“We have to tape everything, Pablo.”
[REC] is the best found footage movie ever made, and one of the best horror movies of this century. Hell, any century. It’s that good, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the rare horror movie that actually gets me nervous and sitting on the edge of my seat, even though I’ve seen it multiple times and know exactly what’s coming.
I saw the US remake, Quarantine, first – and if you’re going to watch both, I think that’s the way to do it. Quarantine is almost a shot-for-shot remake, so watching it after [REC] is really a recipe for disappointment. (I’ve avoided Let Me In for the same reason – I loved Let the Right One In and feel like I’ll be disproportionally hard on the remake.) If you’re only going to see one of them, however, watch [REC]. The Dowdle Brothers’ Quarantine is actually a pretty good film, but it has two problems that [REC] does not – first, it uses recognizable actors, which is always a bit of a kiss of death in a film that’s trading on being ‘realistic,’ and second, the poster (and cover of the DVD) is literally the last shot of the movie. There are spoilers and then there are big middle fingers to the viewer and Quarantine‘s cover crosses the line for me.
I’ve seen [REC]2 a couple of times and I like it a lot – it’s one of those rare sequels that’s just as worth viewing as the original – but not as much as the first film. The need to expand and explain always reduces the horror a bit, for me anyway. I liked Michael Myers better when he was The Shape, not Laurie Strode’s older brother. [REC]2’s explanations and expansion are horrifying in their own way, but I preferred the ambiguity and inferences of the original. [REC]3: Genesis and [REC]4: Apocalypse I’ve only seen once apiece, but I remember being let down by both (though less by 4, which at least brought back the main character from the original film.)
NOTE: This film is in Spanish with subtitles, so if that’s not your thing you might want to check out Quarantine instead.
This year I finally splurged on the [REC] Collection four-film box set from Shout Factory. Honestly, if I could buy just the first two films I probably would have done that long ago. That being said, I’m actually looking forward to revisiting the whole series. Maybe April is gonna be [REC] month here at Fear Flashback!
The Blu-ray includes a bunch of extras (something sorely missing from my old DVD release). There’s a commentary track with directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, a documentary, interviews, deleted scenes and more. I wasn’t sure how good it would look on Blu-ray, given that the film was shot on hand-held digital cameras back in 2007, but the picture quality is a nice surprise. This is well worth the pick-up if you’ve got the scratch (there’s a Region B release of just the first film from Arrow, if you’re in that region).
For streaming options, [REC] is free for subs on Fubo, DirectTV, AMC+ and PLEX as well as free with ads on Crackle. You can also rent or purchase at most of the usual online vendors.
The setup to justify the found footage aspect of [REC] is that it’s being shot by the crew of a local TV station, producing a segment for a show called While You’re Sleeping. It’s just two people, Angela (Manuela Velasco), the reporter, and Pablo (Pablo Rosso), her cameraman. The segment is about life at a local fire station and Angela and Pablo ride along with two firemen – Manu and Alex (Ferrán Terraza and David Vert) – to a call about a woman trapped in her apartment.
The genius bit of casting here is that Manuela Velasco was actually a TV personality in Spain. Not that it has the same effect for me, but it must have added an additional layer of verisimilitude when it was released in Spain. Even without that cultural knowledge, Velasco is very believable in her role and the ‘behind-the-scenes’ sequences – as she and her cameraman look for interesting shots and worry about which side to stand on in interviews – really give the proceedings that frisson of realism you hope for in a found footage film. (That they shot these opening scenes in an actual, working fire station helps as well.)
At the apartment building the crew and the firefighters join two cops who were called to the disturbance. Investigating the apartment, they find an older woman in nightclothes who is also covered in blood. She sways and mutters and then, without warning, attacks one of the cops – biting him severely. Alex restrains the woman while everyone else hurries downstairs to try and get the cop outside to an ambulance. Pushing through the group of tenants that are gathered in the lobby they quickly find that the building is being sealed off by the authorities.
I love the location, by the way. The winding staircase, the huge doors, the long, narrow halls, the tall windows. I love the mix of residences and businesses. It’s just such a cool location. You only get to see it in bits and pieces, which has the effect of making it feel like a maze, like you’re never sure where exactly you are. The “quarantine” procedures – sheets of semi-opaque plastic over the windows and bright search lights – exacerbate this sense of dislocation. (And are a great, low-budget way of handling the need to project the idea that the building is isolated by numerous soldiers and other authorities – you only have to throw a few shadows on the plastic and have a loudspeaker shouting orders.)
People are just starting to freak out about being sealed in, peppering the uninjured cop, Sergio (Jorge-Yaman Serrano) with questions he can’t answer, when a body falls through the stairwell into the lobby. It’s Alex, who is both bitten and severely injured from the fall. This moment is pretty startling, in some ways even worse than the attack by the woman upstairs, because it’s just so unexpected. People are shouting, arguing and then – *BAM* – Alex falls to the floor in the background. Jumped the hell out of me the first time. It still jolts, even when you know it’s coming. And you immediately wonder just what the hell happened upstairs.
The film crew, Manu, and Sergio rush upstairs where they’re attacked by the woman and the policeman is forced to shoot her. This sequence is frenetic and frightening and the sound of the gunshot in the narrow space is just deafening, like an explosion. The sound editing in general is top-notch throughout the whole film.
It transpires that there’s some kind of infection in the building, and the authorities have quarantined the entire place until they figure out what to do. Eventually they send in an inspector in hazmat equipment who examines the wounded – Alex and the first policeman. The authorities throughout the film are annoyed and distrustful of the camera crew and Angela and Pablo are, for their part, kind of intrusive. All in the name of journalism, of course. Thankfully not a lot of time is spent defending their right to film or waxing over some journalism award. They just go about their business, placing themselves where the action is when things go down and conducting interviews when things are (momentarily) quiet. These let us get snippets of the other characters as well pieces of information that begin to sketch out the start, if not the cause, of the outbreak. (Here again the choice of having a TV film crew be the POV works well, with great moments in those interviews that would be lost or feel forced in the standard found footage format.)
When things start to go bad (well, worse), they go bad very fast. There’s some handwavium explanation about the infection going slower or faster depending on your blood type, but after a certain point it appears that everyone has the “infected and attacking in 30 seconds” blood type. It didn’t really bother me during the film, though – in fact, it ratchets the tension up significantly. Here is where the movie moves into a more familiar “zombie attack” mode ala 28 Days Later (as with that movie the monsters are ‘infected,’ but come on). It never becomes comfortable, despite the familiarity, though – and this part of the film moves fairly quickly.
One of my favorite sequences actually requires the speedy infection: when Pablo, Angela, and Manu have to descend to the lobby to find the address (by checking mailboxes) of the man who has the keys to the building, they pass the chewed body of a woman. This is a mother who was bit earlier (by her own infected daughter) and was handcuffed to the staircase railing as a precaution. When a group of infected broke into the lobby everyone ran, but she was left behind and attacked and partially eaten. The group finds the mailbox and turns back to the stairs – and the woman is standing there, waiting. It’s only been a few moments, but the jump is so much fun I don’t care.
With multiple people infected (there’s a great shot down the spiraling staircase with multiple screaming, bloody infected racing up towards them) Pablo and Angela end up having to take refuge in the penthouse, only to find that it is the source of the contagion. The apartment seems to have been set up by an agent of the Vatican who was researching a case of demonic possession. Saying much more would give things away, but it’s a very different ending than Quarantine – at least as far as the foundations of the infection go. I go back and forth as to which version I prefer – but this time around [REC]‘s suggested back story won out. It’s damn creepy (although I find Quarantine‘s to be more plausible – and frightening in its own way because of that). I do find that the more complete explanation from [REC]2 has insinuated itself into my understanding of things here, which I’m a little sad about. I can no longer remember my original fevered imaginings, but I remember it being more nebulous and terrifying. Ah well.
I’m very happy with the quality of the found footage aspect. Yeah, things are perhaps a bit more centered and steady than might be realistic if the camera was held by an amateur, but Pablo is a professional cameraman, so it’s easy to buy in. And it’s not like that all the time – there are points where the camera is turned on and not pointing at anything, there are moments of shaky running cam that are so bad I almost got nausea. Night vision is used sparingly and to great effect and only when they finally lose the use of the main spotlight. (Which is actually smashed instead of falling prey to ‘plot-demanded mechanical difficulties.’) It satisfies my biggest requirement for a found footage film – that it feels like something that was shot while it actually happened.
The last ten minutes or so are fantastic – edge-of-your-seat tense. I’ve seen it several times and I still caught myself holding my breath at certain points.
The Bottom Line
[REC] is a terrific horror movie and the absolute peak of the found footage genre. There are a few pieces of plot that don’t make a lot of sense (at least not until the sequel) and some of the camerawork is, perhaps, a little too good, but it works so well as a whole that I don’t really mind.