1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby” featured a shot of a woman sitting in a bedroom on the phone with her face blocked by the edge of the doorway. Legend has it that at the first screening, nearly the entire audience leaned forward and to the right, trying to see around the corner. Forty years later, this type of visual gimmickry has become a subgenre unto itself.
The latest pseudo-cinema verite feature, “Paranormal Activity,” has received a lot of buzz. People are going all “Blair Witch” for this movie. It grossed about 20 million dollars last weekend while showing on only 760 screens. It’s the talk of the town, and will soon be one of the most profitable movies of all time – all without being any good.
Conversely, there is “[REC],” a Spanish film from 2007 that used the same found-footage gimmick to create one of the most terrifying films I have ever seen.
“[REC]” begins like most found-footage movies, with a jumble of character introductions hidden inside of what appears to be unedited, real-life footage. This type of extended would-be character development often kills these movies. By the nature of this subgenre, the introductory footage is boring. It is easy to imagine that most viewers make liberal use of the scene-select button to make the likes of “Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead” watchable.
Fortunately, “[REC]” has the benefit of an unusually interesting faux-premise. The audience is introduced to the eventual survivor – a ditsy young reporter named Angela Vidal – as she does preliminary interviews for a cheesy human-interest segment on the overnight news. Vidal is interesting, because unlike most movie journalists (and like many real-life reporters on local news channels), she is plainly a hack. She has no real aptitude for reporting, and no real talents to speak of. She is simply cute, perky and vaguely slutty without being too sexually aggressive. In one early scene, she openly flirts with one of the firefighters that she has been sent to interview. She also has a nice rapport with her cameraman Manu, who is a strong presence throughout the movie, even as he is never seen on screen.
The real action begins as Vidal follows the firefighters on their first outing of the evening – a seemingly routine call to an old apartment complex. This being a movie, nothing is so simple, and soon there is an all out zombie apocalypse going on inside the building.
The authorities show up before the infection can escape the building. They put a massive sheet of white plastic over the windows and quarantine the vicinity. When residents try to escape from a third-story window, they are greeted by a S.W.A.T. team with guns cocked.
What follows is an escalating series of peek-a-boo zombie attacks that build into a pretty cool mystery. Unlike many found-footage movies, “[REC]” takes the time to build in set up, foreshadowing and even plot twists. I am almost never surprised by horror films, and this one had three or four left turns that I didn’t see coming, to say nothing of the half a dozen superb jump scares and the bit where they bash a zombie in the head in using the camera as a weapon.
“[REC]” doesn’t use the found-footage angle to hide a lack of ghouls; there are plenty of monsters to be found here, and the camera usually remains stable enough so as to allow the viewer to actually see what is happening. And what’s happening is really, really well-staged zombie gags. This film is tightly wound. Each successive scene is a new angle on the premise – a new way of using the camera to interact with the setting and forward the story. A new zombie gag, or at least a new way of presenting the same old zombie gag.
What’s more, this is the only found-footage horror film that has ever fully explained why the camera continues to roll. Vidal is a hack and she knows it, so when she finds herself in the middle of the story of a lifetime, she recognizes that this is her only chance at legitimacy. Later, the camera’s light is used to illuminate dark rooms after the power is cut. Then, as things start become more grim, the continued filming becomes a tool for defense when it becomes all-too-clear that without this footage, the residents who are not eaten by the undead will likely disappear, thanks to some sort of government cover-up plot.
And that is what separates “[REC]” from the pack. Even if this film were told from a perspective other than the cameraman’s, it would still make sense for him to be there, and it would still be a story worth watching. I don’t know that this can be said for “Cannibal Holocaust,”
Man Bites Dog” or “The Blair Witch Project.”
“[REC]” was recently remade in the U.S. as “Quarantine.” And while that film is decent, it suffers from inferior makeup effects and a cast of semi-known stars that detracts from the sense that any one of the characters could die at any given moment. Go for the original: You won’t even notice the subtitles.