[•REC] (2007)

In my recent discussion of the V/H/S series of films, I admitted that I wasn’t the biggest fan of found footage, but did concede that there were several examples of the subgenre that I quite enjoyed, including the one we’re discussing today, which I saw years ago but somehow never got around to reviewing. The 2007 Spanish film [•REC], while not conceptually all that original, succeeds because of its claustrophobic setting, its tight, action-packed runtime, and the somewhat unique explanation for its zombie-esque outbreak narrative. Like many found footage films, it features several instances of shaky cam and chaotic movement that makes it difficult to tell what’s going on, but unlike many inferior examples of the subgenre, the visual confusion here actually enhances the horror rather than detracting from it, plunging the viewer into a hellish situation right alongside the characters. Which is, in theory, what most found footage movies are trying to do, though not many of them reach the exalted heights of [•REC].

Written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza and shot in Barcelona, [•REC] was such a critical and commercial hit (making sixteen times its $2 million budget) that an American remake was inevitable, and in 2008, it arrived in the form of Quarantine, which retained much of the original film’s plot but for some reason changed the inciting cause of the outbreak. I remember seeing Quarantine a while back and thinking it was all right, but as with most of these types of situations, the original is a great deal better.

[•REC] also spawned three sequels: Rec 2 was released in 2009, Rec 3: Genesis came out in 2012, and Rec 4: Apocalypse dropped in 2014. I can’t really comment on any of those because I haven’t seen them, though Rec 2 seemed to get a pretty positive reception from both fans and critics, while reaction to the later two films was more mixed.

At the start of [•REC], we’re introduced to a TV presenter named Ángela Vidal (played by Manuela Velasco), host of a documentary-style show called While You’re Sleeping. The premise of the show, obviously, is to go around and interview people who work nights or are otherwise up to interesting things while everyone else is snoozing away. On this particular night, Ángela and her never-seen cameraman Pablo are doing a piece on firefighters at a Barcelona station. At first, everything seems normal, and in fact, Ángela isn’t sure the firefighter piece is going to be interesting enough for the show. It turns out that when there isn’t a call, the firefighters mainly just kind of sit around, eating or sleeping or what have you, waiting for something to do. Ángela even jokes to one of the men that she almost kinda wishes something would happen so she could go out on a call with them, so the show would be more exciting.

Well, soon enough, she gets her wish. A call comes in from a Barcelona apartment building; it isn’t a fire, and initially, the report doesn’t appear to be particularly serious. It seems that an older woman at the apartment building has fallen and is acting erratically, screaming her head off inside her flat. Several of her neighbors called the police, and a couple of officers are already on the scene. The other residents of the building, cranky and clad in their jammies, are standing around in the lobby when Ángela and Pablo arrive with the firefighters.

The pair of them convince a couple of the firefighters, Álex and Manu, to allow them to follow their movements upstairs while they check on the woman’s well-being. The cops and firefighters grudgingly agree. When they enter the apartment of the old woman, though—whose name is Mrs. Izquierdo—she looks like she’s in bad shape, gesturing aggressively, and with the front of her nightgown covered in blood. When the police officers approach her, she jumps at them and bites one of them in the neck. Amidst the pandemonium, the woman is temporarily subdued, and the wounded officer is carried downstairs to receive medical attention.

When the gang get back down to the lobby, however, they discover that they aren’t allowed to leave the building; cops and military have surrounded the place and locked them in, but won’t tell them why. And then, very suddenly, Álex is thrown over a third-floor railing to his gruesome death on the tiles of the lobby floor. Naturally, everyone freaks out at this, and Ángela and Pablo help a few of the residents as they immediately attempt to find another way out of the building, but everywhere they turn, there are more cops and soldiers, and what’s worse, the building has now been completely covered in plastic sheeting.

From there, [•REC] becomes essentially a zombie movie, only confined to one three-story apartment building with no way to escape. Eventually, a health inspector comes inside, telling the terrified residents that a highly contagious disease has broken out in the building and they’re trying to keep it contained, but nonetheless, the rabies-like infection continues to spread, taking out nearly everyone until Ángela and Pablo are the only ones who remain. The final, frightening sequence has them desperately seeking refuge in the supposedly empty penthouse apartment, but instead discovering the horrible secret of what caused the infection in the first place.

As I mentioned, the plot of [•REC] isn’t anything particularly novel, but its execution is first-rate, keeping the pedal to the metal pretty much the entire time and putting the viewer up close and personal with the unfolding events. It was also a smart move to add in the extra layer of mistrust of the authorities—in other words, the unwillingness of the officials outside to tell anyone trapped in the building what was going on—as an impetus for Ángela and Pablo to want to film everything that was happening, so they could ostensibly prove the cover-up later on. This element of the plot effectively increased the believability, and neatly did away with the common found footage difficulty of explaining why people would keep filming things long after a normal person would have stopped. The power being out in the penthouse suite, additionally, gave Pablo a reason to keep using the camera’s night-vision setting after the regular light on the camera had busted.

The revelation of the cause behind the outbreak, while unusual and admittedly a bit implausible, was still refreshingly different, bringing something of a supernatural-via-science angle not normally explored in zombie-type movies. The fact that the infection was explained in these terms really made this film stand out in a lot of ways, which is why it was sort of mystifying to me that the American remake did away with that intriguing backstory and went with something more standard. Quarantine is still a decent film, but [•REC] was definitely a bit more inventive.

If you’re into found footage, [•REC] is right up there with the best examples of the subgenre, and is at this point required viewing for anyone with a passing interest in the form. It’s a fantastic example of less is more, and of maintaining a high level of scares with only a handful of characters in a dangerous, confined space, and it has one of the creepiest final sequences in recent memory.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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