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Directors: Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza
review by Paul Higson
I don't hand out five-star ratings too often (check this site for proof of that) and I find myself conducting a short examination as to what is so special this time. The simple fact is that I find myself unable to fault Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's [REC]. Oh, to be sure, there are other current releases more ingenious in the plotting, populated by better-rounded characters and nitid with memorable dialogue. It is also true that those classier films at some point blunder. It is sometimes small, but unforgivable, the ruination of the illusion. I refuse to take into account the longer running time on other productions and apply a value per minute, the onus is on the filmmakers by taking longer over a story to get those additional minutes right. If they can't, then keep it shorter. [REC] wisely delivers its simple premise in 86 minutes, and it has no ideas above its station. It is clever enough, and enough is exactly what it understands needs to be done, and more than enough is what is achieved. The film undulates impeccably between moments of intense horror and the inter-lapping filler. When I refer to 'filler' let us try for once to remove the negative connotations, as sometimes filler serves a real purpose. In [REC] the audience needs reprieves from the intense violence and gruelling horror, nor do they need to be insulted with unnecessary plotting. Balagueró, Plaza and co-scriptwriter Luis Berdejo occupy those intervals with the lightest of relief complemented by the ruse of the camera as both eyewitness and a production tool.
There is never a slack moment in [REC] not even during the supposed 'downtime' of the opening section at the fire station, which is in fact as alive because of the natural behaviour of those on camera and the digital freshness with which it is caught. Manuela Valasco takes the anti-heroine role of Angela the host of one of those no budget ad hoc television series that act as morning-side filler (you can reapply the negative connotation on 'filler' here) spending the small hours with Madrid's twilight shift workers. Tonight they accompany the crew at a Madrid fire station. The series is called 'While You Were Sleeping' leading one of the fire-fighters to quip amusingly, "well, who's going to be watching?" It is surely an ironic title for a series shot in a city that reputedly never sleeps. The intended episode might actually be a 'pilot' for the girl and her sole cameraman, Marcos. The fire service, after all, is third only after the police and A&E, who may already have rejected them, and they are clearly unfamiliar with the surroundings or the boredom of waiting for something to happen. The impatient Angela bemoans the lack of an emergency. She will get her emergency.
The emergency in question promises to be low-key as a woman is reported "trapped in her apartment," a vague enough description that masks the true horror that awaits them. Two firemen enter the building, filmed by the TV duo, and are met by a policeman (Vicente Gil) and the caretaker (a great performance, sadly the character will become the next victim), and a handful of the residents who have been instructed to gather in the lobby. They make their way to the gloomy apartment of the howling overweight woman who razors her teeth into the building manager's face. The building goes into lockdown around them as an alert goes up to a possible contamination. The next couple of hours are captured in the 'on' and 'off' of the camera as the trapped die and return to hurtling animalistic flesh hungry 'life'. The film ends with the last of the building's survivors discovering the ugly secret and source of the outbreak in the 'penthouse' suite. Trust me, all glamorous notions are ejected and scraped from the word 'penthouse' here as the camera explores the grubbily decorated rooms, filthy and dense with laboratory detritus, press cuttings and collapsing furnishings: it really is hell in the attic. The 'thing' that occupies these rooms is even more unnerving.
Earlier on the day of the screening Viva! held an event 'the rise and rise of Spanish genre cinema' hosted by Alan Jones, with Jaume Balagueró and Cronocrimenes' director Nacho Vigalondo on the panel. It was a bit frustrating for me as I had my own set understanding and opinion which is that among country's Spanish cinema is quality-wise the most consistent, but its horror cinema is as hit and miss as it is with any country. The title of the event should simply have been 'the occasional rise of the Spanish horror film (horror has become 'the genre' but all films fall into one genre or another).
Balagueró began with a familiar tack of seemingly wanting to argue his film away from being described purely as a horror film, when we are familiar with his track record in horror and I fully expected to come away from [REC] later that day with the clear opinion that it is a horror film. In 2000, when I first met Balaguer�, we discussed some then-great examples of the Spanish horror film, and I mentioned La Madre Muerta. Balagueró responded that it was not horror. I retorted: "It's Catalan Gothic." He came back: "Exactly!" Balagueró gets a little too caught up what constitutes a horror film, and I think that this kind of attitude can become a bugbear for the horror fan. It harks back to the mid-1980s when Jeff Boam (on The Dead Zone), Alan Parker (on Angel Heart), and Mike Marvin (on The Wraith) tried to maintain that their films where not horror but, respectively, a low SF thriller, a noir with occult trappings, and a supernatural road movie. This reached its hilarious nadir or apogee (you decide which) when David Lynch asked what genre Blue Velvet was in repeatedly answered that it was in the 'Blue Velvet genre'.
I understand where writers and directors are coming from when they report this point of view but it is a point of view based on an experience and that experience is the writing or direction and it astonishes me that filmmakers remain determined to deny the genre in which the end product so obviously ultimately nestles. A writer may spend months on a script, a director three months on a shoot, nine months on a production. The scenes of horror are spaced out in the writing and filming. The viewer watches the film in a 90-minute timeframe with the horrors meted out over a much shorter period of time. The relationship is different.
I have imagined a near complete film in my head, which I observed was horror, and have engaged in the writing of that spec screenplay. At the end of 120 pages I sat back and my immediate reaction was that this was not a horror script but a 'conceptual thriller'. Thereupon I had the sense to immediately flip the notion to potential viewer status. George Romero would probably agree that Dawn Of The Dead was a horror film, was an action film, was an adventure film, was a comedy, was a romance, was a social realist drama, was a satire, was an allegory... each of these genre and categories of film but also all of them. Filmmakers should not get too het up about the genre of their films or those of others. So despite his apparent stance during the event it was good to hear Balagueró refer to [REC] at the screening only as his 'horror film', and it would appear that he's not averse to the view that any film falls into the genre that each individual member of the audience might place it.
During the event a member of the audience asked whether the directors thought there was a 'Spanish style' and the directors tried to answer the question when they should have thrown it back at the audience member to tell them if he as an Englishman perceived a style. Vigalondo did respond that, obviously and clearly, Spanish filmmakers made films first and fore-mostly as Spaniards and did not try to make 'Spanish films'. Spanish films don't feel Spanish it is because the makers have considered other markets in pre-production. To me, films become more Spanish the more inland and urban they are directed and as a result Madrid is an ideal location for that, far enough away from the costas and the sand and sea worshipping tourists and pensioner migrants.
The Orphanage suffered because it was more remote and stylised. [REC] is every bit the Spanish film. It captures details that are peculiar to Spanish life and Spanish design, from the spacious fire station layout and in the equipment through to the cooling lobby of the infected building. It is felt in the single staircase with the lighting that periodically cuts out demanding at the best of time that you whack those strategically places switches again and again (in the film they cut out logically but also at the most inopportune times for the trapped and terrified characters). When the remaining survivors search the building manager's apartment for keys it has furnishings of a familiar serious, hardy, dark style that was once a status symbol during the Franco era and now belong to a clutching old guard generation now on the way out.
Balagueró and Plaza tormented their cast by not allowing them a complete script, and misled them to expect a staircase assault a floor after it actually takes place. The performances are great throughout and when real firefighters are mixed into the opening sequence it is hard to separate the actors from the real thing. There is a lot of play with the technical side to filming interviews both prior to and during the emergency. It is very late in the proceedings when the stubborn media starlet realises that she might not reap the rewards of her unique footage. Sound effects, sudden violence and dire situations heap one on top of the other and never failing in effect. Real and realistically comical characters populate the chaos. A rewind sequence throws the film a little because we have been allowed to consider this rescued footage (in the manner of Cloverfield) but informs us that this is actually an as it is happening situation. It is still an unwieldy moment which the film could do without but it is a very minor gripe and forgivable.
The film here benefits from the fact that my five-star review comes on the first viewing. A second screening might open it up to other flaws, but this review rightly captures the initial effect that the movie has on me. Romero's Diary Of The Dead opened on the same weekend of this preview but I have not seen that yet. Cloverfield I have seen and enjoyed but Cloverfield's opening sequence is less successful and is useful for comparison as [REC] confirms my belief that it could have been improved upon. Cloverfield's opening party sequence never feels right. It does not feel real, and the focus pulling is a giveaway to the fakery. The handheld camera is constantly in motion but never struggles in its automatically focusing on the faces of Cloverfield's handsome young cast. Cloverfield improves as the story gets underway, but the dull young Americans with a twenty-something Vice-President (given that there are no examples of his intelligence, Vice President of what... the lemonade stand on the corner of the street?) and too much of the camerawork never rings true. The camerawork in the opening of [REC] really does convey natural life and light, the calm air of night and wide interior industrial spaces that Spain can still afford. As said, [REC] doesn't really put a foot wrong.
The entire story of [REC] is captured by one camera and we never see Marcos' face. Pablo Rosso, the actual DoP on the film, essays Marcos' movements and we are further informed that Rosso attempted the dialogue also but that it was later dubbed by a professional actor. Following the screening at Viva! 14th Spanish and Latin American film festival in Manchester, one audience member enquired into the fate of the Angela character at the film's end but quite early in the proceedings the outlook is grim for all concerned and I was frankly astonished that any member of the audience could be particularly concerned about Angela. It is clear from the start that Angela is a bit of a twat and is later revealed to be a despicable careerist cow hungry for the gory money shot, ready to step over the dead and the dying for it and eager for early fame. Selfish, not particularly intelligent (she is unable to recall the word for siren at one point), petulant, hysterical before there is a need to be, obnoxiously defending the right to film events as they unfurl, she is a spoilt Madrilenian child, and her fate is never less than overdue... Did I say 'bit of a twat'? More of a C U next Tuesday... Spanish television star Manuela Velasco, picked up the Goya for her performance and deserving it is too.
[REC] is under threat from an American remake called 'Contagion', which began filming three months after the completion of the original. It is unlikely to be released in America until after the remake is released. Fortunately this will not be the situation in the UK where Odeon Sky Filmworks will release it on 11 April 2008. Let us campaign to ensure that the film gets more than a notional distribution deal. This film deserves a chance to be seen in cinemas across in the UK. Somebody out there do your fucking job and give this the widest circulation. Demand to see it in cinemas and accept no substitute.
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