Can one ever see too many zombie films? Admittedly, last week I turned off Severed, but the question with [REC] – a question which often arises in the context of the zombie film, and the genre film more generally – is one which relates to the originality of its ingredients. This Spanish film puts into play two notable factors which may raise this question, one of technique (handheld camera) and one of content (reality television). Both are deployed to good, though not spectacular, effect. The narrative begins as Angela Vidal, host of a low-budget late-night documentary TV show, follow some firemen on duty into a building where a woman is trapped. As things in the building take an increasingly nasty turn, escape is made impossible as the authorities quarantine the area (indeed, the inevitable American remake is titled Quarantine), and tensions between those trapped inside rise (racial and official, among others). In the horror arena, handheld camera, I would say, still remains associated with The Blair Witch Project, but is increasingly becoming normalised as a technique (for example, in the surprisingly good Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity - of which more below).
At first the film is a little slow-moving, and, frankly, irritating. The narrative, however, contains a momentum which builds almost unnoticed, catching the attention of the viewer (at least this viewer). The reality TV show as frame certainly has potential, and is still a field ripe for further exploration (I’ve appreciated works like Series 7, Dead Set and Drawn Together), and here it is this conceit, along with the handheld camera, which allows the film to provide some seriously nasty scares. However, [REC] doesn’t scale the heights of the truly blood-curdling Paranormal Activity which also employs a narrative based around a camera hand-held by a character. The narrative itself is not particularly original, and the explanatory framework emerges late in the piece – one almost wishes that it was either more fully explored, or left aside (although REC 2 was recently released). Nonetheless, [REC] does what it does very effectively, and the way in which the film provides its gore relatively early in the piece, before turning to looming menace and horror means that the viewer – this viewer at least – is taken unawares in terms of expectations, making the scares that eventuate all the more successful. The setting (the film takes place entirely in a smallish apartment building) will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time in Europe, and is rather well-embodied as a scene of banal domesticity turned to fear and chaos – which isn’t a shopping mall.
[REC] is not a must-watch by any means, but definitely makes a worthwhile contribution to the zombie oeuvre, and is never less than entertaining… it creeps up on you, I think, would be the appropriate phrase.