In Horror Bucket List, I fill in gaps in my horror film knowledge based on recommendations from friends on Twitter. We then have a back and forth discussion about their history with the film.
Plot: Television reporter Ángela (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso), follow emergency workers into a dark apartment building and are quickly locked inside with something terrifying.
Alright, so you’re probably going to hate me for saying this, but I’ve seen the American remake of this film, Quarantine, but not the original. When did you see it and why are you such a big fan?
I can’t even remember when I first saw this movie! I want to say it was back in 2009 or so when I was in film school at York University and had access to the Sound and Moving Image Library (highly recommended if you’re a York student – they have EVERYTHING, and I miss SMIL to this day). I had a few film geek horror fan friends who raved about it, so I checked out the DVD.
I’ve always preferred fast zombies over slow ones. The infected in 28 Days Later scare me more than the shambling Romero-esque zombies, which seem way too easy to run from. The infected apartment-dwellers of [REC] are all screaming, snarling, spasming, twitching – they’re constantly moving and constantly on the attack, which makes [REC]’s pacing fast and furious, and totally unpredictable.
I’m not a huge fan of found footage films, but the way [REC] is filmed obviously contributes to the depiction of these “zombie”-fied residents. How does this film stack up for you compared to other found footage films?
I don’t mind found footage films, but I think the genre is oversaturated so there’s a lot of crap to wade through to find good ones. I haven’t really seen one that’s as close to perfect as the original Blair Witch (ironically, I really like As Above, So Below, which is directed by John Erick Dowdle, who also did Quarantine). [REC] comes close, though.
Generally, I think there was a period of time in the early 2000s, post-Blair Witch, that was the golden age of found footage (I still love the original Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield, no shame), and [REC] is a big part of that era. What it does, and what these other movies do that makes me love them, is actually use the “found footage” technique to their advantage. Stuff like the lack of cuts, the shaky camera, the feeling of being right there with the characters while horrible things happen around them – I think found footage films that fail either don’t bother and look too much like a standard film, or they go way too over-the-top. Remember when every found footage film was just nonstop shaky cam? Nobody wants to barf at the movies.
100%. I want a little bit of nausea, but that’s it. [REC] does that well, in part by keeping Ángela front and centre, with her talking head commentary and her interviews, nearly all the way up until the last act. What are your thoughts on our lead?
Ángela is also one of my favourite female horror protagonists and a great “final girl” who remains capable, level-headed, and decisive for nearly the entire movie (she has her limits, but wouldn’t you?). She’s a straight-up professional journalist.
This is also one of the reasons I hate Quarantine so much (well, that and a ridiculous, unnecessary romantic subplot): Jennifer Carpenter’s take on Ángela is more or less “shriek and sob for 90 minutes”.
I’ll confess that there are a few moments where the yelling became a bit much. It’s probably true to life, but all I could think was “Be quiet! You don’t know where the creatures are and you’re attracting them!” But yes, Ángela surprised me. She doesn’t really get a chance to fight back (it’s not that kind of film), but she mostly keeps her shit together.
Can we talk about the rest of the cast? Obviously I haven’t seen the sequels, which I assume explore the origins of the infection, but in this first film there appears to be a strong critique of the racist way that residents side-eye and accuse each other (or is it just me?)
Definitely not just you. That’s one of the things that strikes me whenever I rewatch this film, and especially rewatching it now. There’s a lot of misguided blame placed on East Asian immigrants for diseases and pandemics. Anti-Chinese racism is happening right now because of COVID-19, and back in 2003, only a couple of years before [REC] was released, Asians were the target of hate crimes for their assumed link to the SARS epidemic, too.
I really appreciate that [REC] paints the accusations from the other apartment dwellers that the Asian family are responsible for the infection as ridiculous. It’s the same tired racist jabs: how their food “smells weird” and so on. And of course, in the end, it’s really a little white girl’s fault!
I like the rest of the cast, even though they don’t get super fleshed-out. They feel like a very realistic sample of the types of diverse people you’d find in a regular urban apartment building, and I appreciate that they seem to have the same sort of squabbles and grievances regular apartment building neighbours have with each other.
Absolutely. There’s a sense when they’re all standing in the foyer early in the film that they know each other, but have only spoken in passing. And then as soon as things get bad, they immediately turn on one another!
Speaking of shit hitting the fan, is there a scene or sequence in particular that stands out for you?
Going back to that sense of unpredictability: a scene early on when an infected firefighter drops from upstairs down to the main level vestibule is THE scene I think of when I think of this movie.
Up until this point, our central cast of characters is worried, stressed, confused, but not terrified. This is the moment when shit truly starts to get real, and everything just amps up from here. It’s also just an incredibly well-shot scene, where the tension is building and you just KNOW things are about to get messy, but before we have a chance to guess what’s going to happen next, a firefighter careens to the floor mid-shot.
Oh yeah, I’m so glad you referenced that scene because I definitely yelped! I love a good unexpected fall. [REC] is surprisingly good at delivering scares beyond just the traditional jump scares we might expect. I was also partial to the little girl biting her mom’s face.
Why do you think audiences find this film so scary? Personally I think the set design, with the long narrow apartments and the winding central staircase, create a lot of opportunities for horrific set pieces.
Yeah, the set is fantastic. Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (who directed Veronica) really lucked out with that apartment location, because the winding central staircase is the focal point of a lot of great, scary moments. You feel the claustrophobia of ten or so people trapped in this lobby, and even when they go into the apartment units, the long hallways and tiny living rooms just emphasize this. There’s a lot of places for things to jump out at you from the shadows, and, for me personally, seeing something horrific for a brief moment is way scarier than prolonging it.
It’s always scarier not knowing than actually knowing.
I’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the end of the film, which includes an unexpected religious/exorcism component, a terrifying monster (played by Javier Botet – naturally) and a grim, nihilistic ending. Walk me through your reaction to all of this: does it work for you? What do you like/dislike about it? And how does that fatalistic ending contribute to the film’s legacy?
That monster scares the shit out of me (and credit where credit’s due for Quarantine – they went with the obvious choice and cast Doug Jones in the role). It’s pretty much entirely due to what I mentioned earlier, about only getting a brief glimpse at horrific things.
It leaves us just as vulnerable as Ángela and Pablo. At this point in the story they’re exhausted, terrified, their light source has burnt out, they’ve seen a lot of people die, and they’ve just found out they’re trapped in the room with a goddamn exorcist monster. I love the use of the night vision camera here, even though it’s so overplayed in other found footage movies. Seeing the monster’s skeletal arms and legs in the shadows is SO creepy.
And it is such a nihilistic ending, because we know Ángela and Pablo are trapped there. They nearly got bitten trying to make it up to the attic in the first place, and everyone else in the apartment building is infected by now, just barreling around shrieking without a shred of humanity left. It’s pretty bleak.
But it does work for me, because who wants a deux ex machina, “everybody’s saved!” ending in their horror, right? Even though I love Ángela (and Pablo! Poor Pablo), there’s no way even she could make it out of this. I don’t expect genre film to be 100% realistic at all times, but to suddenly be saved from such a doomed situation would have felt like a cheat.
I’m glad Manuela Velasco got a chance to kick ass and take names in the sequels, but as with sequels, the storylines get a little silly and lack that brutal kick of the original ending. I’ve only seen the first sequel and was pretty underwhelmed, which is the usual reason why I stay away from sequels in general. To be honest, [REC] feels so perfect – and final – that I don’t think it ever needed a sequel (let alone 3). But I’m told they’re pretty fun, so give ‘em a shot.
Overall, I really liked [REC] and I’m definitely going to check out the sequels. It’s a solid 4/5 for me.
Laura, what is your final score (out of 5) and where can people find you if they wanna chat more about the film or your other projects?
I love almost everything about it but you’re right, it flails around occasionally. But it’s a pretty fearless movie, so I think it’s a 4 / 5 for me too. That firefighter drop haunts my dreams.