The literary device, ‘found-footage’, or epistolary narratives are as antiquated as Dracula or The Screwtape Letter – in filmmaking it’s still a relatively recent subgenre, celebrating its fortieth birthday with the 1980 release of Cannibal Holocaust. Before the endless slew of supernatural remakes and sequels, found-footage was an experimental style of filmmaking, capitalising on low budgets to further creativity rather than to cut corners.
So, in respecting a film which keeps itself short let’s cut to the chase – is REC one of the better found-footage horror films? Absolutely. Nearly fifteen years after an initial release, the Spanish horror film joined others in revitalising the subgenre into success throughout the mid to late 2000s (for better or worse). It all begins with a siren, a precursory warning to the later events of the film. This foreshadowing, inconsequential as it appears, interrupts reporter Ángela’s broadcast on a night-time ride-along with the local fire department. Ángela and her cameraman follow a rescue unit as they embark on what appears to be a case of a trapped individual in the top floors of an apartment, arriving to find distressed residents, a missing dog, and peculiar moans and smells from a locked apartment.
But for Ángela, journalistic integrity and thirst for a scoop pushes them to document the unfolding chaos as the police, fire-fighters and residents grow to realise there’s far more going on inside these isolated apartments. This profanity-laden assurance that everything is documented and caught on camera is part of the charm in Manuela Velasco’s performance as Ángela. Energetic and frantic, but still with humour to generate the necessary connection with the audience.
Given the short length of the film, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza waste little time before suspense kicks in, but to the film’s credit, they understand the value in placing character above cheap scares, embedding enough empathy with the audience to instil a sense of concern for those under threat. From the older couple who bicker to the ‘eccentric’ who everyone wants to avoid, the film’s direction maintains a sense of reality – even as REC descends into tension and carnage.
Though there are shortcuts, the medical intern who happens to live in the building serves as the film’s quick note, the provider of answers and hope concerning the virus comes over as a quick fix to offer exposition and jargon. Somewhat underdeveloped, the mystery and religious subtexts of the writing deserves slightly better but rewards those willing to re-watch and delve into the murky subtext.
Addressing the elephant in the room, given the viral nature of the disease spreading the zombified plague, REC doesn’t require real-world consequences to inspire terror. It was chilling in 2007, and it’s equally as troublesome now. The gore is bloodthirsty, and the intimacy and immediate threat posed becomes more visceral as the film progresses. Claustrophobic, the film’s lighting highlights the cast’s expressions but equally stretches the tight, dark corners of the building. Much of the genuine moments of fright emerge from the sound direction. As an ‘authentic’ found-footage film, it has no score, and the gut-churning silence provides an unwelcome stillness belying something more dangerous beneath the bumps and groans echoing across the building.
Serving up both theatrical and production versions of the film, Arrow’s Blu-ray comes with two audio commentaries. One from writer/ directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, but another from film critic and historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (certainly the one for horror fans). If you have the stomach for more viral epidemics, this Spanish found-footage with its claustrophobic nature and unpredictable writing has carved a significant name for itself on the flesh of found-footage horror.
Available on Blu-ray and the Arrow Video Channel now