Rec (2007)

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*. How do you render the title of this film when writing about it? Rec? REC? [REC]? Or do you have to include the red dot as well?
*. I liked this movie the first time I saw it, but found it confusing. I then saw the first two sequels (Rec 2 and the less directly related Rec 3) and was very disappointed, both in terms of the films themselves and the light they shed on the original. Going back and watching this one again I was more impressed. It’s a great horror movie.
*. I think if you really want to enjoy it you should forget about the sequels (a plan that might also help you enjoy The Matrix more). Yes it’s muddled. It’s not clear if the business about Max the dog being infected is just a red herring or is related in some way to what’s going on (and how would Max have been infected anyway? by an insect bite?). Nor is it clear just what is going on. Is it a virus? A case of demonic possession? Some combination of the two? The sequel would try to explain, and tie itself in knots doing so.

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*. As for the emaciated hag at the end, one supposes she is the possessed girl now all grown up, but how can we be sure? And who is that kid in the attic? You’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out.
*. But this muddle doesn’t really bother me. Given the premise of the film any further attempt at explanation would be awkward. Let’s face it, the business of the penthouse being full of newspaper clippings and a tape recording of the professor’s experiments is really straining to introduce explication. So I’m content to only know as much as the people stuck in the building.
*. Of course, the other part of the premise that strains credibility is Pablo the cameraman’s sense of duty to “get it all on tape.” At some point one would think a survival instinct would take over and you’d drop the camera, either to run faster or protect yourself. But he keeps shooting right till the end.
*. Despite this confusion — which may not have been that confusing to a Spanish audience more attuned to mystical terrors — there is an awful lot to like here.
*. In the first place, there’s a great performance by Manuela Velasco as reporter Angela Vidal. She was typecast since she was a television personality already, and I think she was helped by shooting the film in sequence so her transformation could play out more naturally. But it’s still a persuasive transformation, from girl-next-door camera cutie to stripping down to a tank top (what has become an official uniform of the last girl in recent horror films), her hair increasingly dishevelled, her body covered with greater amounts of sweat and blood, and finally appearing as an almost feral final survivor caught in night vision, like some rodent that has tripped a camera set up outside its forest burrow.

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*. That night vision ending works very well. Even better, in my opinion, than the conclusion of The Silence of the Lambs. And that skinny hag (actually a male actor) is one of the scariest and most original movie monsters I’ve seen. She’s right up there with the little girl who comes crawling out of the television set in The Ring.
*. You can almost think of the Medeiros crone as the Jack Spratt half of a grisly couple, with the heftier old lady zombie on the first floor being the other. And both tap into an obvious but rarely addressed horror: the bodies of old women seen in their underwear. Let’s face it, this is something we do not want to see. Why? Because naked old women look scary and grotesque. It’s entirely natural — everyone’s flesh starts to slip and slide as we age — but it’s not something we’re used to seeing on film. It’s the best kind of horror show: frightening because it’s so real.
*. Then there is the direction by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza . Now personally I’m no fan of “shaky cam” filmmaking. I was thoroughly unimpressed by The Blair Witch Project. But it was a development that did at least inject some energy into filmmaking by imposing almost Oulipan constraints. No music, for one thing. Editing, sound effects (sirens, dogs barking, screams), flashing lights, etc. have to do all the work. It’s a sort of pure filmmaking, and it takes a lot of work to make it seem so improvisational and off the cuff because in fact these are some of the most intensely scripted films around.
*. The key is in the rhythm of the action. Note, for example,  how everything seems to slow down as the health inspector makes his ghostly entrance through the layers of plastic. Of course it’s not shot in slow motion, but the actors are moving very slowly and deliberately, and it’s the distance of this shot that makes it seem slower. Compare how fast everything seems to be moving when the zombies are right in the camera’s face.
*. This scene is immediately followed by one of the few static shots as the camera is left on while lying on the floor. It’s the perfect way of showing that we are at a dramatic turning point, with the action seeming to stop and catch its breath until the next round of manic action.
*. The soundtrack is part of the same sense of rhythm. Note how the sound goes out entirely at key moments, or is distorted. You’re not allowed to get comfortable in this movie.
*. The script also does a great job playing with our expectations. The firefighter who falls down the stairwell to splat on the floor is an incredible shock cut (and no one in the cast was told it was coming, so their surprise is genuine). Then there’s a scene where you do expect something to happen and nothing does which is even more disconcerting. This is just after the old lady is shot and her body is kept in the background as two of the leads converse. I wasn’t even paying any attention to the dialogue, just waiting for her to start to stir and rise up. But that never happens, and I came away enjoying how I’d been played.
*. Is there no elevator in this building? Is that why the penthouse, normally the luxury suite in North America, is a shithole here (as it often is in older European buildings without elevators).
*. That aside, this is a terrific example of the kind of use that can be made of a real location. I can think of few other contemporary movies that use architectural space so well.
*. This is what happens “While You’re Sleeping” (the name of the television show being shot). Nightmares come. And indeed the whole thing has a kind of dream reality to it, what with the imaginative (illogical) leaps and threatening archetypes. Above it all we have a sense of larger forces at play that we can’t understand. Outside there is a voice of authority and a light we see only through plastic wrap darkly. Upstairs there is a shadowy evil.
*. It’s a clever inversion of the standard zombie film conceit: of the survivors barricaded and besieged in a house (or shopping mall, or cave, or whatever) against the masses of zombies gathered outside. Here the survivors are locked in with the zombies, and are struggling to get out.
*. There’s no question in my mind that this was one of the best horror movies of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Unfortunately, they were blasted by success and couldn’t leave what was more than well enough alone.

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