Monday, September 21, 2009

[∙REC] (2007)

In a number of my reviews, I've spoken of my belief that some of the best horror movies of the last ten or fifteen years has come from outside the United States. Though I first started saying that in regards to Asian flicks like Ringu, Ju-on, and Audition, we've seen awesome movies coming from elsewhere. Australia and Canada have put their own two cents in, but quite a few significant contributions have come from Europe. Countries like France, Sweden, and England have made some fine additions to the genre with High Tension, Let the Right One In, and Shaun of the Dead.

Spain even got in on the act when they gave us the movie we're here to discuss at the moment, [∙REC]. While zombie movies are a dime a dozen, [∙REC] dared to be different by using a cinema vérité style that made it look like a zombie version of The Blair Witch Project. And although the movie was one of a deluge of movies with the same style released around the same time, [∙REC] is incredibly effective. And quite frankly, it's one of the scariest movies I've seen in a long while.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco), the host of a television show focusing on the various social services that operate during the late-night hours. On this particular episode, Ángela and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) are shadowing a team of Barcelona firefighters during their nightly routine. Though much of the evening is comprised of rather mundane occurrences, things start picking up once the fire department gets called to help the police deal with a screaming elderly woman who has locked herself inside her apartment.

But when they break down the door, the woman goes absolutely insane and violently attacks one of the responding policemen, nearly tearing his face off in no time flat. As they drag the injured cop back to the lobby, everyone is shocked to discover that the health department has quarantined the building as part of a biochemical hazard protocol. But while the quarantine causes everyone stranded inside to become irritable and paranoid, it has trapped them with something far worse than their own fears. A mysterious virus has somehow gotten loose inside the building, turning those it infects into enraged, bloodthirsty zombies.

[∙REC] is most assuredly one of the most effective horror movies I've ever had the chance to see. Everything about it from, start to finish, works. I have to admit that I wasn't sure what to expect going into the movie. I was afraid that it was going to be some silly Blair Witch wannabe in spite of the positive word of mouth I'd heard prior to watching it for the first time. But when I finally did see it, I was blown away. It was a really good movie. And this might sound like simple hyperbole, but [∙REC] absolutely scared the pants off me. It's not too often I can say that either, but it's true. [∙REC] had me jumping out of my seat with every scare, moments that come fast and furious throughout the movie. But just what about it makes it so good, hmm?

Let's start like my reviews typically do, with the direction. The movie is helmed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, a pair of individual horror directors who've teamed up for this particular flick. Doing that movie in a cinema vérité style is something that most people can either like or hate, but I found that it was something that worked in [∙REC]'s favor. With the movie shot from a first-person perspective, it allows things to sneak up on you and ultimately be scarier. None of the scares seem cheap or forced, and with cinematographer Pablo Rosso actually playing the cameraman within the movie, everything seems more natural.

That natural feeling is helped by the absence of a musical score. Music is good in setting the mood for other movies, but [∙REC]'s lack of it means that Balagueró and Plaza must try harder to set the tone with sound design. And if you ask me, I think they succeeded. Let's also not overlook the fact that Balagueró and Plaza pared the movie down to a sleek 75-minute running time, making [∙REC] a much more intense experience. The short running time affords precious little room to breathe once the ball really starts rolling. It allows Balagueró and Plaza to crank out scare after scare after scare, as if it were a cinematic roller coaster.

As the movie is based more on visual scares than psychological ones, you'd think that the script might suffer because of it. And to tell you the truth, the script — written by Balagueró, Plaza, and Luis Burdejo — is probably just a secondary element in the grand scheme of things. But aside from a few flaws here and there (such as a scene where the virus's origins are conveniently explained all at once), the script is relatively solid.

The characters are a little one-dimensional at times, but for the most part, they're good enough to pull you into the movie and make you worry about what will happen to them by the end of the movie. The only bad part of the whole thing is that the concept seems like they've just taken the zombies from 28 Days Later and stuck them into an apartment building. But even that's not totally bad, since putting a bunch of frightened, erratic characters in a small place with some rabid zombies, and you've got 75 minutes of entertaining chaos.

Last but not least is the ensemble cast, who all do fine jobs. They're all quite good, but since a lot of them are in roles so minor they practically blend into the background (while still retaining a particular distinctiveness), I'm just going to touch on some of the highlights. My favorite performance came from Manuela Velasco, who I thought was very charming in her role. She plays the character as inquisitive almost to the point of being pushy about it, and while the character is practically reduced to only running and screaming by the end of the movie, Velasco manages to maintain the viewer's attention and sympathy for the entire flick. Her character is perhaps the most crucial one of the movie, and she hits all the right notes.

I also thought that Jorge Serrano and Carlos Lasarte were great as a panicky police officer and a vain building resident respectively, and Ferran Terran played his part as one of the firefighters very well. It's hard to really pick any major standouts, though, because everyone gels together so well. So on the whole, the cast is fantastic.

If you're anything like me, then you'll find that [∙REC] will stick in your head for a few days after you see it for the first time. It's one of the few horror movies that really scared me at the level it did. It actually made me a little paranoid at first. I watched the movie for the first time in the dark in the middle of the night, and I kept thinking I heard something coming up behind me. [∙REC] almost made me scared of my own shadow, something most horror movies don't do nowadays. That's how effective it is. And for that, I'll definitely give [∙REC] four stars out of five. It's definitely a movie worth seeing if you're a horror fan.

Final Rating: ****

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