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Hell Awaits

By TK | Film Reviews | July 13, 2010 | Comments ()


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In 2007, Spanish film makers Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza collaborated on [Rec], one of the most engaging, interesting, and yes -- fucking scary films of the last few years. Filmed with a hand-held camera in the Cloverfield / Blair Witch-style, first-person technique, it successfully made the viewer feel like they were really in the room, watching the events unfold. The story, about a team of firemen, a reporter, and a cameraman who end up sealed inside a building filled with people who slowly become infected with an unknown sickness that turns them into ravenous monsters, a la 28 Days Later, wasn't exactly a ground breaker, but it was well-executed and deftly directed. It was remade into an Americanized, English language version, Quarantine, which was, despite being an almost shot-for-shot reproduction, fucking terrible. But [Rec] is absolutely worth your time.

So, of course, a sequel was made. [Rec] 2, unlike many sequels to cult hits, managed to maintain the services of its original writers and directors, Balagueró and Plaza. Because of that, I had a heightened anticipation of the film. While they managed to continue the story and take it into an interesting and unexpected direction, it's not without its stumbles as well. Beware, it's tough to review without some spoilers, but I'll try to keep it as clean as I can.

[Rec] 2 picks up immediately after the end of the first film, but with a new cast. A handful of SWAT members are being sent in to escort a doctor (Jonathan Mellor) into the building to assess the situation. It seems like a simple enough assignment, except of course for the fact that a) the building is still sealed from the outside and b) the doctor is not who he says he is. As with the first one, the situation devolves rapidly, and the group is soon overrun with atavistic, cannibalistic freaks who seek to tear them apart. Meanwhile, the doctor is searching for a blood sample from the originator of the virus -- the whole thing was started by some shady research in this building, and if it gets out, all hell will break loose.

BEGIN MILD SPOILERS

It turns out, that phrase is more apt than we suspected. In an effort to maintain some originality, the writers injected a new, supernatural theme into the overarching storyline. It's not a bad idea, actually, and a way to keep the plot fresh and keep the viewer engaged. The preternatural element yields and interesting range of possibilities for the story, one that ultimately benefits the film, even if it felt a bit cheap at first. Switching the direction of the story so radically after already having an entire first film's worth of history is a blessing and a curse (so to speak) -- it works, because it truly was a bit of a surprise. However, it creates an odd disconnect with the viewer, as if what you'd learned in the first film was wasted time and effort. It would be like if The Two Towers showed that The Fellowship of the Ring actually took place on a holodeck.

But once the supernatural story is established, the film sails comfortably towards its new horizon. In essence, the mood of the film hasn't changed (though it's not nearly as frightening), and it still has the same creepy atmospherics as its predecessor, but made even more macabre as a result of the preceding events. Darkly lit corridors are made all the more unnerving because now they're slick with blood and gore. Every new room shows signs of the destruction wrought earlier, and every corner brings that same sense of dread. The claustrophobic intensity of the first film is still there -- just like in the original, the building itself plays a critical role in the film's effectiveness. It's strangely beautiful in its depiction of grimy ruin -- a twisted pastiche of ruined homes and bloody splatters that somehow, when filmed through the stuttering eye of the handheld, proves to be haunting and somewhat riveting. It's a little discordant given the rapid movements of the camera holder, but overall it still works.

Unfortunately, the film falters in some of its other efforts to keep things rolling, and some of the new elements simply don't work. The introduction of a second group of people -- an itinerant group of kids who sneak into the building (despite it being sealed off by a squadron of government badasses with shoot-to-kill orders) is wholly unnecessary and clumsily introduced. Instead of happening organically, there's simply a break in the action, and all of a sudden we're rolled back to seeing things from the kids' perspective, since -- natch -- one of them has a camera as well. It's a poor decision, for two reasons -- it interrupts the flow of the film and kills the momentum, immediately taking the viewer out of the experience, jarringly disrupting the "found footage" idea. The whole premise is predicated on the idea that you're watching events as they happened through the eyes of a single beholder, and this abrupt switch makes it feel more Hollywood than I liked.

The second problem with the addition of the group of kids is that they're, well, sort of pointless. While the actors portraying them are actually pretty decent, and their dazed, terrified reactions once they realize the colossal mistake they've made are well-portrayed, their presence doesn't really contribute to the story. They stagger in, disrupt the rhythm of the plot, and then just as abruptly become non-factors (with one minor exception that could easily have been rewritten). These types of mistakes became unfortunately and increasingly typical with Balagueró's and Plaza's script, clumsy plot developments that are put into place not because of any sort of important contribution to the story, but more to artificially manufacture drama. The most egregious example of this is one of the SWAT soldiers who behaves in a decidedly non-SWAT-like manner -- immediately panicking and screaming and generally freaking the fuck out. His Hudson-esque antics are completely out of place, and incredibly distracting -- I realize that it's an unusual and fucked up set of circumstances, but pull your shit together, man. You're a professional. Instead, he aggravatingly accompanies every new scare or development with a new tantrum and tirade, and I found myself getting more and more annoyed, and just hoping that he'd get his face bitten off soon.

[Rec] 2's biggest problem, unfortunately, is the ending, which simply doesn't make sense. It's hard to describe, but what happens makes sense, but how it happens is frankly poorly thought out and extraneous. When you think it through for all of five minutes, you'll realize that the film could have had the exact same ending 20 minutes earlier, if not sooner. It's once again a case of writers and directors having too many ideas and shoehorning them into the existing framework.

In the end, [Rec] 2 is a mixed bag that's worth seeing for fans of the original, although there will inevitably be some disappointment peppered into the experience. The story's bizarre and freaky change in direction is mostly satisfying, but the filmmakers intersperse the film with some superfluous developments that take away from the experience. Of course, the final criticism is that it simply isn't that scary, which is perhaps its greatest departure from the original. It's tough to make it scary, given that we have, in a way, already experienced it and the change in mythology and character sets can only take Balagueró and Plaza so far. Not-so-unexpectedly, there is a third film planned (tentatively titled [Rec] Apocalypse, a name that I kind of hate), and it will be interesting to see if they can recapture the thrills they so effectively mastered in the first one. I fear, however, that [Rec] may be a dose of lightning in a bottle. While [Rec] 2 is far from terrible, it simply doesn't satisfy as resoundingly as it should have.

TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.



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