One of my least favorite criticisms of the act of criticism is when people say “quit seeing things that aren't really there”, as if film exists in some kind of perfect objective state in which there is a single thing that it means. Films are expressions of the time and place in which they’re made and horror films are no different - the things that scare us are the things that scare us, and the world in which we live drives the choices made by filmmakers, from the writer on up to the editor. But as much as I like to think about the themes that come out of horror films, as expressions of the time and place in which they’re made, sometimes I’ll run across something that doesn't really engage me on that level, and that’s absolutely okay. Sometimes what you get is what seems utterly to be an expertly crafted exercise in fear, and that’s okay too. I’m not saying that you couldn't deconstruct these films, and certainly different people see different things, I’m just saying that sometimes I’ll watch a film and I’m not thinking at all about its themes because I’m sitting there wide-eyed and slack-jawed muttering “ohshitohshitohshitohshit” over and over again. And it’s important to recognize those too.
[REC] is to me first and foremost a masterfully executed, raw-nerve exercise in the rapid escalation of terror, and I’m using escalation in a couple of senses here.
Angela Vidal is a TV news reporter in Barcelona. She hosts a late-night special interest show called While You’re Asleep, which takes a look at what goes on in the city during the small hours, during the graveyard shift. The film opens cold, no credits, with her and Pablo, her cameraman, getting some intro footage for the night’s episode. They’re going to be spending a shift at a firehouse in the city, seeing what it’s like for firefighters, who could be called into action at any moment during the course of their work week. It’s a found-footage approach, with our entire point of view coming from Pablo’s camera.
We follow her into the station house, where she does some typical goofy stuff like putting on their uniform, looking at the trucks, interviewing some of the firefighters, trying to slide down the pole, you know, fluff-piece stuff that will make for good TV. The problem is that a lot of the more interesting stuff is going to be contingent on something bad happening, and as a journalist you both want it to happen so you’ll have something to cover, and don’t want it to happen because you’re a human being with a conscience. Angela will be following two firefighters named Alex and Manu for the rest of the evening, and you can see her getting sort of ancy about not having anything interesting for the episode. She’s finally starting to relax a little and shoot some hoops with the firefighters when a call comes in. A woman is trapped in her apartment and sounds like she’s hurt. Angela and Pablo jump into the truck and away they go.
It’s pretty routine stuff - lots of people gathered in the lobby, worried about the screaming coming from her apartment, but the firefighters handle it professionally, cracking the lock on the door and entering to assist the woman. She’s an older woman, and she looks distraught. Right up to the point where she rushes the security guard who entered with them and tears out a chunk of his throat.
Things start moving fast, with the hectic urgency you’d expect from something being filmed in a war zone. There isn’t time to figure out what’s going on and we go where Pablo goes. We’re just as much an onlooker and just as confused as anyone else. Why did the woman go berserk? Who can tell? Someone is bleeding out and now everyone in the lobby is freaking out and the remaining security guard is trying to get the camera shut off but Angela pushes back - she’s a journalist and this is part of the story. And then something else happens, and someone else is seriously hurt, and it’s becoming very clear that there is something very wrong with the woman upstairs. And it might be infectious. And a medical team has arrived. Not to help the injured, but to seal off the building. Whatever it is, they don’t want it spreading.
From this point, [REC] is a spring that gets wound tighter and tighter as crisis piles on top of crisis. People start dying - or suffering injuries that should be killing them, at least, and there’s no way out. Just when you catch your breath, something else goes wrong, some new fillip of information raises the stakes yet again. The situation within the apartment building isn’t containable, but it’s not escapable either, and Angela and Pablo become determined to document all of it. What started off as a routine emergency call keeps getting bloodier and bloodier and weirder and weirder, and there’s just enough space to put together the pieces yourself, and there’s a nice bit to put together, fed out in little incidental details throughout, all of which pay off in one way or another, although usually before anyone in the film itself is able to correlate them, because they’re all in the middle of a crisis and are too busy dealing with the results to figure out the cause. Once the problems start, it all becomes a headlong rush to an ending as bizarre (but still totally consistent with the overall narrative) as any you could imagine. It is a bad night that never stops getting worse, until it pitches over the edge into nightmare.
Found-footage films, in my opinion, live or die on the degree to which you believe that you’re watching unmediated footage of something that actually happened. When it works, it’s wonderful, and when it doesn't, the artifice is somehow even more evident than in conventional films. One of the advantages to this film from a technical standpoint is that the cameraman is actually a cameraman, and Angela is played by an actual reporter. Neither of them are actors. The premise gives them a reason to be there with a camera, and the motivation to film as much as possible, and having professionals play these roles means their behavior is pretty much what you’d expect from a news crew caught in really bad situation. More than many, it feels like you really are watching something terrible unfold in close to real time.
I also mentioned escalation in a couple of meanings early on, and that’s where [REC]’s next big strength comes in - its use of space and location within a pretty confined area. The majority of the film takes place in a single apartment building, and who is where at any given moment becomes really important as the situation gets riskier and riskier, and the film ends up being as much about movement in confined space as anything else, a feeling heightened by the relatively limited viewpoint offered by a single camera. Interestingly, as things get worse, the survivors are driven further and further up into the building, and as they go up, things get worse and worse and weirder and weirder, culminating in a blind fumble through a long-abandoned penthouse where the awful truth is revealed. The metaphor usually has us descending into danger, but here the protagonists climb, driven on by the threats below. As the situation escalates, so do the characters, all pretense of normalcy stripped away, ultimately along with things like light and space. It ends in darkness, lit only by the sick green of infrared, giving the whole thing the feeling of a normal night that climbs in tension until it enters the realm of madness, of things that shouldn’t be. It’s like The Descent run in reverse, reaching for oblivion.
Unavailable on Netflix (Available on DVD)