[REC] ★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Remain calm. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

She was unwell.

For two days she had been running a fever and her throat had been sore. Tonsillitis, her mother said. Whatever that was. Daddy was gone to get medicine to make her feel better. This did not excite her—if she had learned anything in her seven years, it was that the cure was frequently worse than the problem, at least where taste was concerned. Mostly she was worried about Max, her dog. He was at the vet’s office, sick as—well, you know. It was no fun being a sick little girl, and even less fun with no puppy to snuggle. Not to worry, her mother assured her. Soon everything would be just fine....

She was unwell.

Alone in her apartment, the old woman kept company by her cats, a moldering cliché awaiting the grim reaper’s cold hand on her shoulder. If she appeared sad, well, she hadn’t much to be happy about. Her family rarely visited, and as for the neighbors...best not to get her started. She had no time for them. They were loud and obnoxious with their fraternizing and their music and such. She just wanted to sit quietly in her apartment, leaving occasionally to buy groceries and cat food. Was that so much to ask? Only lately she had been feeling a mild flu coming on. Those things can turn so quickly to pneumonia at her age. But she had always been healthy. In a few days, she would be right as rain....

She was unwell.

Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) had long wanted badly to be a real reporter. She was attractive and professional and upbeat—surely she could make it as a television journalist. But here she was, stuck following uninteresting people doing uninteresting things for a program called While You’re Asleep—a program somehow even more uninteresting than its title would suggest. She liked her cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso), well enough. And there were worse jobs, to be sure—she’d covered plenty of them. But she’d give anything for a real story. Alas, tonight she would be following a local fire brigade. Watching the men eat dinner, joke around, sleep. That’s a fireman’s life. Waiting, passing time....

Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] is widely regarded as one of the best entries in the prolific found footage horror subgenre—perhaps even the best. And with good reason, for [REC] is utterly terrifying to a degree achieved by few horror films. Where most entries in the found footage arena repeat the same mistakes over and over again, [REC] deftly avoids them, offering a film to rival any traditional horror movie in terms of pure heart-pounding thrills.

Balagueró and Plaza, along with their co-writer Luiso Berdejo, cleverly pivot away from the typical found footage pitfalls rather than rely on the genre’s inherent “you-are-there” immediacy to compensate for those shortcomings. Instead of a protagonist filming for no apparent reason—a person in a dire situation who would surely have put down his or her smartphone long ago—we are treated to a professional camera crew for a professional television show, their urgency to keep recording explained by Ángela’s desire to capitalize on her big break and let the world know about the desperate situation and seeming governmental abuse unfolding before her. Indeed, [REC] is probably better thought of as a mockumentary than a found footage film, though the former term has largely been consigned to comedies, which [REC]—a few humorous moments notwithstanding—certainly is not.

That professional camera crew gives [REC] its other important advantages over its found footage brethren. Separating the camera operator and the primary protagonist permits us an onscreen presence for whom to root: the immensely likable Ángela. From Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised 1947 experiment The Lady in the Lake to the present, having the audience surrogate remain behind the camera has always been a losing proposition, one that [REC] thankfully eschews. More importantly, rather than being deliberately poorly filmed by some narcissistic ne’er-do-well (an irritating compensatory excuse for what often seems to be laziness and poor cinematographic skill), Pablo knows his job is to frame things cogently. [REC] has its fair share of chaotic, disorienting shaky-cam moments, but mostly Balagueró and Plaza rely on the traditional tools of good horror—sound design, visual composition, offscreen space and darkness—to create tension and terror. And they do so with remarkable efficacy. (The careful framing really shines upon a second viewing, as does the film’s deployment of dark space. Particularly effective are the use of Pablo’s camera light—exposing the center of the frame while leaving the edges shrouded in blackness—and his camera’s infrared function, recalling some of the finest moments of The Silence of the Lambs and The Descent.)

The performances are also crucial to [REC]’s success, in ways both obvious and subtle. While no one is asked to carry an Anthony Perkins or Mia Farrow-like thespian load, all of the actors are wonderful at portraying winning and relatable characters, seemingly decent people trapped in boring jobs and a bad situation when an old woman begins screaming from her apartment and won’t come out. This feature, while compelling in and of itself, also allows Balagueró and Plaza not to waste an hour of their audience’s time trying and failing to develop characters about whom the audience will care, lulling the viewer into a catatonic state. Instead, much like Tobe Hooper in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Balagueró and Plaza can quickly jump in to the horror and, once begun, can keep the accelerator depressed. After the terror starts about fifteen minutes in, [REC] never lets up; even at a fleet seventy-eight minutes, it is an exhausting experience in the best possible way.

Perhaps the film’s only misstep is its attempt to straddle the line between explaining and not explaining the source of its horror. It is clear right away that some sort of infection is spreading through this unfortunate Barcelona apartment building and that the government is brutally enforcing a quarantine to stop its spread. The source and type of infection is wisely left vague—it is flu-like, it is spread through saliva (convenient, since its sufferers like to bite their targets), and its incubation period varies by blood type (making the time from exposure to full transformation unpredictable). What is more, the infected are much more difficult to kill than your average person, or even your average zombie. As with all good horror, information is doled out selectively to maximize the terror. But the finale offers pieces of a further explanation stretching into the supernatural and conspiratorial. Certainly no more information was needed than what had already been supplied—and it is questionable whether the late-breaking tidbits are unnerving or simply befuddling—but the audience can hardly be bothered to care about such details in the moment while preoccupied with chewing off their fingernails.

If one wishes, one can find various subtextual points of interest in [REC]: the frightening notion of a virus that can turn friends into enemies at any moment; the untrustworthiness and callousness of institutions designed to protect us; the existential horror of close-quartered living. But Balagueró and Plaza don’t seem especially interested in profound insights or thematic depth. Their goal is simple: to see how many changes of underwear the viewer can be forced to undergo by the end credits. Whether that goal is a worthwhile one is a case-by-case determination (for me, the answer is a resounding “yes”), but it is a goal that is achieved with flying colors. For seventy-eight minutes, [REC] steadily ratchets up the tension to nearly unbearable levels. As the unsullied dwindle in numbers, their escape routes—already limited in a space defined by its verticality—are extinguished one by one until the only way out is up. Maybe there is a window or a passageway through the attic. Maybe they’ll find an answer up there. Maybe...

She was unwell.

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