This Place Is a Prison and These People Aren't Your Friends
As a general rule, there are two things that are frequently lacking from modern horror movies: They generally lack originality, and they usually aren't particularly scary. I've written about it before, but the general trends these days are a focus on gore and jump scares. My favorite horror movie of the previous decade was The Descent, which may not have been the most original concept in the world, but it was scary as hell, had an amazing sense of atmosphere, and was just clever enough to overcome its shortfalls.
2007's [Rec] falls into that same category. It's brilliant in its simplicity, doesn't treat the viewer like a moron, has fairly engaging performances, and is, frankly, scary as hell. Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (both of whom co-wrote it with Luis Berdejo), this Spanish production wades through familiar territory, but still has flashes of originality coupled with a strong cast, solid writing, and an understanding of what people fear. It's an amazingly efficient film -- clocking in at a mere 75 minutes, it's a rush -- a fast-moving, brutally violent, nasty exercise that barely gives you time to catch your breath.
The story is relatively uncomplicated. Filmed through the lens of a television cameraman, Angela (Manuela Velasco) is a news reporter for a show called "While You're Asleep" which covers events in the city that take place after hours. She and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso, who is never seen and is, obviously, also the actual cinematographer) are doing a puff piece on firemen when a call about a woman trapped in her apartment comes in. They rush to the building, where they and the dispatched policeman find the woman in her apartment, clearly deranged. She attacks and bites the policeman, and you can easily guess what comes next. Similar to the Rage Virus in 28 Days Later, the bites are contagious and quickly all hell breaks loose in the building. However, instead of the larger scale of Danny Boyle's film, [Rec] takes its cast into far more claustrophobic places. The authorities have sealed the building, cut off communications, and no one is allowed in or out, leaving Angela, the firemen, and the hapless residents trapped as their numbers dwindle, and the numbers of the atavistic, cannibalistic infected grow.
Filmed with a sort of The Descent meets Cloverfield mentality, [Rec] combines the tight, tense confines of the building -- all narrow hallways, twisting staircases and small, dimly lit rooms -- with the simple cinematographic style of a hand-held camera. Fortunately, it's being handled by a professional, so it's not quite the nauseating, dizzy affair that Cloverfield was. Instead, it creates one of my favorite kinds of horror film atmospheres. By being so close to the cast members, in such cramped quarters, it gives the feeling that you're right there with them, making the tension that much more effective, and the scares even more so. It uses the same organic styles of The Descent -- there's no artificial lighting, instead using only the actual illumination of the building lights, thus heightening the in-the-room feel for the viewer. And on the occasions when the lights go out, it becomes that much more terrifying.
The acting is all pretty much pitch perfect. While little back story is given to any of the characters beyond what you learn from simply watching them, you know just enough about them to care about them, and to fear them when they change. The foundation of the film is Velasco's Angela, who serves as the de facto narrator of the unfolding events, and her combination of eager news hound mixed with terrified citizen is bolstered by her solid performance. This minimum of exposition actually serves the film well -- you're given no background, no information beyond what the cast learns as the story progresses, making you feel as nervous, paranoid, and confused as the characters. As with all foreign films, make sure you watch the subtitled version (it's entirely in Spanish), so you don't miss any of the natural nuances of the performances.
[Rec] is another example of how minimalist filmmaking can be much more effective than bloated, over-budgeted productions. It's a fresh take on a familiar theme, and its techniques translate the dark atmospherics and constant, ominous feeling of dread perfectly, without feeling gimmicky. Its ending takes a turn towards the truly bizarre, but still manages to satisfy you. Watch it alone in the dark (as I did), and you'll find yourself wholly absorbed, shoulders hunched as they approach every corner. Best of all, [Rec] is flat-out fucking scary, which is reason enough to watch. Everything else is just gravy on top of it.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.