For all its new tech novelty, the "found footage" genre of horror films has been fairly hit or miss. While many still hold a terror torch for a certain Blair Witch, the concept has been co-opted (and some feel, corrupted) by such incomplete works as Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, and The Poughkeepsie Tapes. In fact, the inventive narrative approach went from special to specious so fast that it's amazing when any filmmaker - mainstream or independent - dares to try and actually make it work. That's why the trio of Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza, and Pablo Rosso deserve so much credit. With some hefty scary movie qualifications in their native Spain, they created a first person POV ride through an eerie apartment building teaming with untapped secrets - and some shocking discoveries. If getting there is half the battle, [REC] wins this fear factor war handily. This is one great fright flick.
Angela Vidal is a reporter for a local Spanish TV station. Tonight, she's on location doing another of her insightful human interest segments - "While You're Asleep". Her intention is to follow a group of firefighters as they go about their routine. While she hopes for an alarm, she makes the best of a rather boring situation. Without warning, the company is called to a local apartment building. Seems an old woman was heard screaming - that is, before she went silent. As they enter, everyone notices the anxious nature of the other tenants. Sure enough, there is reason to be concerned. The lady isn't dead. As a matter of fact, she may be something much, much worse. Soon, the government is quarantining the building, trapping Angela, her cameraman, and several unsuspecting victims inside. They all appear to be the potential targets of a biological plague that may have a more suspicious, supernatural source.
Well it's about got-damn time! After sitting out in the foreign horror film firmament for nearly a year, rumored to be released and then held back for some unknown reason, Region 1 is finally getting its grubby genre mitts on this amazing Spanish spook show and trust this dyed in the wool fright fan, it was well worth the wait. The befuddled Blair Witch has nothing on this undeniably effective creep show, a non-stop onslaught of suspense and splatter. While the American remake Quarantine made the mistake of amplifying the characterization for the sake of some negligible star power, but there's none of those Tinsel Town frills found here. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, along with equally important input from cinematographer Pablo Rosso, do the "real time" thing as authentically as possible, leaving little room for personality quirks, saccharine sentiment, or possible romance. We are simply thrust into a situation we no little about, start seeing things that set off nightmare triggers in our brains, and prepare to be jolted out of our skins for 80 amazing minutes. And then it gets worse...much, much worse.
[REC] is the very definition of dread, a terrifying journey into an absolute abyss of unholy horror. It works on your nerves, shreds your sense of security, and has you looking reluctantly behind your back and at your own attic crawlspace. While some might consider this a "zombie" film, it really falls into the category of "aggressive psychosis" cinema, the best example being Danny Boyle's original 28 Days Later. The monsters here are mere humans, but imbued with a bloodlust that's disturbing to witness. This is especially true toward the middle section, when a health inspector arrives to spread some particularly bad news. While the notion of being trapped with a bunch of unpredictable murderers may seem unsettling, the minute we see how hopeless the situation is, apprehensive survival instincts immediately come to the fore. Then Balagueró and Plaza remove any hope of winning. As our guide through this heinous hell on Earth, Manuela Velasco is pitch perfect as Angela Vidal. Never overly heroic, but keen to get her story, this is one on-air talent who balances her personal and professional needs flawlessly.
The rest of the cast is good as well, but they pale in comparison to the top notch special effects offered. While definitely a low budget offering [REC] 's team of make-up artists deliver a particularly disturbing visual journey. Our possessed participants look unreal in their Evil Dead demonics. And when we get to the penthouse, what Angela and her cameraman find there definitely will fuel many a sleepless night. But perhaps the ultimate accolade goes to Rosso, who must perform as both part of the narrative and a vital aspect of the overall production. Without his stellar camerawork, a handheld expertise that truly lends the action an air of vitality and veracity, we'd have just another example of overly shaky stupidity. But with the ideas the filmmakers feed him and the images and events he captures, [REC] literally reinvents the genre. Instead of taking up time with pointless encounters, Balagueró and Plaza envision what a true life frightmare would look like - and then they capture it onscreen.
Shot on small video cameras and carted over to film in post-production, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image provided by Sony is flawless - for the storyline, that is. We get lots of jumps and mechanical "flaws", but the overall transfer looks taken from a professional newsman's footage - and that's exactly what the plotline demands. Colors are clear, details prevalent, and the entire visual palette seems a lot "lighter" and more open than when this critic first saw the film last year.
The aural aspect of the potential threat here is very important, and Sony reconfigures the soundtrack into a highly unnerving Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. There are facets that are too loud, as well as distortion and drop-out when needed. But there is also an attention to atmosphere that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You'll be hearing those background screams and unearthly grunts in your most noxious night terrors.
While it's the only bit of bonus content offered, the fabulous Making-of featurette offered as part of the [REC] DVD provides all the backstage insight one would need. We learn that Balagueró and Plaza kept their actors in the dark over most of the events happening in the film, the better to record their genuine reactions when they finally occurred. Similarly, a lot of last act secrets are spilled, including contradictory inferences about just "what" Angela finds in the penthouse. With some actor Q&A and lots of explanations from the filmmakers, this is one essential extra and a great reason to own this particular digital package.
Make no mistake about it - [REC] is no only one of the best horror films of 2008, it is perhaps the best example of the "found footage" genre ever. It really does take a simply idea and execute it in a way that makes you question any other interpretation of the approach - including the inevitable and unnecessary Hollywood remake. And oddly enough, Balagueró and Plaza believe there is more here to explore. Look around the Internet and you will find a website and teaser trailer for [REC]2, with well-armed soldiers preparing to investigate the aforementioned apartment building. Sounds like Aliens all over again. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, you'll be foolish not to give this foreign fright masterwork a look. Don't let the comparisons to unruly entries like The Blair Witch Project dissuade you. If you want to see said technique done and done exceptionally well, load up [REC] and push [PLAY]. You'll be glad you did.