Thursday, March 05, 2015
Cult-Movie Review: REC 4 (2015)
(Beware of spoilers!)
I have long been an unabashed admirer of the REC horror film franchise, which began in 2007. The first film, from director Jaume Balagueró, remains one of the best and most accomplished efforts of the found-footage variety.
I even enjoyed the much-derided third entry in the franchise (2012), which I found a welcome return to 1980s style horror-comedy (think: Evil Dead 2 ).
Sure, REC 3 featured a substantially different tone from the previous two entries, but it was also a lot of fun in its own way. At the very least, it demonstrated that the filmmakers were thinking about new ways to approach their material.
REC 4 (2015), alas, possesses a different problem.
Although I don’t object, overall, to the sequel’s total abandonment of the found-footage format, I do find fault with the general lack of ambition and paucity of energy on display.
Love or hate REC 3, it was sort of ingenious, and definitely surprising. By contrast, REC 4 is a slow-moving, surprise-less sequel that ends the cycle in predictable, unambitious terms. There is no inspiration to be found anywhere here, and the movie trudges slowly along its pre-programmed trajectory until a merely okay end point.
I’m certain some REC fans will welcome the 2015 film with open arms since it continues the story established by the first two films, and brings back a beloved character, Angela (Manuela Velasco) in a significant role.
But one shouldn’t confuse fan-approved touches with quality storytelling.
REC 4 takes forever to get started, doesn’t make the most of an intriguing location (a plague ship at sea), and fails to recognize that, for a time, audience sympathy falls with the mad scientist, Dr. Ricarte (Hector Colome), not the ostensible protagonists.
REC 4 isn’t a horrible embarrassment, but as part of a horror franchise that has reached significant altitudes of greatness, it’s surprisingly predictable, lame and safe.
If this is really the end of the REC series, the franchise culminates with a whimper.
“Gentlemen, it’s game over.”
A group of soldiers enter the infected apartment building in Barcelona with a mission to set mines and blow it up, thus ending any further threat from the zombie virus. One soldier, Guzman (Paco Manzanedo), however, rescues a survivor: former TV host/journalist Angela Vidal (Velasco).
Sometime later, Guzman and Angela, with a few other survivors, find themselves on a plague ship at sea, being tested for signs of infection.
The doctor leading the investigation, Dr. Ricarte (Colome) believes it impossible, in particular, that after six hours in the compromised apartment, Angela was not infected.
Angela’s camera has also been recovered, and it shows the final, horrifying moments of her encounter in a dark attic with Patient Zero, Tristana Medeiros.
Although Angela continues to insist she is free of infection, someone has secretly released an infected monkey from the lab. That monkey makes his way to the mess hall, and attacks a cook.
Before long, the ship is infected, and Dr. Ricarte contemplates activating a self-destruct sequence.
“Must have been something I ate.”
About the only new wrinkle in REC 4’s narrative is that the human source of the zombie virus -- Tristana Medeiros Da Souza -- is now seen to have been the host for a monstrous biological parasite.
So the Devil or demon instigating the zombie plague at the apartment building is not a demon at all, but a sort of a fat, slug-like thing, like a creature from Night of the Creeps (1987) or The Hidden (1987).
And worse, it can be transmitted, mouth-to-mouth, victim-to-victim, so that the virus never truly dies, even when an outbreak is contained.
Instead, this presumably evil parasite just secretly and swiftly moves on in a new carrier, waiting to begin the whole cycle again.
This new wrinkle follows on after the great surprise of the original REC, that the virus is not just a disease or virus, but a religious/demonic possession, in some sense.
The parasite idea of REC 4 may be one twist too far, for some, I suppose.
I wasn’t bothered tremendously by it, but it feels more like a last minute ret-con and (failed) reach for a gimmick than a legitimate continuation of the series.
If a biological organism is actually the source of the disease, then it is, by nature, not demonic, right?
Demons are defined as creatures that are never born of Earth, in physical form. I don’t see exactly how the slug parasite conforms to that description.
To put this matter another way: the REC films are notable for pulling the carpet out from audiences regarding the nature of the virus. The filmmakers make the same attempt here, but I suspect their choice of a slug-parasite (from Ceti Alpha V?) isn’t likely to please many viewers who have stuck with the series.
If the source of the virus is biological, not demonic, as this movie suggests, then how do we explain the events of REC 3, wherein prayer is one weapon against the infected?
More genuinely irritating is the fact that REC 4 makes a crucial error in terms of audience sympathy.
Dr. Ricarte sees video footage of the slug moving from Tristana to Angela, and acts accordingly to end the horrifying infection. But then she escapes, and tries to convince everyone that she is not infected, even though we -- with Ricarte -- have seen the footage showcasing her infection.
Is he not supposed to believe his lying eyes?
Angela proceeds to act brutally and violently to escape (even releasing an infected zombie...), and so we assume that she is being controlled, against her will, by the slug. This is a natural assumption, and we don’t hate Ricarte for taking precautions against the spread of the disease.
In fact, throughout the film, Ricarte is treated like an evil mad scientist, when in fact he is quite reasonable throughout the crisis.
If the virus is released on the ship, for instance, he is ready -- at a moment’s notice -- to self-destruct the vessel. This course of action seems eminently logical, and not evil, to me, given the virulence of the disease, and the stakes for the human race and the planet Earth.
The filmmakers want us to hate Ricarte, and yet through the whole movie I felt he was actually taking reasonable precautions given the severity of the events we witnessed in REC through REC 3.
Is he merciless and obsessive? Yes. Absolutely.
Would I want someone with the fate of the world in his hands to be that cold-hearted?
Ricarte rightly understands that if this infection spreads, there will be no second opportunity to stop it.
He’s a jerk. But he’s right.
Positioning the lead characters -- Angela, Nick and Guzman -- as Ricarte's opponents fails to work as was no doubt intended. If they survive, and one of them is infected, the whole human race dies. So Ricarte is actually the one with the moral/philosophical high-ground. He is thinking of everybody.
Angela Nick and Guzman, by contrast, are thinking of their own skin.
Yet we’re supposed to loath and despise Ricarte as a villainous, monstrous mad scientist.
Fully a half-hour goes by in REC 4 where nothing of significance seems to happen. The movie is slow, but also lacks a sense of “slow burn” build-up. The first act is sluggish, and by the time the movie gallops up to full momentum, it’s almost over. “While You Were Sleeping” is not only the title of Angela’s Spanish TV program, but a description of REC 4’s opening chapters.
That’s not to suggest there aren’t moments here that horror fans will relish.
One absolutely disgusting scene finds a kitchen cook battling an infected monkey over the crew’s chicken lunch. The monkey ends up in the frying pan, and the entire scene is stomach-churning in an awesome way. Late in the film, a boat motor is used as a hand-to-hand weapon against a slew of the infected monkeys, and the scene is bloody as hell and nasty too.
But again, you may feel a little manipulated.
Given how virulent the demon/virus plague is, would you want to use a close-quarters weapon that -- with a high-speed, whirring propeller blade -- splashes blood everywhere in close proximity, including your face?
Yet those who use the weapon do so, open-mouthed and screaming, oblivious, apparently, to the chances of infection. If you'll pardon the phrase (given the bloody chunks, and the presence of a throat-bound parasite...), this is hard to swallow.
Again, REC 4 isn’t bad, in a pinch, for a night’s entertainment. The last half hour is gory and fast paced, and intense enough. But you can pretty much guess who will survive, who will get a comeuppance, and even the film's final sting (which could be considered a joke about the Christian icthys symbol...) is sort of lame.
Given the REC series’ pedigree, this assessment is a disappointment. It’s as though everyone just wanted the series to end, and went through the motions in REC 4 to make that outcome happen. Nothing here is particularly audacious or fresh, or even well-filmed. Nothing here is accomplished with ingenuity, or even adequate energy.
So the REC film franchise started out with sheer, blazing, anarchic brilliance and suspense, and ends with a thoroughly routine, safe chapter that will please only those who are glad to see a returning face, or those who are looking for a night of pure, bloody gore.