Thursday, May 14, 2009

DVD Review: [Rec]


The Blair Witch Project is, whether you like it or not (and I have come to not really care for it as much as I once did, although that ending still gets me), a seminal horror film. It reminded horror fans, and low-budget filmmakers, that you could still subscribe to the Val Lewton philosophy of horror: what you can’t see is still what’s scariest. Jaume Balaguero’s [Rec] is a good example of what The Blair Witch Project did well, using an “on the scene” hand held camera aesthetic to heighten the panic, and a brilliant, creepy sound mix that, when you see that ending, will give you goose bumps long after the film is over. The scares are genuine; the sound mixing is great as the thuds, whooshes, splats, and other icky noises are what’s most jarring, not the gore; and clocking it at a brisk, albeit extremely intense, 75 minutes it’s a rare horror film that doesn’t overstay its welcome.


[Rec] begins with a plucky reporter Angela Vidal making the rounds at a local fire station interviewing various people on the job. She is reporting for the entire night for TV special, and when the firefighters get a call to tend to an apartment building…well that’s where the fun begins. It’s an “infected” movie, so if you’ve seen films of this ilk then you get a sense of what’s in store for you (be careful standing next to windows!); however, what you may not be prepared for is how Balaguero executes it all. Angela, the firefighters, the police, and all the tenants end up being quarantined (hey that would make a good title for a really crappy American remake!) off from society. What follows are your usual freak outs, gross outs, and crazy goings-on where people run for their life while being trapped in a building together.

The film is masterful at gradually building towards its tense moments. Moment after moment I found myself clenching tighter and tighter to whatever was around me: a pillow, a blanket, or just clinching my fist until my knuckles turned white. The compounding of such tense moments, until it is unleashed on the viewer like a rabid dog, is one of the great things about the film and what makes it such a unique experience. Horror is meant to scare you, yes, but it’s not just the act of jumping because something comes at you unrepentantly, it also is meant to exhilarate and thrill you, so that you don’t even realize you’ve been breathing until the very.

The ending is ridiculously scary; in fact, it’s one of the creepiest and most intense moments I’ve seen in any horror film. It reminded me of the way my stomach tightens during the ending of Alien. The ending is a brilliant mixture of the creepiest parts of the endings of The Silence of the Lambs and The Blair Witch Project; and when the big reveal comes out to shock you (and boy does it ever) it doesn’t seem tacked on or superfluous at all…it’s genuinely scary.

I also appreciated that the “on the scene” camera never became a contrivance. Despite the bit of exposition where Angela tells her cameraman Pablo that they must film everything no matter what, the camera never becomes a distraction. And by that I mean there are moments when bad things happen to people, and we see them, so obviously the cameraman from the news station is just sitting their watching and filming, right? Nope. Balaguero wisely has the camera being set down on the floor in multiple situations so that the cameraman is a character, not just a non-existent entity documenting the carnage. The filmmakers execute the “camera as character” trope perfectly as I never found myself being pulled out of the moment by saying: ‘why doesn’t the camera man just help them?’

Balaguero’s film is one of the great horror experiences, ranking along side Neil Marshall’s The Descent, as the definitive blueprint for how to do modern horror. Marshall’s film had the budget and √©lan, not to mention the seemingly endless supply of visual nods to past great horror films, that aren’t quite on display in [Rec]; but one thing they do share in common is not relying completely on gore, but rather relying on the use of darkness and sound to create a truly unnerving experience. Another good example of how sound is used brilliantly in modern horror is the first 45 minutes of The Strangers. That film totally botched its ending, but it was a perfect example of how when you strip your film of every horror gimmick and torture porn mentality – when raps on the door and giggles in the night are the creepiest parts of your movie – that’s when you know you’re onto something that’s truly scary and unnerving. Unfortunately, The Strangers flubbed its ending and turned into torture porn, but the point remains: these two modern examples, along with [Rec], show signs of hope for the future of horror. I think [Rec] is a masterpiece of the horror genre, and I’m just mad that I waited this long to see it. There is a sequel in the works, with all of the original filmmakers behind it, so we’ll see how that goes. Anything this good deserves to be seen multiple times; no matter how many sequels or bad American interpretations it spawns.

2 comments

  1. I am a huge fan of THE DESCENT, and I was preparing to 'introduce' that until I saw you astutely brought it up yourself in that final paragraph, Kevin. I am also a lifelong advocate of 'horror that can't be seen but only imagined' and certainly your rightful acknowledgement of Val Lewton (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and THE SEVENTH VICTIM ate the ones that fit into this sub-category as well as Tourneur's superb CURSE OF THE DEMON in 1958, which ironically is one of the few times where the studio-imposed 'creature' is probably more terrifying than anything anyone could imagine. But that is unusual. I am not a fan of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and I agree with Andrew Sarris when he asks: "Where is the suspense? Where is the involvement? Where is the identification?" This is a gimmick film, that overstays it's welcome, and it's so shoddily made that it can never be taken seriously. The worst part of all is that there have been countless imitations over the years, spawning a style that quickly lost its lustre. You mention THE STRANGERS. I agree that the first 45 minutes of that were highly effective, before it lost in the end.

    As far as REC, which you inform here with this terrifically referenced review, I'll admit I haven't seen it, but based on your effusive praise I will certainly do so.

    I love the personal touch here Kevin:

    "The film is masterful at gradually building towards its tense moments. Moment after moment I found myself clenching tighter and tighter to whatever was around me: a pillow, a blanket, or just clinching my fist until my knuckles turned white. The compounding of such tense moments, until it is unleashed on the viewer like a rabid dog, is one of the great things about the film and what makes it such a unique experience. Horror is meant to scare you, yes, but it’s not just the act of jumping because something comes at you unrepentantly, it also is meant to exhilarate and thrill you, so that you don’t even realize you’ve been breathing until the very end."

    The proof will be in the pudding for me, but kudos on this exceedingly fine treatment.

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  2. Sam:

    Thank you, sir. Horror, when done right, is such an exciting thing to talk about. I just sat back and enjoyed the ride that was [Rec]. It may not be as beautiful or even as poignant as The Descent (yes there are touching moments in that film, that ending especially), but it's a helluva good time, and really, I'm hoping Raimi's prodigal son like return to the genre this summer with Drag to Me Hell, will be another example of how much fun it can be to get the pants scared off of you.

    I'm awaiting two more zombie flicks from Netflix, one looks like a terrible Italian zombie film, which equals gold for me; and the other is Michel Soavi's Cemetery Man, which is actually supposed to be one of the best zombie films made. So, for the next couple of days it'll be all zombies for this blogger.

    I can't wait to see your thoughts on [Rec].

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