In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
MOVIE: [REC], 2007
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: FOUND FOOTAGE, GHOSTWATCH, 28 DAYS LATER, ZOMBIES, CLAUSTROPHOBIA
In 2019, it seems almost impossible to create a unique found footage film. Sure they can deliver jump scares and GIF-able bites that proliferate on Twitter, but few seem to stick in our collective media consciousness. But one that will always stand out is Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s 2007 found-footage horror, [REC], which inspired the American remake, Quarantine (2008).
[REC] begins with a television crew heading to a firehouse to film a series called While You’re Sleeping. Host Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco, an actual TV host) and her cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso, an actual cinematographer) trail a group of firemen, capturing their lives at the firehouse, from eating to entertainment. Then, they are fortunate enough to get to follow the team on a call, which is about an old woman screaming in her apartment. As the crew arrives at the building, they are unaware of the hell they are about the encounter. The longer Ángela and Pablo film, the more they realize that something is spreading through the building’s residents. They eventually discover, through notes in the attic, that this is a mutated form of rabies that renders its victims aggressive and zombie-like.
[REC] showcases the true terror of found footage horror and the feelings it can convey, from claustrophobia to total desperation. I believe a series of factors, from its cultural context to its format, came together in the perfect combination at the perfect time to give [REC] its lasting impact.
The first factor of [REC]’s success is the year of its release. It initially came out in 2007, the same year as Cloverfield, which meant that the subgenre wasn’t saturated yet. In fact, it was still rather experimental. This let [REC] set guidelines, or at the very least suggestions, and expectations for future films. Also, these earlier found footage films were indicative of their time, reflecting post-9/11 anxieties about invasion and the destruction of the domestic space. In fact, Balagueró and Plaza decided to have the television crew follow firefighters because of their increased admiration after September 11th.
The film’s setting alone reflects how [REC] works within a post-9/11 context as the horrors unfold within an apartment building. It is a domestic space, a place that would be assumed to be a safe place where you can hide or retreat from the world. Not any more. The infection begins in the building’s penthouse and trickles down through its residents, bringing disease and death to the domestic world. With its use of an infection, [REC] is able to illustrate the creeping destruction and demolition of the idea of the home as safe; it is not instantaneous, instead slowly moving through people until it all crumbles.
[REC] is a Spanish film, which would seem to mean that it would not address post-9/11 fears that were so prevalent in the United States. However, the terrorist attacks of September 11 had international cinematic impact. The United States was seen as the pinnacle of defense, an impenetrable force. So after those attacks, the world realized that no one was truly safe. So while Cloverfield exemplifies, and even marks the beginning of, post-9/11 horror cinema from the United States, [REC] showcases how those fears traveled and manifested overseas.
[REC]’s format is reminiscent of Lesley Manning’s 1992 mock television broadcast, Ghostwatch. While [REC] is not marketed as a live broadcast, it adopts a similar structure where it begins as a news broadcast that eventually goes horribly wrong. This format also provides a logical reason to why the camera is there and always on. Ángela and Pablo have been tasked with recording the truth, no matter what that truth is, so the camera will never stop rolling.
This format of documentary-gone-wrong also references [REC]’s post-9/11 context. Documenting the events directly after the first terrorist attack was crucial in attempting to understand what happened on that day. It also became a way of exposing the truth of horrors happening in the Middle East, such as at the Abu Ghraib prison. Found-footage horror in general, but especially in a film about a news reporter, directly references these cultural obsessions and turns them into horrifying entertainment.
I already touched on the destruction of the domestic in [REC] but the apartment building also functions as a crucial piece is creating fear and claustrophobia. While the building is obviously larger than a house and full of individual dwellings, it begins to feel extremely small as its residents pour into the halls, stairwell, and lobby. Also, with so many enclosed units, there aren’t many places to hide when an infected person runs at you, snarling and ready to kill.
The claustrophobia exponentially goes up when the building is placed under quarantine and no one is allowed to leave. Everyone is confined to this space, which also lets the infection spread faster. [REC] is a condensed experience in that it moves from the streets of Barcelona to a dark apartment building that feels absolutely suffocating. Bodies literally pile up and hiding places slowly dwindle. [REC] takes a regular space and makes it more horrifying than the woods or a haunted house.
“[REC] is a condensed experience in that it moves from the streets of Barcelona to a dark apartment building that feels absolutely suffocating.”
[REC] took a lot of inspiration from 28 Days Later (2002) in the creation of its zombies. Like in Danny Boyle’s zombie classic, the infected of [REC] contract what seems to be a mutated form of rabies that is spread through bodily fluids. They’re also fast, frantic, and brutal. However, it is revealed that this zombie-like infection is caused by demonic possession (this detailed more in the subsequent sequels). Regardless of this infection’s cause, it spreads like a virus, through bites or contact with any bodily fluids.
This infection gives its host red or white eyes, an emaciated body, and bloodlust. Some of the infected barely appear human, such as Tristana Medeiros, who is the source of the possession virus. She looks more like a monster than woman, from her lanky hair to her strange pale frame. These creatures are unlike any zombie figure, a cross between undead and demon. This hybrid of horror creatures, combined with claustrophobia and a lot of darkness, make [REC] an extremely tense and agonizing experience that sets the found footage bar extremely high.
What do you think of [REC]? Do you have any other favorite international found footage films? Sound off on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and in the Horror Fiends of Nightmare on Film Street Facebook group!