Filming a late-night piece focusing on a local fire department, TV reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her trusty cameraman Pablo get far more than they bargained for after they follow the team of firefighters to a block of apartments in the centre of Barcelona, supposedly to help an elderly resident trapped within her flat. When they arrive they find that police are already on the scene and it’s from this point on that their nightmare begins, as they discover that the elderly resident may be the carrier of some form of super-contagion that turns those who contract it into rabid, zombie-like murderers, something which finds them quarantined inside the building by the authorities, with a total blanket cut-off of communication and information from the outside world. Ángela’s camera continues to roll, filming one ghastly event after another as the increasingly panic-stricken and helpless people trapped inside the building fight for their survival.
I will go on record (and no, that’s not a pun referring to the film’s title) and say openly that I dislike The Blair Witch Project (1999), I’ve had scarier bowel movements. Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s a great idea at its heart, using handheld cameras to take the documentary/found footage approach one step further (probably having its origins in Cannibal Holocaust) and really immersing the viewer in the thick of the action, breaking down the comfortable distance between what is traditionally perceived in the audience’s mind as “just a movie” and that which is more familiarly thought to be “real”, something that years of watching cinema and genuine documentaries have ingrained in us.
Why mention my position on The Blair Witch Project? Because it’s the one that most people will immediately associate with this style of film, it has just as many fans as it does detractors, but in either case it’s likely that it will be used as the yardstick by which other movies that employ the same handheld/shakycam gimmick will be measured. So it was with a kind of reticence I went to see [REC], thinking I would be likewise underwhelmed by the experience.
How wrong I was, I absolutely loved it. For one thing, I felt this was the first time that this type of movie got the shakycam balance pitch perfect, giving the viewer plenty to see but also providing that breakneck, whirlwind, realtime immediacy. I also think it’s helped by the fact that the set-up really sells it and makes it believable, reconciling the situation and the handheld style with a naturalness that draws you in, playing upon audience familiarity and the comfort associated with TV viewing (it’s in our homes; it’s where we feel “safe” watching). There are plenty of twists and turns and some well-placed “jump” scares that will keep you on the edge of your seat, and the directors have an impressive sense of pacing, the frantic action being interspersed well with lulls that allow the viewer to take a breath, but not at the expense of the tension. If anything, these slower moments give some character development which make the audience care more and ultimately serves to increase the tension when things go straight to hell. Using the block of apartments as the backdrop for the action is also shrewd in this sense (perhaps taking a cue from Cronenberg’s Shivers), as it’s very claustrophobic and dark, perfectly conveying that urgent feeling of being trapped and desperate, especially since the “zombies” share the rabid, brutal, fast-moving characteristics of the “infected” in Danny Boyle‘s 28 Days Later.
One last personal concern with these kind of films is their ability to withstand repeat viewings, and having seen this now perhaps three or four times I still find it effective. Even when the “jump” moments have lost their initial surprise, there’s plenty to watch just as a decent film – the characters are well observed and there’s lots of little things to pick up on many of them which stops them being generic, and it’s not all conveyed through heavyhanded exposition, a lot of it comes through the actors (especially Manuela Velasco in the lead, who is totally convincing as the reporter). Other things that set it apart, for instance, are the internal conflicts and prejudices within the community who live in the building and as the tension rises it’s interesting to see how these come to the fore as a study of urban civilisation under pressure, and the whole way the authorities deal with the situation has some resonance to it (for example, bringing to mind the response of the US authorities’ to the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina in 2005).
Forget the needless, almost shot-for-shot US remake Quarantine (2008) and grab a hold of the original, which is a well-made, highly recommended watch. I for one am looking forward to seeing what these filmmakers do from this point on, including the anticipated sequel to [REC] which should soon be released.
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