Director: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Stars: Manuela Velasco, Ferrán Terraza, Pablo Rosso, David Vert, Martha Carbonell, Carlos Vicente, Claudia Silva
Release date: July 14, 2009 (U.S. DVD)
Billing a new horror movie as "found-footage" in 2013 does more damage than good in the eyes of the genre's biggest fans.
There once was a time when the first-person, shaky-cam POV style wasn't a gimmick. In 1980, Italian director Ruggero Deodato employed the technique in Cannibal Holocaust, a film—about documentarians running across a cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon Rainforest—so realistic that Deodato was arrested and charged with making a snuff film after its initial release. Nineteen years later, indie co-directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez struck box office gold with The Blair Witch Project, a found-footage milestone and one of the most profitable motion pictures of all time.
J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves revitalized the conceit in 2008 with the creature feature Cloverfield, leading into the October 2009 debut of Paranormal Activity, the suburban haunted house juggernaut that spawned a lucrative franchise and, unfortunately, inspired lazy, unimaginative film producers both independent and major to run found-footage into the ground. For every respectable new entry, like the Spanish chiller Atrocious or the 2010 box office hit The Last Exorcism, there have been two to three POV embarrassments, like Apollo 18 (2008) and The Devil Inside (2012).
And then there's the best found-footage movie ever made: [REC], written and directed by Spanish collaborators Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza. There's no debating this—[REC] is the end-all, be-all of horror's first-person sub-genre. If you've seen the surprisingly respectable but largely copycat 2008 American remake Quarantine and think there's no reason to see the original, check your head and find the nearest copy of Balagueró and Plaza's O.G. version. Its final 20 minutes comprise the best sustained sequence of horror of the last 10 years, not to mention one of the all-time greatest. "White knuckle" isn't a strong enough term to describe [REC]'s conclusion, an all-out explosion of chaotic infection, first-person-shooter-like mayhem, and the superb use of night-vision camerawork.
Everything that precedes those last 20 minute is first-rate, too. The premise is easily digestible: Perky and gung-ho television reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), along with her cameraman, Pablo, head to the local Barcelona fire department to document the night shift for her TV show While You're Asleep. At first, it's mundane, with the firemen showing Ángela around and killing time by playing sports, but then a call comes in. She trails the firemen all the way to an apartment building where an elderly woman is trapped in her flat. Turns out, the lady's infected with some kind of virus, and she attacks one of the fire guys. The franticness and confusion gradually gives way to full-blown horror as the mysterious infection spreads throughout the apartment complex, which has been locked down by health officials and surrounded by armed guards. Ángela, Pablo, police officers, and the tenants are stuck inside what becomes a playground for supercharged, homicidal maniacs, all of whom move with the intensity and speed of the antagonists in 28 Days Later… and are inexplicably bleeding from their faces.
Those aforementioned closing 20 minutes are when all hell literally breaks loose, with Ángela and Pablo working their way up to the building's penthouse apartment, plowing through and fleeing from one infected maniac after another. Once they're inside the penthouse, [REC] takes a hard left turn into a completely different horror sub-genre, and the effects are simultaneously macabre and ferocious. As a whole, [REC] is a master's class in oppressive claustrophobia, in which Balagueró and Plaza continually make slick work of the building's tight corridors, minimal lighting, and lack of exits. In that, they utilize the best advantage of found-footage cinema: its immersive, participatory quality.
When its handled properly, POV filmmaking makes the viewer feel like he or she is, in fact, living out the on-screen action. And in [REC], you bond with the charming Ángela, whose face-to-face interplay with Pablo and his camera always seem authentic. Credit Manuela Velasco's performance for that, too—how she naturally evolves from jovial to petrified is truly impressive. Like Pablo, you want to keep her safe, but you also want to survive the night.
With its success in Spain and universal acclaim, [REC] spawned a found-footage franchise of its own—consider Balagueró and Plaza's series the international answer to the Paranormal Activity brand. Unlike PA's sequels, though, [REC] 2 (2009; another Balagueró/Plaza co-direction) and [REC] 3: Genesis (2012; directed solely by Plaza) have been consistently strong, and next year's franchise-ending [REC] 4: Apocalypse (directed by Balagueró) promises to be just as satisfying. But neither of the sequels—with [REC] 2 concentrating more on action and [REC] 3: Genesis mostly dropping found-footage for horror-comedy yuks—match the 2007 original's scare factor, or overall brilliance.
Found-footage movies aren't going away anytime soon. In January alone, there will be two new ones from major studios: Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, a Latin-tinged PA spin-off, and Devil's Due, a Rosemary's Baby-on-steroids flick that, one can presume, will feature tons of people being yanked away from the camera by unseen forces. Outside of the studio system, indie horror also shows no signs of giving POV films a break—peruse the VOD lists from IFC Midnight, Magnet Releasing, Tribeca Films, and other lo-fi distribution companies and you're guaranteed to come across several found-footage trend-humpers. Passionate horror fans will notoriously watch anything at least once, from the crappiest of DIY garbage to the lamest of films with actual budgets, so they, like me, won't be able to resist the next grip of Paranormal Activity ripoffs. But we'll always press "Play" or buy tickets in hopes of re-experiencing the sensation of seeing [REC] for the first time, which isn't likely to happen.
Every kind of horror film has its recognized apex. For exorcism movies, it is, of course, The Exorcist (1973). Zombie fans acknowledge Night of the Living Dead (1968) as grandaddy of cinematic flesh-eating, but George Romero's follow-up, Dawn of the Dead (1978), is the ultimately superior movie. Vampire lovers will always have Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). It's still too new to accrue that kind of time-earned distinction, but [REC] will eventually be accepted as the all-time best found-footage movie, not The Blair Witch Project, though people may be too scared—figuratively and literally—to admit it. —Matt Barone