European films are often far from lacking in imagination. What they are lacking in, typically, are the funds to bring the writer's or director's actual vision to the screen. The compromises made often result in some creative ways around problems, but they also often result in some hilarious makeup and special effects work as well.
Although certainly not the first film to take the route, The Blair Witch Project was the first found footage film to gain mainstream acceptance. Until the genre began to wear out its welcome as the 2000s went on it was pretty much a gift from the heavens for independent filmmakers. They often require minimal locations - typically being real-life locations rather than sets - as well as little cast, equipment and crew. In many independent productions cast often becomes crew as default, but in found footage this is often the case from the very beginning as the person carrying the camera is part of the story.
Rather than being a surprise that a film like [REC] picked up on the trend it is pretty much a surprise to me that there weren't a lot more of these films made outside of the U.S. at the time. It's true they would have eventually met the same fate as they have here, with the genre being looked at now as a way for major studios to make a profit even if the film is garbage. Still, [REC] itself was popular enough, and well-executed, resulting in Spanish-language remakes in South America as well as an American version called Quarantine.
Angela Vidal (Manueal Velasco) is a Barcelona television reporter doing a special on the night shift of a local fire department. When a call finally does come in she and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) join firemen Manu (Ferran Terraza) and Álex (David Vert) to the scene, which is an apartment complex where an old lady was reported screaming. Two policemen (Vicente Gil, Jorge Yamam-Serrano) are already on the scene and are not happy to see the firemen show up with a television crew.
Upon investigation the older policeman is attacked by the elderly lady (Martha Carbonell) and bitten. Soon afterward Álex is killed as well. During this time the apartment building, which also includes offices and a textile factory, is put under a quarantine, trapping everyone inside. As the infection spreads the residents and the authorities try to figure out what is going on and survive the night.
The reason this movie works so well is that it taps into realistic fears of what both what neighbors might be up to as well as distrust of authorities. It might be strange, as most European countries try to present themselves as above a lot of the things they accuse the U.S. of, but that xenophobic paranoia of foreigners is something ingrained in all humans. It's no surprise that one of the more snooty neighbors immediately comes to the conclusion that the Japanese family living in the building might have something to do with what is going on, but that this discord between the neighbors begins to fade when they find new enemies in the police or the health officials that have sealed off the building.
While [REC] was a scripted film, writers/directors Jaume Belagueró and Paco Plaza kept most of what would happen away from the actors, and often added stressful situations to the scenes while in progress in order to get legitimate reactions from the cast. Manuela Velasco was already a known television presenter, while many of the other actors were hired for their improv skills in an attempt to make things seem as realistic as possible. It worked, with the jump scares actually being things someone would jump at, and the lack of musical accompaniment meaning that the directors had to rely on their ability to translate to the audience what their cast was going through.
Because it was scripted, and filmed sequentially, the film smoothly ramps up the action as it goes along, providing periods of non-stop attacks and then paring it down in the end to create as much tension as possible. It is nice that the last section of the film managed to do that as the one unfortunate thing about this movie is that Belagueró and Plaza decided that there must be an explanation about what is going on, when at one point there is quite enough of an explanation for the audience. It gets unnecessarily complicated and, while providing a reason for what is happening, seems to open up a whole new plot that seems like it belongs in a completely different movie. It walked a fine line tripping over itself at the end, but manages to redeem everything at the last minute.
The movie made quite a bit of money in Spain and eventually spawned three sequels. Unfortunately, it hasn't ever got its due in the U.S., thanks to only being released here after the success of Quarantine, and even now it appears to only be available in dubbed form on streaming services. It's a surprise because, while not given a chance to shine theatrically, [REC] has become a well-respected horror film, much more so than its American equivalent. It also remembers that to be truly frightening it has to get to the point and not overstay its welcome, although there is still plenty to enjoy packed into its short runtime.
Time: 78 minutes
Starring: Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano
Directors: Jaume Belagueró, Paco Plaza
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