Mark Gatiss had a short three part TV documentary recently as he explored his personal view on the ‘History of Horror’, in which he talks about the three Golden Ages of horror; the 1930’s Universal monsters, the 1950’s Hammer horror and the 1970’s visceral carnage. Towards the end of the series he touches upon where horror is heading now, with more ‘realistic’ portrayals and seeming unending girth of mutilation and torture being touted as entertainment. Of course that kind of horror has been around for a while, many of the ‘banned video nasties’ contain elements of torture and mutilation and the Japanese have been making torture and rape films for years, but it’s only relatively recently that it’s found its way into the mainstream; some would argue that it still hasn’t, nor ever will, garner that respectability of a ‘Golden Age’, it is simply too dirty. There is something to be said though of a sub-genre that refuses to, ummm, die...
Tracing the history and development of the torture horror is beyond this review, but it’s safe to say that the sub-genre has been gathering momentum for some years now, with many sighting SAW (2004) as particularly influential, and so film-makers are constantly struggling to find that ‘next best thing’, the next Saw. 2008 saw the release of Quarantine, a relatively small budget horror, in the zombie vein, that used first person camera work, in the same way as Blair Witch (1999) did to try and place the audience ‘in’ the film. It worked pretty well, but it seemed, to me at least, that something was missing, and that something was the ‘magic’, for it was a remake of tonight’s feature [Rec], and as such only really serves as a stepping stone to the original, which, as we shall see, is an inspiration.
Ángela Vidal is the host of a light night reality TV show called ‘While you Sleep’ and this week she is in a fire station, shadowing the typical work pattern of the night shift. It’s all pretty mundane material until a callout brings her and the fire-crew to an apartment building where an old lady is trapped in one of the rooms. However, things take a very sinister turn when the old lady attacks a policeman already on the scene and when the building is sealed off from the outside by the Health Authority tensions rise to fever pitch as one by one the inhabitants, after becoming infected with a mysterious illness, suddenly and viciously attack anyone around them. Is it possible for any one trapped inside to escape unscathed?
The basic plot is actually fairly ordinary and uses the trapped in a house idea made so popular in the seventies horror. But where directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza really score is by ramping up the tempo, gore, tension and the clever trick of using the camera as its own character. They successfully capture the claustrophobia of being trapped with a horror you cannot escape from, and never once let up on the tension for a minute. Once you get into the apartment block, the camera, the audience, is also trapped! The idea of using the film as a point of view is not an original one, Blair Witch is probably the most famous, but Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust successfully combined the same idea, as well as the ‘film within a film’ idea to break the line between fiction and reality. Blair Witch rode spectacularly well on the back of its incredible advertising campaign and use of the internet, the film itself was something of a letdown. Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez promoted the film as the only surviving record of the doomed group, whereas Balagueró and Plaza in keeping with that idea actually promote the camera as part of the film, a character unto itself, recording what’s happening in real time, in essence placing the audience as part of the film. It works with amazing ferocity. Seen any of the reality TV shows ‘Cops’ and the like, frantic camera work at times to capture the insanity that is going on, that is what goes on here, only turned up to eleven! Whether or not this device works with you is another story – even among my fellow reviewers there are some that find this type of story-telling pulls you out of the frame due to the inconsistent camera work, or novelty. That point is valid, however, of all these type of films, including Cloverfield, [Rec] stands alone proud as a clear winner in sheer dynamic ferocity.
The cast is made up of largely unknown, to a cinematic audience, actors, chosen for their ability to improvise around the script to give a truly authentic performance. This is particularly well seen during the ‘interviews’ filmed for the TV show to illustrate what is going on and to get the reactions of everyone in the building - see this all the time on the news. With a combination of half remembered lines and showing off to the camera, each and every actor comes across as a believable character, the old couple arguing with themselves, the elderly racist preening himself, the sick child and protective mother. Of course all this is made even better by the casting of Manuela Velasco in the title role of the TV presenter. Her ‘real’ job is TV presenting, so this part was no real stretch for her and she adds an immense amount of authenticity to the part, whether it is whispering to the cameraman to cut the scene if it’s going badly, or fluffing her lines, or her interview technique - this girl really knows her stuff. Watch her protect the camera when the police try numerous times to stop her filming. See also the numerous times cast members look at the camera sometimes with distain, sometimes with admiration and her reactions to it.
And what of the threat? Or is that threats? Balagueró and Plaza go the Romero route of never fully explaining why their horror is happening, but scant clues are given to heighten the sense of unease and mystery. We see how the ‘infection’ spreads, through the saliva, we are told, as they bite their way through the assembly, but as for why, the tape recording in the penthouse barely hints at it. These ‘monsters’ are merely an infected us, the first one we see, the old lady who was thought trapped in her room is a vision of horror, in her underwear, drenched in blood and vicious with her teeth. Successive victims become as deranged after they have been munched on and killed. These are, then, clearly zombies of one class – the ‘you can’t kill what’s dead’ class, so amply demonstrated by zombies getting up and walking off once shot dead. And if that wasn’t horrible enough, the directors then add on a further threat of trapping anyone considered infected in the building. In an absolute case of ‘health and safety gone mad’ the authorities choose to barricade the building to prevent any spread of the infection. Whether this would happen in the real world is debatable, if such a contagion was discovered, sealing a building with potential victims and infected does seem a little extreme – quarantine procedures can be that harsh, just look out our own absurd rabies laws – but one thing cannot be denied, is that in taking a slightly over the top stance to ‘safety’, those left inside the building are in mortal peril, and we, in the form of the camera, are right there with them. Clues are dished out as infrequently as lottery numbers but at each successive number one thing is for certain – the zombies gain in number.
Balagueró and Plaza never let up the tension, not for a minute, once the body count starts to stack up so too does the claustrophobia. Characters that you might think are ‘safe’ are dispatched with alarming regularity, only to return as a salivating beasts intent on having your neck for breakfast. It does, perhaps, go one step too far once our intrepid reporter locks herself in the penthouse. Yes this intensifies the mystery but the realisation of yet another beast, this time already locked up, does stretch to breaking point what is already a stretched film. However, there is no denying the impact this film has on first viewing, it is powerful and disturbing and streaks ahead of the American remake – amazing since that film is a near shot by shot re-shoot yet it just doesn’t have that European edge that makes [Rec] so absorbing and more importantly it is actually a scary film – even to this jaded reviewer.
Seldom does a film live up to its hype, [Rec] does. Recommended.