There was once a time you could view movies as a simple spectator, cheering or jeering the actors as they did their thing on the big screen. The trend as of late has turned away from this idea – filmmakers want to put the viewer in on the action, or as close to it as humanly possible. I mean, think about it - what would be the ultimate movie-going experience? Answer: to be an active part of the film itself; to feel like you are in the movie. Hence, the 3D experience (thought to be abandoned for good with the 80’s) is making a comeback, backed by new technology that promises you’ll feel every special effect up close and personal. Another phenomenon is the so-called ‘queasy-cam’, where the idea is to shake the camera when the action gets heated, mimicking a feeling of flying along right beside the hero/heroine. And nowhere is this more exploited than the horror genre (The Blair Witch Project being the most accessible example), where budget is often key.
[rec], a film that is often times scary as hell, uses this cinema-verité style, with enough shaky camerawork to send even the most hardened movie-goer into painful migraines. Okay, so I am stretching it a bit, but you get the point. It’s the first thing you’ll notice about the film, so I wanted to get it out of the way right away.
But, having started from that negative standpoint, I’ll back up a bit and say that out of all the similar films I’ve seen, [rec] truly stands in a class of its own. It is a subtle movie – not so much a mile-a-minute ride as much as one that builds from a simple, quiet premise into a frenzy of blood and action by the time the finale rolls around. It also has scenes that are very real, with characters that you might yourself meet on the street on any given day reacting to situations well beyond their comprehension.
The film is captured from the lens of a cameraman covering the night shift of a group of firemen. Along with a perky female reporter, the two go through the rounds of interviewing the men and hanging out with them in the station as they goof around and wait for the next call. When a call does eventually come in, the reporter insists on joining them for the ride which the firemen gladly oblige. When she insists on joining them as they enter the building in question, however, they are less cordial. But she will not take no for an answer.
And so they enter the apartment building and we learn that a tenant heard screams from a neighbouring flat and called 911. When there is no answer at the neighbour’s door, the firemen force their way in. What they find inside is beyond anything their training would have prepared them for. When they try to escape, they find all the doors blocked and the building sealed and quarantined. Stuck inside, the cameraman films the night as terror unfolds around them.
Let me reiterate and say that there are subtle moments in [rec] that are truly frightening – more so than any of the shaky-cam scenes that make up the bulk of the film. For instance, in those first moments where the group enter the apartment, some real tension is created. As a viewer we know damn well something evil lies beyond, but rather than a jump-out-of-your-seat reveal, the camera pans in the near-darkness and comes to rest quietly on a bloodied woman. She just stands there, looming in the darkness, not responding to the firemen’s queries, her ample chest heaving beneath her spackled nightgown. It’s the build-up that’s frightening; that makes scary films scary, and the directors were wise to take their time and toy a little with our pre-conceptions.
The film’s success stems not only from the tension, but from some really great and realistic performances, especially from the men and women we meet along the way. Even the bulk of the reactions are honest and genuine - often in the horror genre this is where the plot holes reside, but not so much here, as the characters make mostly realistic choices.
It’s a Spanish film, so be sure to watch it in its original language with English subtitles. It adds ten-fold to the realism.
However, [rec] is by no means perfect. The story itself is ages old – dating as far back as Romero’s Night of the Living Dead...but that’s all that I will give away about the plot (and I’ll be honest – [rec] beats the pants off Romero’s similar ‘faux-realism’ effort, Diary of the Dead). As such, it’s difficult to give it a high rating, other than to say that it does the best it can with the source material. Also, the shakiness of the camera did eventually get to me – especially when there is a bunch of running or screaming going on. Although, in the directors’ defence, there were some great moments where the cameraman actually puts down the camera to help fend off some attackers or to help block a door or whatever, that are extremely well-placed. While I questioned the whole idea that the cameraman would actually keep filming (would you?), these scenes are priceless breaks from the queasy-cam effects and a smart directoral choice.
Here in North America I’ve been waiting for this film for quite some time – so my expectations going in might have been high. And, after watching it I wasn’t as impressed as I had thought I’d be, given the praise heaped on it. But, after sleeping on it, I find my mind going back to some of the scenes, playing them over in my head. Actually, I might go watch it again right now. I’ll just have to have my aspirin handy this time around.