This post is the first in a three-part series on "found footage" horror films. Although I typically find the format exhausted and largely ineffective, I've chosen three films from the past decade which I feel rise above their peers. These films are [REC] (2007), The Last Exorcism (2010), and The Visit (2015); these reviews will focus on each film individually, not only as horror entries, but also as to their place in the massive "found footage" catalog.
There's a certain sigh that I make when I pop in a horror flick and realize I'm about to sit through 70-plus minutes of "found footage." It's a tired sigh, one that reflects memories of a hundred or more movies that were made cheaply and quickly and pointlessly - attempts to leverage the success of a brilliant few whose use of the format was both fundamental and relevant. I'd point to The Blair Witch Project, of course, as an early and quite excellent example; the exploitation classic Cannibal Holocaust even used the concept effectively. Sadly, though, this bulging sub-genre has spiraled into a formulaic and inexpensive method for making otherwise forgettable movies. In fact, if I'd known [REC] was a "found footage" film before I'd pressed PLAY, I might not have watched it at all.
Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza bring us a refreshing approach to "found footage" with [REC]. The scenario here provides an adequate and believable premise for why the camera is running, even to the end. The story is believable, the characters realistic and even somewhat fleshed-out, and the tension builds steadily and forcefully. [REC] is an impressive accomplishment technically, as well, with long takes featuring non-stop action happening to multiple characters as the camera spins and moves and itself tries to retreat. While later entries in the [REC] franchise (there are four, total) feel more sloppy in execution and less palpable in concept, this film is a delight to watch and sink into.
Energetic and attractive Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) is a reporter for a television show that focuses on people and organizations who do their work at night. This particular evening she and her cameraman (Pablo Rosso) are camped out at a fire station; after shooting requisite scenes showing off the station's personnel and amenities, they're a bit bored and tired and hoping for an alarm to put the whole place (and their program) into action. Both Manuela and Pablo perform very well, their characters better-built than the typical leads in this sort of thing. Ángela is strong-willed, managing to focus on telling the story she's forced to be a part of, at times even a bit annoying in her persistence. Pablo manages to be a bigger part of the story than expected, especially considering his minimal presence on-screen.
Supporting cast members are strong as well, particularly the building's tenants. An older man with a bit of a crush on Pablo and surprisingly intolerant of immigrants; a mother separated from her husband, unwilling to separate herself from her young and possibly infected daughter; a moral and helpful fireman in contrast to a bullying and suspicious police officer; an Asian couple as confused and afraid of the unfolding horrors as they might seem to their neighbors on any other day. It is through these small-but-well-written characters that [REC] achieves more than the usual; the thin layers of social commentary are tangible and rich, universal enough to bridge language and culture gaps. It comes as no shock to see a group of neighbors who barely know each other, to see friction between civilians and law enforcement, to see racism and intolerance, to imagine the frustration of a journalist fighting for her freedom to report; these bits of reality keep the film grounded in a world we know and experience every day.
[REC] balances it's archetypes skillfully, brushing against caricature without spilling into predictability or boredom. Its commentary is never preachy or dogmatic; it serves (in a minor way) as an unbiased documentary on contemporary social issues, pushing the envelop of the format it's built on. Possibly the most potent of these is an observation on sexism; Ángela sits at the center of misogynistic perspective. Men, who at first smile warmly, turn her away when she takes a stand, dismiss her as a pest, and imagine her a subordinate; [REC] puts it all on the screen without recompense or moral center - something you shamefully think of later - not unlike such injustices in real life.
Of course, [REC] is ultimately a horror film, and a masterful one at that. There is a steady increase in tension, ever rising, in a sort of parallel to the characters ascending up flights of stairs towards the film's climax. Balagueró and Plaza pull this off seemingly without effort, and it really is an accomplishment I can't understate. Each scare raises the bar a bit higher than the last, and the film holds you there, never letting you feel back at ease. It's not a long movie (clocking in at 78 minutes), but by the end you do feel you've spent the night in this building of terror.
Rating: 4/5 Stars
I absolutely recommend watching this movie, and since it's probably one you'll watch again in a few years, I'd suggest grabbing a copy for your shelf. It is "found footage," but one that wisely uses the concept to its advantage. A surprising and thoroughly enjoyable film, [REC] roots itself in the real world just enough to stand tall where most of its peers stumble.