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  3. Hello, my friends.

    Le0pard13: You're right about James Cameron and Aliens -- he did the helmet-mounted cameras twenty four years ago! REC 2 makes some interesting use of them, and I would definitely recommend it as a "good movie," but it is definitely that first step down from greatness. Enjoyable, but not much more.

    Trick or Treat Pete:

    I agree with you that REC had a perfect ending. REC 2 tries to re-create the vibe in the same setting. It captures the chaos, but no the inspiration. Some sequels and re-boots are worthwhile, but I think you have to take them on a case-by-case basis. I too would like to see more original fare...in the spirit of the first, amazing, [REC].

    Thank you both for your great comments!

    regards,
    JKM

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  4. Did I miss something? At the end of the first film I did not get the impression that possession was the definite cause of the "infection", only that it was (possibly mistakenly) believed to be.

    I found the confirmation of the whole exorcist spin to the storyline to completely deflate any fears that I carried through from the first film. As soon as the priest's prayers froze the "zombie" in its tracks, I knew I was not going to like the sequel.

    It's probably just me, but I find zombification through viral infection to be far more terrifying than through divine possession.

    I think I'm just going to pretend REC 2 doesn't exist and watch the first one again.

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