Friday, November 1, 2013

Soy Un Bombero

Year: 2007
Director: Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Pablo Rosso
Run Time: 1 hour 18 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Now that Halloween is over, prepare for a flux of reviews of all the horror movies I saw during the week but never got a chance to review. I'm a little bummed I was too busy to do a super cool October blog event, but it turns out homework holds higher priority than writing about movies. Which is ironic, considering that my homework is writing about movies... 

I suppose it's time for me to review my number one favorite horror film (and favorite film in general), don't you? But first, to properly understand where I'm coming from, let me take you on a journey in time.

One bright afternoon, a couple months before graduation, Cassidy and I wanted to watch a movie. This happened rather frequently back then. When she suggested we put on Quarantine (her favorite movie at the time), I remembered something I'd read about that film being a remake of a Spanish film called [REC] and that maybe we should watch that one. In the interest of watching a movie that neither of us had previously seen, she agreed.

When we emerged from our cocoon of purple couch fabric 80 minutes later still shaking with residual fear and rendered speechless for a good two minutes, we knew our lives had been changed forever. This was in broad daylight, mind you.

Since that fateful day, I've seen it at least once every three months, usually to inflict it on some poor unsuspecting soul who was trying to be my friend. Unfortunately for them, any friend of mine has to pass the [REC] test.

So what was it about this film that has so thrilled and captivated me so much so that on a short weekend trip to visit Cassidy in Portland we used several of our precious hours to screen it again? What is it that keeps me coming back? What is it that made it land the number one spot on my list of all-time scariest movies? Why was half my Spring Break video quotes from this movie? 

I've mentioned this film in scores of posts that all have been leading up to this one moment of unveiling.

We'll see if I can rein this in to under a million words.

Buena suerte.

First, the basics. [REC] is a found footage film that came out in the same year as George Romero's found footage effort Diary of the Dead and one year before the film that would bring the genre to the mainstream again, J. J. Abrams' Cloverfield. Having come out before the massive flux of no budget direct-to-DVD handicam crap, [REC] was still able to bring a fresh take on a genre that has been beaten relentlessly and robbed of all potential in the last five years or so.

Shot on location in Barcelona, this film is entirely in Spanish, but don't let that deter you. The foreign language actually has the effect of enhancing the terrifying feeling of winding up in a situation that is far beyond your control. And it gives you a chance to learn useful Spanish phrases like "F*ck you," and "I've been bitten!"

The plot centers around Ángela Vidal, a small time news anchor (played by real life small time news anchor Manuela Velasco) who's working with her unseen cameraman Pablo (played by real life cinematographer Pablo Rosso) on a puff piece for a show called Mientras Usted Duermen (While You're Asleep). Her assignment is to shadow a pair of firefighters, Álex (David Vert) and Manu (Ferran Terraza) on their nightly rounds. Ángela longs to do something more exciting than sit around a dark fire station all night.

She gets her wish.

Ten cuidado con lo que deseas.

When the fire station gets a call to help an old woman who was heard screaming in her apartment, the goresome foursome trot on out to help her. As it turns out, the woman isn't exactly chomping at the bit to have intruders in her apartment. No, she'd much rather be chomping on the policeman's face and the situation quickly grows dire as the health department seals the buildings exits, quarantining Ángela, Pablo, the firemen, the police, and the neighbors in a cramped apartment building with an ever increasing horde of zombies.

Not just any zombies. These are adrenaline-fueled, three-minute-mile, Danny Boyle rage virus zombies and they are pissed. Civilians are knocked left and right like bowling pins as their futile attempts to escape devolve into merely finding a way to survive the night.

Watching [REC] for the first time is like presenting someone with a homemade flan - exotic and flavorful, but not quite as pristine as the picture on the recipe made it seem - and then mercilessly slamming their head into the tray over and over again until they pass out.

[REC] doesn't waste a single precious second of its brief runtime. Each high octane scene is brutally shoved into the next until, before you know it, it's over and you need to launder your Fruit of the Looms.

A visual representation of the human heart while watching [REC].

[REC] works like a charm on every level, not the least of which is avoiding the many pitfalls of the found footage genre. Please allow Italics to represent an annoying whiny complainer badmouthing found footage.

It's too shaky! I can't see anything!

The beauty of [REC] is that the character holding the camera is, in fact, a professional camera man. So while, yes, there are those unavoidable jerky moments that come with holding a recording device and running for dear life, but Pablo knows his mierda. He's used to shooting news, he could capture footage in the middle of a hurricane and it would turn out OK.

It's just an excuse to get away with having no budget! People can't make fun of the bad effects if they can't see them!

This is actually a pretty fair criticism of the genre, even giants of the form like The Blair Witch Project, a film in which absolutely nothing happens for 90 minutes. But the money that [REC] saves through its unique filming methodology goes right back on the screen with resolutely unimpeachable practical effects. 

It's all too staged and unbelievable!

OK, even I can't suss out why [REC] works so well in this regard, but even though I'm well aware it's a fictional film (unlike many audiences who went to see Blair Witch for the first time), I've never doubted the reality of the situation and characters (in context).

Why the hell would they keep filming during all that?

Without a doubt the biggest weapon against the found footage genre. One which [REC] brushes off like a dust mite. At first, Pablo is filming as a news photgrapher, capturing the human rights violations in progress as the government refuses to let the wounded leave the building. But when the more life-threatening mishaps occur, the camera is the only available light source. The built-in torch and eventually the night vision (shudder) are absolutely essential for survival, hence the continued recording.

Suck on that, found footage haters!

And while films in the genre tend to be cheap amateur productions intended to kick start a career or two, every single aspect of the film was wrought by an accomplished hand.

Let's start with the acting, shall we?

[REC]  lives and dies on the performance of its lead actress and the previously unknown Manuela Velasco throws herself bodily into her work. Her Ángela is driven and capable and utterly utterly awesome. She puts on a bubbly facade for her anchor work but when push comes to shove she is determined to come out on top. The first to sacrifice her stylish leather jacket for use as a tourniquet, she leaps into the fray with a battle cry that rattles the rafters. She's an adorable chipmunk cheeked cutie pie by day, but her claws come out in a fight.

Velasco's Ángela isn't all tough edges though. She has taken many a beating. She is shaken and tired and she just wants to get the hell out of here. She allows herself to be vulnerable when she's alone with Pablo, but when tensions rise her stress manifests itself with fiery Spanish pasión. She has flaws, she's only human. But her intrinsic humanity is what gives her a fighting chance.

Also she's gorg.

And when I say every aspect of [REC] is fantastic, I'm not just gonna let that hang there unsupported. I really do mean every aspect.

Setting: The Barcelona apartment building where the bulk of the movie takes place is cramped and claustrophobic. Before anything even remotely sinister happens, the building itself creates a sense of menace with its low ceilings and the staircase that twists into infinity.

It's not any better covered in zombies.

Also the opaque plastic sheets that seal  the building off allow for some really creative and creepy use of silhouette.

Characters: With such a punchy run time, [REC] can't spend too much time bogging itself down with character development so the residents of the building have pretty bare bones personalities. But if we didn't care about them at all, we would have no emotional impact at their deaths and subsequent zombification.

Walking that incredibly thin tightrope, the film manages the inconceivable feat of satisfyingly fleshing out an entire cast of characters in under five minutes. Each of the neighbors has a distinct personality that veers as far away from stereotype as possible. There's Mari Carmen (Maria Lanau), an entitled 21st century mother and her sweet young daughter Jennifer (Claudia Silva). There's a hilarious squabbling old couple (María Teresa Ortega and Manuel Bronchud), a Japanese family (it's utterly bizarre to watch a foreign film in which one of the characters can't completely speak the languages themselves), and a xenophobic gay man named César (Carlos Lasarte) who manages to actually not be offensive.

These characters provide some small measure of realistic comic relief for the horrors that are to follow.

And although there are some moments of Idiot Horror Movie behavior, those can be forgiven by the strength of their scare sequences and for the most part these people act exactly as any of us would when locked in a cramped apartment with bloodthirsty zombies. Namely, freaking the hell out.

Plot: [REC] isn't keen to waste time. The first ten minutes slowly ease the audience in, but that's all we get before the film turns into a sledgehammer of screaming terror. The horror is enhanced by the fact that almost nothing is known about the nature of the disease except that fact that it spreads through saliva. The unknown is always infinitely scarier than easily comprehensible evil and the creepy Catholic overtones provide more atmosphere than explanation.

Cinematography: As I explained earlier, the found footage angle is far from a gimmick. It has the effect of putting you directly in Pablo's eyes and makes the danger even more formidable because you know they can't just cut away to a different scene. This is all there is and it is absolutely mind-numbingly teeth-wrenchingly terrifying. Also, there are somehow scores of iconic shots that are beautifully framed and captured. In a handheld found footage movie! Geez, the Spaniards know what's up.

Sound Design: Oh, the sound design. The reason you should never ever watch the English dub. As an amateur sound worker myself, I have learned to appreciate the value of a stellar mix and [REC] manages to wring scares through audio alone. Most films fail to be scary even with awesome music, but this film turns everything up to eleven without a single note. The echoing roars from unknown floors, the mysterious underwater-sounding effect when the camera is struck by something will keep you rocking in your seat. And when it goes silent, it's even worse.

Gore: It is to [REC]'s benefit that the filmmakers couldn't afford massive explosions of gore. I've found that the most profoundly affecting gore scenes are the simplest. If it's small and intimate and believable, the audience sitting with you can feel it. I've sat through over a hundred slasher films and the most nauseating gore scene I've ever seen is still that part from Black Swan where Natalie Portman has a hangnail.

It just goes to show that subtlety in gore is the way to go if you want to strike fear into the hearts of teenagers. Over the top gore is for when you want to have a good time and [REC] is about as far from a good time as you can get. Tiny moments like a doctor's examination or a single bite to the face are absolutely harrowing.

And anything even remotely similar to this.

Having studied [REC] for quite some time now, I think I've narrowed down what makes it such a down and dirty scream machine. There are four ruthlessly effective ways the film ramps up the tension and the variability between them is what keeps you on your toes.

1) One thing changes slightly.

Pan away from the hall, then pan back and bam. That corpse is no longer lying peacefully on the ground.

I got out of bed for this?

This tactic is what made the first Paranormal Activity such a rousing success because there's nothing popping out at you and brazenly announcing its arrival, just minute shifts that get under your skin.

2) Nothing happens but you think it will.

As a horror audience, we have been trained to expect a certain thing when a character lingers in front of a doorway. Or a corpse is laid in front of the camera. When that thing doesn't happen, all that anticipation and tension that is built up doesn't dissipate the way it would if the corpse suddenly lept at you. It has no place to go but deep down into your gut.

This is also a way of training the audience not to know what's going to happen. It's kinda scary when something yells "BOO!" every single time you expect it to. It's light years scarier if you don't know when it's going to happen.

3) Something happens when you think it won't.

OK, this one seems a little obvious but let me explain. A lot of modern horror is built like a musical piece. You don't know exactly what's going to happen, but scare scenes are generally telegraphed - a pair of feet slowly climbs up the stairs or a door creaks open - and you know for sure you will be scared sometime in the next 45 seconds.

[REC] doesn't give a flying f*ck what you think is going to happen. Right in the middle of something innocuous, it bangs the gong, sending you flying.

4) You know it's gonna happen and you can't escape.

This is where that audience conditioning comes in to kick you in the nuts. When somebody slowly spins around, you know of course that something terrible is going to happen. And being trapped with that dread of the inevitability of fright pins you down like a rat in a cage. It is the sneakiest and most blisteringly effective trick [REC] has up its sleeve.

I'm starting to scare myself now.

Remember every other review of modern horror that I've written where I denounce a film's use of jump scares? Things that peek out and go boo? It's crass and it's cheap and it's not real horror. Yet [REC] has jump scares galore, so why should I proclaim it to the Heavens?

Well you see, hypothetical questioner, jump scares aren't intrinsically a bad thing. Halloween had them and if that's not a horror masterwork then I don't know what is. The beauty of this film is that it effortlessly marries a modern jump scare sensibility with hardcore body horror, viral terror, and just plain creepy unnatural monsters that leave a lasting impression once the adrenaline high has worn off (approximately a week after viewing).

[REC] is the best of all worlds. It has appeal for both the modern viewer and the more traditional fan of atmospheric horror. It is a low budget found footage flick with masters behind the camera. It is exotic, but not too deeply rooted in its culture to render it incomprehensible across the pond (I'm looking at you, J-Horror).

And that is why [REC] is my favorite movie.

Thank you and good night!

TL;DR: Honestly, if I could marry [REC], I would.
Rating: 10/10
Word Count: 2773
Reviews In This Series
[REC] (Balagueró & Plaza, 2007)
[REC] 4: Apocalipsis (Balagueró, 2015)

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