Sony // 2007 // 78 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // July 14th, 2009
We had to wait through theatrical and DVD releases of the abysmal Quarantine, but the original film that disaster was remade from has finally received a US release. It's about time, because [REC] is one of the best horror films of the decade.
For her latest entry in her magazine news program While You Were Sleeping, Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco, Law of Desire) takes her cameraman to a local fire station where they'll follow them on the job. Late at night, they get a call that a woman is trapped in her apartment. When they get there, they find out that things are much worse: they are the ones trapped, and there is no escape from the horror inside that building.
I have, in general, rejected the first-person horror genre that has grown from the unlikely success of The Blair Witch Project. Much as I dislike that film, it injected a fairly unique stylistic element into horror that was welcome after years of slashers and scream queens. Most of the resulting films are nauseating in their execution; any semblance of a story is forsaken for lame attempts at banal realism. Fortunately, directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza have reached the pinnacle, taking the technique from barely tolerable to a near-glorious melding of style and plot.
In all of these films, we look through the eyes of the person running the camera. Ordinarily, these are amateur filmmakers or some jerk recording his brother's party, which means that we have somebody working a camera who doesn't really know how to use it. The small change in [REC] makes all the difference. By virtue of the premise that a television network produces this program, our cameraman is a professional. Pablo, who we never see, knows how to frame a shot, how to zoom in to focus on something, and most importantly, how to hold the stupid camera steady. Even though he has entered this awful situation, he is still paid to do a job and, like Angela who still feels the need to continue reporting, his journalistic integrity demands a clear document of this tragedy. It may seem stupid to even say this, but it's important to be able to see what's going on in a movie; Balagueró and Plaza clearly understand this, where some of their predecessors do not. As an additional touch, our main character is the reporter, not the cameraman, who stays silent nearly the whole time. This way, we can still view the action through his eyes without having to invest in a character that we never see; Angela serves this purpose. In taking these steps, the directors have created a film with the immediacy of a documentary its predecessors' home video feel cannot touch.
Not just the best of this horror sub-genre, [REC] is horror filmmaking at its finest. The directors have incorporated the style with old-school genre conventions -- old dark house films, werewolves, and zombies in equal measure -- to great effect. The halls and staircases are thin and claustrophobic; behind every closed door is the potential for more terror. The building is tight as it stands but, as the characters are transformed into these monsters, those remaining find their path even more constricted. By the time there we come down to our final survivors, there is absolutely no place for them to run any longer; attacks come from everywhere. The monsters themselves are easily classified as zombies, but they have as much to do with lycans as undead freaks. These poor bastards aren't dead; they're reduced to their most animalistic, aggressive form, making them far scarier and more dangerous than something you can just pop in the head a couple of times.
The other aspect that sets [REC] above its modern counterparts is the idea of likable characters, something American horror especially has thrown to the curb. Angela is immediately relatable, because she so unbelievably cute, and her over-the-top perkiness is exactly right for the role. When things get bad in the apartment, though, she doesn't turn into the sniveling idiot that Jennifer Carpenter's character in Quarantine did. There is a point at which Angela finally breaks down, but because this comes after a seeming eternity of terror. Her emotional explosion (which, incidentally, isn't really even on camera) is not only understandable, it is necessary for the development of the character. The supporting cast, while none of them get more than a brief moment onscreen, is also quite likeable. One thing that really bugged me about the remake was the continued insistence in American horror to throw sex jokes around. This belongs in Revenge of the Nerds; not in horror. [REC], luckily, doesn't go down this route. In fact, the firefighters actually treat Angela with some respect and don't just try to show her their extra-long hoses.
I haven't addressed, however, the most important question regarding a horror film: is it scary? The answer is an overwhelming yes. On top of the brilliant atmosphere created in this film, there are at least three effective jump-scares and the part with young Jennifer, that poor girl, is absolutely horrific. [REC] is the kind of horror that doesn't play fair, and nor should it. A horror film thrives if it can manipulate its audience into going to the darker reaches of the mind. Not only does [REC] take you there, it leaves you there.
I'm happy that Sony has finally released [REC] to American audiences, but they've already done so much to undermine the film, I can hardly thank them. In any case, they have done a fair job with the disc. The picture is consistent with the look and feel of the film, which means its something of a gritty, imperfect image, though not nearly so much as its counterparts. It has the look of a high-budget documentary, exactly as it should. The 5.1 surround is good and loud, with clear dialog and great separation in the channels. The camera sometimes malfunctions in the film, so there is some deviance in the sound but, again, this is consistent with what happens in the film. The only extra is a fairly brief making-of featurette, mostly in the form of an interview with the directors, who detail their inspirations and intentions for the film. They could have done more, but at least we can watch it.
[REC] is the pinnacle of first-person horror and is a near-perfect entry in the genre. All of you horror fans out there, you owe it to yourselves to see this movie.
What are you waiting for? Go see it. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 78 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R