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[REC]  (2007)
3 Stars
Directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza.
Cast: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yammam Serrano, Carlos Lasaere, Carlos Vicente, David Vert, Maria Lanau, Claudia Font, Pablo Rosso, Martha Carbonell, Javier Botet.
2007 – 75 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence/gore and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

What's your show called?

"While You're Asleep."

"While You're Asleep?" Then who watches it?

As of this writing in October 2008, mere days before the release of its obligatory U.S. remake, "Quarantine," the Spanish-language "[REC]" has yet to be released in America. This is a shame for a great many reasons, but none more so than the fact that the majority of viewers going to see "Quarantine" will not be aware that basically the same movie was made just a year earlier. Hollywood likes nothing more than to take original motion pictures from other countries, snatch up their ideas, and turn them into predominately pale imitations of their former entities. Why expend energy in coming up with imaginative ideas of your own when you can just copy off of the strong genre work coming out of Spain, Japan and Taiwan? One supposes that's their skewed way of thinking, and it's close to despicable.

Indeed, "[REC]" will eventually hit DVD, no doubt timed to the ancillary release of "Quarantine." No matter how good or bad "Quarantine" ultimately is, though, "[REC]" deserves accolades for coming first. This is a well-made funhouse ride of pure terror and near-breathless dread, on the short side at only 75 minutes but making up for its brevity through directors Jaume Belagueró's (2004's "Darkness") and Paco Plaza's knowledge in how to go for the jugular and scare an audience. Inspiration for the picture's style, told completely from the POV of a character's camera, likely comes from 1999's "The Blair Witch Project." Conceptually speaking, the films share a definite similarity, but the use of the aforementioned camera becomes more than just a gimmick as it is plausibly explained why the photographer continues to shoot even in the face of unthinkable horrors.

The setup is ingeniously clever. Reporter Ángela (Manuela Velasco) is the sunny host of a late-night television program called "While You're Asleep," in which she travels to different workplaces and uncovers the ins and outs of their daily overnight routines. On this fateful evening, she is visiting a local fire company. The expectation is that it's going to be a largely uneventful episode, but when the fire alarm rings out, Ángela tags along with cameraman in tow to an apartment building where a resident is disturbing the peace. No sooner have they gotten inside that the police arrive and quarantine the building, locking everyone inside with no route of escape. The suspect, an older woman, has seemingly gone crazy, and proceeds to mortally wound one of the policemen by biting off a chunk of his neck. Explanations are slim and the atmosphere among the inhabitants is understandably chaotic as they, one by one, are taken over by a contagious virus of some sort that transfers rage and delirium via each other's saliva.

"[REC]" is a literally nightmarish experience (full disclosure: the film spurred me to have a bad dream after going to sleep hours after watching it). The picture starts innocuously enough, with Ángela interviewing the employees, jokily trying on their heavy fire suit, and passing the time by joining in on a basketball game. When the call comes and Ángela becomes entrapped in the apartment building, the film takes a startling turn. The viewer remains right there with Ángela at all times as confusion turns to frustration, and then outright fear. By the end, the apartment has descended into hell, monstrous beings lurking throughout the building as Ángela and her trusty cameraman plot an exit or safety (whichever comes first). Since the only footage captured is from the show's camera, much, but certainly not all, of the mayhem is left offscreen, the viewer attempting to piece together what is happening, what has already happened, and the grim fates of other entrapped souls, from an elderly couple, an Asian family, and a mother and daughter.

Performances are naturalistic at all times, never tipping their hat to obvious acting or melodrama, and the music score is nonexistent. These were two of the biggest blunders of 2008's "Diary of the Dead," George Romero's own recent, terribly ill-considered POV horror effort. "[REC]" gets the formula right, however, and Manuela Velasco is exceptional as tour guide Ángela, effortless in her reporter skills early on and accurately embodying the sheer panic and dismay of a person stuck in a hopeless situation. Additionally, Velasco is instantly so personable and cheery that she is immensely likable. We, as spectators, care about what happens to her.

"[REC]" leads to a final fifteen minutes destined to produce goosebumps on the arms of the most jaded of viewers. Locking themselves in the penthouse apartment of a doctor who has abandoned the premises, Ángela and her cameraman stumble upon newspaper clippings and audio recordings that begin to piece together the truth behind the viral (or is it supernatural?) outbreak. When the light on the camera breaks, stranding them in complete darkness save for the lens' greenish night-vision, they are visited by a horror beyond anything they could have imagined. The story's path isn't groundbreaking, but in the unknown aspects of what directors Jaume Belagueró and Paco Plaza have conceived is where it leaves you most excitingly off-balance. Consequently, "[REC]" boasts an uncommonly cathartic power to shake the viewer to his or her very core.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman