Chris: Have you ever heard–rather than seen–a car accident happen? You’re outside and maybe a block away or more and you still pick up the sudden sound of a quick squeal of brakes and then there’s a sickening crunch. It’s hard to describe the sound of that impact. There’s a heaviness to it, a weight. You don’t just hear it, you feel it, even if it’s not close enough to be particularly loud. [REC] has a nerve-jangling scene early where sound plays a key role and it feels a lot like this. It puts us on notice that this movie is not going to be a slow burn.
After the jump, not your older brother’s found footage movie
Grandy: The ad campaign for the US version of [REC] – called Quarantine here – is burned onto my brain. Very specifically, the footage that many thought represented the final shot in the film: Jennifer Carpenter being dragged off into the darkness, from the POV of a dropped camera (are “the dropped camera shot” and “the camera holder switcheroo” found footage tropes now?) The decision to show what turned out to be the final scene of the movie as part of the trailer was strange and stupid. The premise that both movies share is an interesting setup – a news crew following a team of firemen enter a building due to a call and wind up trapped there due to a mysterious quarantine being placed on the premises. Quarantine didn’t really do much from there, as I recall. I remember Jennifer Carpenter being dragged off (thanks, terrible ad campaign), some people turning into zombies, and a little bit of science. I have heard on a number of occasions that [REC] is superior, but I had not seen it until now. Coming in, I have an inkling that there’s more to what’s going on than meets the eye (I managed to avoid fully spoiling myself but I guess I quasi-spoiled myself).
Chris: I knew we were in for a found footage movie here, but I suppose I had the slow build of Blair Witch in my mind somewhere. And then, there’s that scene with the sound. It’s like a quick, anguished yell, and then an utterly sickening thud. A firefighter has fallen–or been thrown–from one of the higher staircase landings in the multi-story apartment flat. What’s crazy is that this is probably a completely unfair jump scare, but it didn’t hit me as a sight jump scare at all; it’s the sound that went straight through my body and made me physically flinch. It feels incredibly real. It’s shocking. It made my senses pop. [REC] is not going to be a slow build at all.
Grandy: Yep, that scene is a great way to kick off the proceedings. [REC] is like a train. It doesn’t start at full speed, but it builds up to it in a methodical fashion. It’s not really surprising that The Blair Witch kicked off a found footage craze. They became to the aughts what slasher movies were to the late 70s and 80s, I think. I can’t think of any instances where found footage wasn’t also accompanied by “shaky cam” usage (though certainly the former can exist in non-found footage movies). Shaky cam sends some people running for their lives, and I understand the feeling. It can make some people sick–and this is a highly subjective point. It can be difficult to follow the action, to the point where one can imagine directors not having any idea how a scene should look and just saying “wave the camera all over the place for two minutes, as fast as you can”. I thought Blair Witch did an amazing job with the found footage aspect. I don’t remember Quarantine’s found footage “quality”, but I think it’s done very well in [REC]. It helps that most of the action takes place in the entrance area, the stairwell, and what is either one apartment or similar apartments on different floors. There are a few other important locations but we visit each once and then return someplace familiar. It’s an easy place to follow the action in, and when the group we are observing is running I always have a good idea where they are running to. Even beyond the “camera control”, I thought [REC] was compact and fairly well done. It’s an intense movie and once the action is really rolling (once the government doctor guy is on the premises, I feel like everything actually ratchets up a notch) there aren’t many opportunities to take a breather.
Chris: Relentless is the word I’d use. The opening is cute and believable when we meet Angela. The entire set up with the firemen is believably affable and benign. When things start to happen though, things rarely let up. Even when the action slows to tell us that the building is surrounded and under a BNC protocol, action still flies: a mother shouts about her daughter getting sicker, the fireman tries to explain that a biological, nuclear, and chemical quarantine is “more usual” than the residents might think, and Angela–no longer doing a cute fluff piece and with her reporter instincts activated–isn’t buying any of it. She knows she’s ground zero for one hell of a story. Through it all we remember the shout and the fireman’s body falling to the floor. Anything can happen at any time in [REC].
I should add that I’m one of those folks that did get a bit woozy from the camera here, at least at times. The camera is much jumpier (or at least seemed so) than in Blair Witch. I think the constant up and down the steps is when it’s most noticeable for me. I should also point out that I am the biggest motion sickness weenie on the planet, so you may not feel it at all. And, finally, I have to say that in spite of occasionally feeling like I wanted a dramamine, I was completely hooked into the action here. Never once did I dream of stopping the film for a respite.
Grandy: I’m fortunate in that I’ve never met a found footage movie where the camera bothered me. You have my sympathies; I expect the swaying while going up and down stairs would snag a lot of people. You know, I actually paused the movie to write a couple of times only to immediately stop and go back to watch. Relentless is a good way to describe it, and while there are genuinely terrifying moments you want to see where it’s all heading (most likely it’s going to jump the tracks, being a horror movie). Outside of the sound the zombies make–chilling and otherworldly–I don’t ever stop to wonder if this is a zombie movie or not until we get to the point where we’re at top speed (I do stop to consider that I can’ recall anyone trying to make zombie calls so distinctive). For me, that point is when Pablo, Manu, and the other security guard chase the little girl up into the old ladies’ apartment. She appears in the bottom of the frame (not quite a jump scare) as Pablo pans the camera around the room at the end of the hall. And she just appears to be sizing everyone up to me. The old lady didn’t attack right away either but for some reason I can’t help but stare at this and start to think “if it’s zombies, they’re doing something unusual with them”. From this scene things really go off the rails.
Chris: That pan shot to the little girl is pretty amazing. [REC] is such a flurry of kinetic energy and people talking and shouting and then suddenly everything stops for a second as the two guys try to coax her and calm her (like that’s going to end well). Co-directors Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza manage to wring absolute dread out of a shot that’s just a little girl standing there. If the visuals weren’t enough, we have to give the creators full marks for the sound work of [REC]. The noises that the zombies make are absolutely chilling, but there’s also the constant chaos of sound in almost every sequence. The residents of the apartment are scared and angry and shout and carry on about the way you’d expect folks to shout and cry and carry on. They create a frantic setting where the constant jumble of activity and growing dread put the audience very much in the moment.
Grandy: Yes, he taps into just the right amount of cacophony when it comes to dealing with the residents. They’re understandably upset and then later terrified, and they cling to the idea that the security guard somehow has answers, or that rescue is somehow still possible. By the scene with the kid, we know these things are no longer true, and we know that rescue isn’t coming. But the survivors know as well, and we see it in everything they do from here forward. My only real complaint about [REC]–and it’s not a big complaint–is that once Angela and Pablo (our lone remaining survivors) reach the penthouse, the attempt by the directors to show us what is going on feels sort of jumbled. It’s the Vatican and it’s possession. But wait, there are enzymes and a possible cure. I don’t follow this very well (and I looked up a plot summary after to make sure I was parsing things correctly). Like I said, it’s a small complaint.
Chris: I’ve already gone on record as saying that in a found footage movie, exposition is the enemy. The ending sequence in the penthouse suite sure seems like exposition, if we’re being technical and truthful about things. Hit me with the slings and arrows for inconsistency then, because here I really didn’t mind if at all. For one thing, the “exposition” is such convoluted Vatican/virus woo woo that it just felt like a jumble of words that was just there to make the room feel even creepier. Call it exposition as set decoration if you like. The other thing that it does is let Angela and Pablo know that what they might’ve hoped was a safe haven is actually the worst place in the entire building to be. Zombie zero is there, somewhere. Lurking.
Grandy: Everything else about the penthouse scene is completely terrifying for me. The religious symbols everywhere, the newspaper clippings, the shoddy state of everything, the darkness that the camera’s light can’t adequately fight off. What the directors do a good job of showing us, tape recordings notwithstanding, is that the mysterious man from Madrid tried to do something and failed. He entire apartment building (at minimum?) is the cost of that failure. Exposition quibble aside, this is a tremendous finale.
Chris: I’m aware of the way [REC] does horror movie nonsense like having the trapdoor to the secret, sealed attic room suddenly fall just when we’re there to see it. Don’t care. I also know when Pablo sticks his camera up into the attic, that we’re going to get a jump scare. Picture me, crouching birdlike in fear on my couch, fingers over my eyes here. I know what’s about to happen. I still nearly did a backflip full gainer off the furniture when the jump scare finally reveals. And the night-vision is a brilliant idea for that final, final sequence in the attic. The emaciated zombie girl is absolutely horrifying. We get numerous up close and personal long looks at it too. Normally, that’s a terrible choice in a movie, but here it completely works. Kudos to Balguera and Plaza for shooting this in that monochromatic night vision lighting. It lets them use what I assume are makeup and practical effects in such a way as to create one of the most terrifying and memorable movie monsters I’ve ever encountered. I think trying to rank the films on our October horror list by greatness would be an exercise in futility, but I can say this with absolute certainty: no movie I’ve watched so far sent my pulse racing as often or for as long as [REC] did.
Grandy: I haven’t rewatched Blair Witch yet. But part of it’s appeal, and the dread it peddles, are different than what we get in [REC]. As you note, there’s really not much time to stop and take anything in during [REC], and it works perfectly for what the film is doing. I think it’s very scary and deserving of the accolades.
(While [REC] is available to rent or purchase from Amazon and iTunes, the only version currently being sold in North America is poorly done English dubbed edition. Seek out the DVD with English subtitles instead.)