Co-directed by Jaume Balagueró (Frágiles, Darkness) and Paco Plaza, REC (remade in 2008 as Quarantine) is basically a classic B-movie shocker that moves from the banal (pretty Angela Vidal is stuck doing another dull episode of “While Everyone Sleeps,” this time at the local fire station) to the strange (Vidal and her cameraman following the paramedics to an apartment building where a hurt woman is found engorged in blood) before an all-out assault on the apartment's tenants rapidly propels the film towards a chilling climax.
Shot using standard ENG video gear, the filmmakers' conceit is that REC is found footage: it's the raw start/stops made by the cameraman until whatever's been picking off an apartment building's inhabitants trains its sights on the news crew. The presumption is what we're seeing is what the authorities who quarantined the building found when their ‘health inspector' failed to report back on what the hell was happening inside.
REC's characters are generally ordinary and boring until they're thrust into circumstances that happen so fast, they have little chance of saving themselves; confined to a tall but sealed building, they're trapped, and virtually at the mercy of an infection that turns a person quite fast into a flesh-eating ghoul.
It's a plague bug gone cuckoo, and one reason the film works so well is because pretty Vidal changes from a hungry young reporter stuck in a program no one watches (even the firemen have never heard of it) to a journalist determined to mine every awful trauma and reaction from the increasingly traumatized victims. She's rude, pushy, and shows little care for anyone, but she's clearly hooked on the adrenaline rush from being needle-dropped into a situation any reporter would kill to cover.
The filmmakers have characterized her cameraman (rarely seen or heard) as a guerilla technician, which stylistically pays off because there are no traditional cuts – just the on/off button that breaks up fluidly composed shots within long, kinetic takes. Visually, REC is extremely clever and well-thought, but it has one problem inherent to shaky-cam video films: in theatres, the unstable images are nauseating. It made Cloverfield and The Blair Witch Project tough on audiences, but on the home TV, it's less troublesome, and the ENG gear makes REC feel like a local, intimate nightmare.
Directors Balagueró and Plaza also borrow a bit from Blair Witch's filmmakers in the final reel: the last survivors are trapped in a small enclosure, and a simple object in the distance provides the movie's most terrifying shock, except they take it a little farther by providing a more direct assault; when viewed on a big screen TV or projection system, it's a major capper to this compact film.
REC has no score (although the end credits are slapped with a collage of bad metal tracks) and a very dynamic sound mix that exploits the hollow sounds of real environments – the quiet fire station, the sealed-off apartment building, the massive and deep apartments of dead tenants – and hyper-surreal squeals for the transformed humans, as well as the vicious defensive blows survivors have to inflict on their attackers using mallets, guns, and bare hands. The gore is quite modest (the hard video lighting may have rendered extra blood and viscera too stagy) and the makeup effects at the end pretty chilling.
The only qualms is the last act, where the mythology is explained with great speed. It's in tune with the panicked characters who know their ability to ward off their attackers is weakening fast, but the origin of the plague is still a bit fuzzy, because Vidal has to ‘discover' the truth fast, in order for the filmmakers to bring on the last big shock.
Watch REC late at night on the biggest home theatre screen you have, and play it very, very loud…
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan