Saturday, February 28, 2009

Movie Reviews: It's Scary Because It Totally Happened For Real

[REC] (2007) **Hecho en España**
Directors: Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza
Writers: Jaume Balaguero, Luis Berdejo, and Paco Plaza
Starring: a bunch of Spanish actors you've never heard of


Quarantine (2008) **Made in the U.S.A.!**
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (and the Spanish guys)

Jennifer Carpenter (from Dexter, I've never seen the show)
Greg Germann (TV actor, used to be on Ally McBeal)
Rade Serbedzija (all-purpose seedy Eastern European)

Horror, more than most genres, depends on the audience's suspension of disbelief. If viewers don't believe in the monster, if they're not invested in the characters, then no amount of clever editing or special effects will scare them. To draw viewers into their reality, horror films have constantly searched for new methods of creating verisimilitude, whether it be realistic gore, naturalistic dialogue, or by exploiting real-life tragedies. In the age of Youtube and cell phone cameras, the obvious next step was the use of "amateur" footage. Even when dealing with absurd ideas like zombies or monsters, the qualities that define amateur video - grainy visuals, shakiness, the complete lack of editing - create the illusion of "real" in a way that even the most jaded Youtuber can get sucked into.

The first film to embrace the amateur footage conceit wholeheartedly was The Blair Witch Project, all the way back in 1999. Despite the film's phenomenal success, it took a surprisingly long time for imitators to emerge. Even the sequel eschewed the amateur documentary style in preference for a more traditional narrative format. But over the past two years, there's been a slow but steady trickle of horror films that maintain the pretense of being amateur videos. For example, George Romero's Diary of the Dead is yet another sequel in his zombie franchise, but it is the first to be "recorded" by characters actually trapped in a zombie apocalypse. And the nausea-inducing Cloverfield tapped into our collective memories of 9/11 while an amateur cameraman filmed a giant monster destroying New York City.

With the stage set, enter the Spanish. For a country with a tiny film industry, Spain has produced a large number of excellent horror films. So perhaps it's not surprising that Spanish filmmakers would revive the Blair Witch gimick and make a movie that's actually scary. [REC] is, of course, a reference to the 'record' function of a video camera, and the film pretends to be an unscripted recording by a cameraman for a TV program that covers nighttime jobs. The unseen cameraman is named Pablo, which is rather amusing considering that the actual cinematographer is Pablo Rosso, who I guess plays himself. He and the show's attractive host, Angela (played by Manuela Velasco), follow a pair of firemen as they respond to an emergency at an apartment. Apparently, an old woman is screaming and scaring the hell out of her neighbors. Unfortunately for Angela and Pablo, the old woman isn't just crazy; she's infected with a terrible disease that's turned her into a rabid killer, and one bite is all it takes to pass it on to another. Even more unfortunate for the duo, the Spanish government decides to deal with the problem by sealing off the entire building and trapping them inside.

Having apparently milked Japanese horror for all its worth, Hollywood turned to Spain, and [REC] got remade with a bigger budget and a better looking cast. The American version is, however, remarkably faithful to its source. It retains the "real" video conceit, using several tricks such as shaky camerawork and hiding the edits through abrupt interruptions in the video. The plot is also basically the same, and several scenes from the Spanish original are copied in perfect detail.

There are differences between the two versions, and most favor the Spanish. Hollywood films always have a certain glitz and polish to them, no matter how "realistic" they're supposed to be. This isn't always a problem, but when a movie is pretending to be actual amateur footage, the illusion quickly breaks down when the hot Latina from Heroes shows up. The American version also can't resist standard horror lighting, where everything is dark except for some convenient illumination around the actors. The Spanish original stuck to light sources that would actually be available to the characters, so everything and everyone kind of looks like crap (though the need for lighting leads to one bizarre foul-up, where we clearly see the light of day coming through some windows in a story that's supposed to take place entirely at night!). Also, [REC] is a much leaner movie, at less than an hour and a half. My favorite bit from the Spanish version, however, is that the cameraman never appears on camera (except for his shoes). The Pablo "character" is little more than a voyeur with just enough courage to walk down a dark hall: in effect, he's the avatar for the viewer, and this effectively makes the viewer a character in the film. The American version fouls this up completely, and turns the cameraman into just another whiny jerk trapped in the apartment building.

If you don't suffer from motion sickness and you're looking for a decent scare, give [REC] a try. It's a well-crafted little flick and it's worth it to put up with subtitles. But if you're the type who really hates to read, then I suppose you could do worse than Quarantine.

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