REC (2007) / REC 2 (2009)
By the start of the new century, not only were the Asian markets showing Hollywood how solid horror films should be made, but the European markets were dispensing a lesson or two as well. The Devils Backbone (2001), Dog Soldiers (2002), Pan Labyrinth (2006), the appetite for original scare mongering was strong across Europe at the start of the twenty-first century. When it came to horror and thriller movies the big studios of Hollywood were left trailing in the wake of foreign imports and independent productions.
Why America fell behind in the horror race was a bit of mystery. In past eras the big studios were not averse to backing a horror script, risks that often paid off well, the likes of The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), and Alien (1979) earning millions at the box office despite not having any guarantee of success. As the twentieth century came to an end it appeared that the big studios had dropped their support for scare mongering. Pessimistically, a mainstream movie lived and died by its ability to make money and there was no more room for untested product. It was much easier for a studio to remake an established horror film, The Omen (2006), restart a recognized franchise, Halloween (2007), or re-film a reputable Asian success The Grudge (2004).
In the face of these uninspired offerings fright fans remained thankful that individual filmmakers hadn’t jettisoned the lessons taught by Browning, Lewton, Hitchcock, Carpenter, and other past masters. The development of worldwide communications and the advancement of technology had not made life easy for the independent filmmaker though. In an age where the average mobile phone has video recording technology and websites such as YouTube thrive on publishing every wannabe moviemaker’s work, artists of real talent struggle to get heard. The opening of new avenues, partly prompted by the monster success of The Blair Witch Project (1999), flooded the market with camera wielding idealists. It was little wonder Hollywood showed less interest in independent horror movies when every budding Romero and Raimi were pitching their wares. Thankfully, the concept of real talent shining through still held true.
At the turn of the millennium one of the hotbeds of horror was Spain. Despite close comparisons with the widely admired Italian horror output, the countries fright film back catalogue remains largely unexplored outside its borders. Young Spanish writers and directors worked hard to change this at the turn of the century with the likes of El Arte De Morir (aka. The Art of Dying) (2000), Los Otros (aka. The Others) (2001), El Orfanato (aka. The Orphanage) (2007) causing a stir on the international scene. One director working hard to forge a reputation in the genre was University of Barcelona graduate Jaume Balagueró.
Beginning his career as a film journalist and radio DJ, Balagueró moved into movie making with some eye catching short films, Alicia (1994) earning him the Best Short Film award at the Sitges Film Festival. His feature film debut was Los Sin Nombre (aka. The Nameless) (1999), a chilling picture based on the 1981 Ramsey Campbell novel of the same name. This was followed three years later by his English language debut, Darkness (2002) and the well received ghost story Fragile (2005). In between this Balagueró had also made the music documentary OT: La Pelicula (2002) with fellow thriller director Paco Plaza. The pair stayed in touch and in 2006 they discussed a joint venture, writing and directing a new kind of horror film.
In 2004 American director Zack Snyder surprised Hollywood by shooting a superb remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). The movie was brimming with new ideas, one of the most striking being the over-the-final-credits epilogue. Shot as camcorder footage, this small visual diary followed the quartet of survivors as they sailed to the sanctuary of a nearby island. When they arrive they quickly discover that the zombie masses have beaten them to it. It was the first time zombies had been seen via handheld camera footage in mainstream cinema, and all the more terrifying they looked for it, free of the storytelling constraints of a regular cinematic set up.
It took a little while before anyone capitalised on this small but exciting idea. Then in 2006 a small British production appeared, entitled The Zombie Diaries (2006). Directed by Kevin Gates and Michael Bartlett the movie was shot with handheld cameras, documentary style, detailing a zombie epidemic in the British Isles. Split into three chapters, the film detailed the outbreak of the contagion, a month on from the initial outbreak and finally a farm settlement of individuals who managed to survive the chaos. The film received a warm reception from critics and fans when it debuted at the London Fright Fest Film Festival in 2007. What Balagueró and Plaza had in mind for their picture had similar shaky-cam style, but a story with less social commentary and a whole lot more frights.
Written with Luis A. Berdejo, Rec (2007) was unleashed on an unsuspecting Venice International Film Festival audience in August of 2007. The result of Balagueró and Plaza’s work was the cinematic collision between two of the genres most successful thrillers; Rec is the terrifying result of a union between The Blair Witch Project (1999) and 28 Days Later (2002). The film’s presentation style, the handheld footage device, is set up in the opening scenes. We meet presenter Ángela Vidal and her cameraman Pablo who have been tasked with filming an episode of the television show “While You’re Asleep”. In this episode they are spending a night at the local fire station. As the evening wears on the pair realise they are struggling to capture anything remotely exciting. But a call to a nearby apartment block where a woman is trapped in her flat suddenly provides some action; Ángela reminds Pablo to capture everything he can on camera, no matter what.
As the pair follow a small group of police and firemen into the apartment one of the policemen is attacked by the woman that lives there. Downstairs the residents of the apartment block realise that their building has been sealed off by emergency services on the outside. When a health inspector is sent into the building he informs the remaining occupants that a virus has broken out in the building, causing those infected to become aggressive and violent. He also informs them that they cannot leave the building until they have been deemed uninfected. But as the number of infected increase the number of survivors diminishes until only Ángela and Pablo are left. As the two are forced into the top floor penthouse they make a shocking discovery as to the source of the supposed disease.
As with all handheld camera movies, providing you can accept the conceit of why the protagonists are filming such mayhem as opposed to running for their lives, there is a tremendous amount of scares on offer. Ángela’s assertion that “we must tape everything” rings a little hollow when innocent people are having the faces chewed off, but like any horror film a suspension of disbelief is required in order to extract the requisite thrills. Once this plot hurdle has been jumped the frights quickly take hold. The opening scenes of exposition move much quicker than other offerings from the found-footage sub-genre, the aforementioned, the likes of The Blair Witch Project (1999), Cloverfield (2008) and Paranormal Activity (2009) taking much longer to get moving. Balagueró and Plaza shut us in the apartment block pleasingly early. Once trapped in the quarantined building the havoc commences. Rarely has an atmosphere of blind panic been so effectively captured. The residents and emergency staff that are our companions are as much in the dark as we are as to what is happening, the magic of handheld footage’s lack of exposition creating all the tension a viewer could want.
More than any other handheld movie, we are placed in the heart of the unfolding story. The blank canvas that is cameraman Pablo could be anyone, and for the purposes of the movie he is the audience. A first person perspective is maintained throughout; Ángela’s screams of terror are directed at us, the emergency workers demands to stop filming thrown right at the screen. Tied to our sofa we have no control over Pablo’s actions but he is our eyes and our world. When the infected come after him, they come after us, tearing and screeching right at our faces. It is a simple device but effectively deployed by Balagueró and Plaza.
The infected themselves are very close in design to Danny Boyle’s ‘rage’ victims in 28 Days Later (2002), sprinting maniacs with wide blood-red eyes. But whereas Boyle’s traditionally shot film maintained a distance between his monsters and the viewer, Rec does not afford us any such luxury. There are times when the action becomes so frantic and immediate the urge to lean further back from the screen is overwhelming. Balagueró and Plaza's choice to forgo any kind of score or music only heightened the realism, with just the garbled screams of the apartment residents for aural accompaniment.
It seems as if Rec’s hellions have a common origin with those of 28 Days Later to, a viral outbreak. That is until Balagueró and Plaza reveal their final twist. The set up of a quarantined building rings true in age of chemical and biological terrorism. The American anthrax postal scares and Tokyo subway sarin gas attack remain pertinent and it is a new global phobia that Balagueró and Plaza aggravate well. The sheets of hazy plastic and the portentous voice of authority booming in from outside separate the rest of the world from us and Ángela. The residents of the apartment block are abandoned. More than that, if they attempt escape, the will be shot dead, if they remain they will eaten alive. That Balagueró and Plaza worked so hard to play off the fears of viral infection makes the climatic reveal even more astonishing. As Ángela staggers around the top floor penthouse, presented to us in green/black night-vision reminiscent of the final scene in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the plot suddenly draws on a rich history of devilish movie delights. Hints of The Exorcist (1973) make for a fast paced finale as terrifying facts tumble past the audience thick and fast. The downbeat conclusion is the crushing exclamation mark.
As a stand alone movie Rec worked perfectly, a terrifying slice of a bigger story boiled down to its most scare inducing elements. Still, there was a residual suspicion that this was a tale that had more to say. Suspicions were confirmed in 2009 when Balagueró and Plaza combined again to film Rec 2 (2009). The story leaps straight into where the first film left off. We are once again thrown into the infected apartment block this time with a group of Spanish special police officers, armed to the teeth but unaware of the situation they are stepping into. Cameraman Pablo is replaced by officer Rosso and his helmet-cam and the team are accompanied by Dr. Owen, an officer from the Ministry of Health. When the team run into trouble with the infected residents it is revealed that Owen is in fact a priest. His reason for wanting in to the apartment block builds on Rec’s shock finale fantastically well and sets Rec 2 firmly apart Rec.
This change in narrative direction was a masterful choice by Balagueró and Plaza, infusing the demonic possession traits made famous by The Exorcist (1973) with all the best elements of zombie horror. It is a fearsome marriage that works splendidly. Rec 2 encompassed all the best elements of its predecessor, the claustrophobic setting, the sweaty palmed panic, but combined it with a narrative that had much more to say and a plot that showed better progression. Balagueró and Plaza got more creative with presentation, allowing Rosso to access other helmet-cams from his own, momentarily placing the viewer into another set of shoes when the action called for it. The directors even spliced they story in two, switching to a second set of protagonists, a group of nosey teenagers who break into the sealed off apartment block, to keep the plot development fresh.
The confrontations between Owen and the Medeiros girl demon are equally hair-raising and expertly shot by the twin directors despite the technological limitations they placed on themselves. The night-vision view comes into play once again but this time the ability to see in the dark is used to create some other-worldly plot developments that are truly haunting; watch for the secret door reveal and the disappearance of Chief Jefe. Another final plot twist, perhaps easier to anticipate than the previous finale given Ángela’s sudden reappearance, completes the story on a satisfyingly grim note.
What Balagueró and Plaza produced was that ultra rare example of a horror sequel that matched the power and quality of its preceding film. The scary sequel is a project that all too often fails, with only Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Aliens (1986) being able to claim the status of truly successful follow-up. Rec 2 can easily be added to this most exclusive of movie lists. Whilst Rec only received a limited cinematic release, going straight to DVD in the United States, Rec 2 fared much better, impart due to the solid reputation of is predecessor. Wisely, Balagueró and Plaza left their story open for further instalments, doing so without the substandard sequel baiting employed in Paranormal Activity.
Sadly, the directors couldn’t go one step further though and deliver the horror genres first successful trilogy. Plaza went solo for the third film, Rec 3: Genesis (2012) and though it wasn’t a complete failure it was nowhere near the brilliance of the first two instalments. The action is set at a wedding, where a guest who turns up with a dog bite eventually turns and starts nibbling on the in-laws. Moving towards a mix of presentation styles, Plaza utilised shaky-cam, CCTV footage, and traditional third-person cinematic view. It diluted the scares and stretched the believability of some of the set-pieces.
Balagueró got his turn next with Rec 4: Apocalypse (2014). Manuela Velasco returned to the role of Angela, rescued from the apartment block and placed out to sea on a laboratory ship in an effort to contain the spread of the virus. Rather than the slightly schizophrenic third part, Balagueró opted for a traditional presentation throughout. Rec 4, though again not the measure of the first two films, was at least more focused in its story telling. The result was a surprisingly efficient action horror that wrapped up the four film saga nicely.
In a repeat of the reception that greeted The Blair Witch Project (1999) and The Last Broadcast (1999), despite Rec and Rec 2’s critical success an influx of hand-held horror movies once again failed to materialise. The grandfather of zombies George Romeo tried his hand at camcorder presentation with Diary of the Dead (2008). It was a return to form for the series after the disappointingly formulaic Land of the Dead (2005). Despite Romero adding to the small but rich pot of handheld movies, films shot in the style were still few and far between. The blockbuster Cloverfield (2008) failed to live up to the hype of its stunning trailer but was still an effective monster romp, while Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008), Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009), and Daniel Stamm’s The Last Exorcism (2010) provided rare shaky-cam inspired delights.
Despite the quality of Balagueró and Plaza’s original Rec movies John Erick Dowdle, director of the horror “mockumentary” The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), was tasked with a filming an English language remake. Quarantine (2008) dispensed with the subtitle hurdle that supposedly distracted some viewers and also tinkered with the plot, to its detriment; the Medeiros girl was replaced with a member of an apocalyptic cult that stole a virus from a chemical weapons lab, removed the intriguing demonic possession story thread. The finished film, whilst still masquerading as footage captured by a local news cameraman, had a polish that Rec wisely chose to avoid. Quarantine sprinkled in some familiar character actors, recognizable faces that also pulled the viewer out of the “this is actual footage” zone that Rec took such fantastic advantage of. Dowdle also chose a much higher level of gore, no doubt cashing in on the ‘gorenography’ craze that was earning box office dollars at the time. Quarantine II: Terminal (2011) followed three years later, delivering a similarly average blend of half-decent scares, wafer thin characterisation, and predictable plotting.
As horror genres go, the found-footage sub-genre presents an embarrassment of scary riches despite the low number of movies on offer. Making up for lack of quantity with the quality of the horrors on offer, fright fans can only hope that the studio bandwagons stay away from this easy to attempt but difficult to master movie style. It’s mirroring of the raft of news footage that bombards us each day with real-life tales of woe is an effective scare mongering device, but, as the lack of hand-held movies shows, blurry doesn’t automatically mean scary.
See also Rec 3: Genesis (2012) and Rec 4: Apocalypse (2014)