The horror…: “[REC]”
January 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Fear is a highly infectious thing, as virulent as the nameless contagion that decimates an entire cast of characters over the course of an hour-and-a-bit in this standard-bearing found-footage horror film. Actually, fear is far more transmissible than whatever it is that is turning the residents of a small apartment block somewhere in Spain into rabid beasts, because while the fourth wall quite effectively protects viewers from being attacked and devoured and zombified, the desperate terror and burgeoning hopelessness that gradually reduces “[REC]’s” chief protagonist to a hysterical mess radiates/permeates through whatever screen the film is being viewed on, almost unfiltered. Bearing witness to the sheer intensity of emotion (not simply fear) that overtakes this group of people – the genuine panic and confusion and aggressive survivalism that descends upon them as it slowly becomes evident they are doomed – only works to heighten the effectiveness of the film’s primary elements of horror which are (a) simple jump scares and (b) constant dread punctuated by sharps bursts of weird sorrow. It’s a very surprising feeling to watch this film and realise that a great many characters that populate as many horror films – a lot of them audience surrogates – are pretty poor communicators and expressers of fear. Yes, they scream, they moan, they raise hell and portions of purgatory as they fight to live, but if one really sits down and analyses the degree to which their emotional stress as a viewer is dependent on the emotional stress displayed by the characters on-screen, there would almost certainly be a disparity. It sometimes seems that makers of horror films focus on their characters’ fear just enough to create an illusion of verisimilitude (i.e. a person who is being attacked would most likely scream, thus character A screams when attacked by character B), but when it comes to inducing in an audience the same fear that these characters are supposedly experiencing, the focus often seems to be on the timing of scares, the ebb and flow of tension, and levels of blood and gore as opposed to the whole ‘I scream because you scream’ phenomenon; call it sympathetic fear, if you will. The genre is perhaps much better at depicting crafty and smart survivalists like Jamie Leigh-Curtis’ character in “Halloween” or individuals trying to make sense of the bizarre i.e. the Christie/Sutherland couple in “Don’t Look Now” or Mia Farrow as Rosemary. The weakest aspect of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, the element that contributes least to its potency as a horror film, is the lip-service screaming and shrieking of the Marilyn Burns character as she is being pursued by Leatherface, even though the scene itself is nail-biting, more on account of everything else: the snuff-film graininess of the visuals, the shocking speed and bloodlust of the kinda plump assailant, and the disquieting sense of isolation. What the makers of [REC] get so right is that they manage to understand that there is no point in adopting the found-footage form if the key to its horror potential is not utilised, the key being the idea that what is being witnessed actually occurred to actual people and that this should ultimately evoke a heightened degree of viewer sympathy as compared to something presented as being clearly fictional. One of the official taglines for the film was indeed ‘Experience Fear.’ Accordingly, the performances in [REC] make the movie; not the effects (which themselves are first-rate) or the visual authenticity (which is fairly spot-on), but the skilful way in which the true horror of the characters’ experience is conveyed, not just by the fact that the camera’s shakiness is an obvious expression of chaos. It’s unnerving to watch an initially lively, somewhat gutsy protagonist succumb so severely to terror.
The character of Angela Vida (embodied with bratty verve by Manuela Velasco), essentially the main protagonist of “[REC]”, is presented from scene number one as a go-getter of sorts, fearless in the way that one would assume journalists to be: unafraid of asking hard questions, keen on getting in people’s faces and demanding the truth, but more likely a scoop. She is the host of a television show called “While You’re Sleeping” which presumably provides the average TV-watching populace a peek into the lives of those who are awake, alert and at work across Barcelona while everyone else is drooling into their pillows. On this particular instalment, she and her practically unseen cameraman Pablo, whose point-of-view the viewer assumes, are attached to a pair of firefighters who are called out to an apartment block at night to free an old woman who is locked in her unit; an old woman who turns out to be rabid and cannibalistic, the cause of which becomes increasingly conspiratorial as people in hazmat suits cordon off the building and seemingly stand back so as to let nature take its course and let the darn pestilence destroy itself. For a good portion of the first half of the crisis, Angela insists that proceedings be caught on camera for the sake of justice and transparency, but it’s hard to pinpoint the moment in which all of her dedication to the fifth estate leaps out the window and her survivalist drive assumes control, reaching a frenzied pitch. For the viewer who takes emotional refuge in Angela’s gutsy, confident personality and her youthful sense of invincibility (which should be many if not most, because the character is arguably fashioned by the filmmakers as not just an audience surrogate but as some sort of audience oasis), watching the magnitude of the situation gradually establish itself in Angela’s mind is a slowly unnerving process.
Another core narrative element that drives the engine of fear on which this movie runs is its use of verite techniques and the sense of faux-reality that this creates in combination with a phenomenon whose cause is unexplained. For a large portion of the runtime of “[REC]” there is a constant and palpable uncertainty which in itself feeds into the overall atmosphere of dread. Are the characters under threat from some highly virulent pathogen i.e. is this simply rabies or a rabies-like disease, or is this something a little stranger? Do the authorities who so quickly cordon off the building, trapping the TV crew, the firemen and the residents in a cauldron of blood and death, know exactly what it is they are protecting the rest of the public from, or are they as hopelessly clueless on the outside as are the poor souls on the inside? The beauty of “[REC]”, as it exists within zombie movie canon, is that the characters within the universe of the film have no real reason to expect that they are in the presence of zombies, whatever zombies are. It is much more likely that they would fear some sort of outbreak which – as the recent Ebola mini-epidemic illustrates so well – is enough to terrify the shit out of people. So, rather than going into ‘zombie-mode’ and strapping on as many weapons as they can so as to mow down the next wave of moaning, flesh-hungry corpses, the characters in this film remain confused and fretfully instinctive in their behaviour. There is no concerted effort to calculatedly eliminate the rapidly growing population of undead within the building, only a concerted effort to stay alive enough to escape into the outside world, which once again smacks of verisimilitude. Unfortunately, the ending is marred by a suspiciously obligatory attempt at explaining what exactly might be happening in the apartment block, when this very lack of information played a large part in breeding fear up to that point. This is not helped by the fact that the tentative explanation provided is far less plausible than whatever air of implausibility the film might have initially given off.
Now, as for whether “[REC]” as a horror film has much on its mind, there is a fairly clear undercurrent of social consciousness running through it, but of the kind that is less interested in discourse and debate than it is in reinforcing awareness. As previously mentioned, a key theme of the film is transparency and the idea that those in seats of knowledge and power are responsible for ensuring that the masses are informed. “[REC]” also questions or at least ponders how dispensable the individual is in the face of the greater public interest. Both of these actually enhance the horrific nature of the scenario by tapping into a latent distrust of authority that has suffused the public consciousness – and certainly cinema – to varying degrees since Watergate at the very least. The film also alludes to the idea that crisis can expose both the best and the worst of humanity or at least the best and the worst of a particular society, and the elements of racism and classism that pepper the narrative suggest that Spanish society is somehow being examined by means of a hypothetical crisis. But for all the half-hearted intellectualisation being made here, one sure assessment is that “[REC]” is at its core an unprecedentedly successful combined revision of two heavily utilised horror tropes, one a decades-old staple and the other an increasingly tired modern fad.
Tagged: angela vida, apartment, authorities, barcelona, blood, cinema, don't look now, experience fear, fear, fifth estate, firefighters, found-footage, fourth wall, halloween, hazmat, horror, infectious, jamie leigh-curtis, leatherface, manuela velasco, marilyn burns, mia farrow, spain, survivalist, texas chainsaw massacre, tv crew, while you're sleeping, zombies, [REC]