I’ve never been particularly fond of the found footage subgenre. Shaky camerawork, bad acting, and cheap production design all usually contribute to the experience becoming a dull headache I’m keen to forget. My favorite found footage flicks, Patrick Brice‘s Creep series, are ones where the found footage presentation is an afterthought rather than the focus, where the camera is largely stationary and the acting is actually a center of attention. Though the genre has largely tapered off from the mainstream, with only the Unfriended sequel coming to mind as a recent example, there was a time when the lazy Paranormal Activity series dominated the domestic horror box office. Around the same time in 2007 when the original Paranormal Activity was making the rounds at film festivals, a small Spanish found footage horror film named [•REC] was released.
[•REC] embodies everything that works and doesn’t work about the found footage genre. Its camera is about as shaky as it gets, it uses mostly unknown actors, and its setting is mostly confined to a single apartment building. On paper, this would represent everything I hate about the genre, but in practice [•REC] is a surprisingly effective thrill ride. The film opens with late night news reporter Angela (Manuela Velasco) and her camera operator Pablo (Pablo Rosso) covering the mundane happenings at a local fire station. The station gets a call to a nearby apartment building where an elderly resident is causing problems, and Angela and Pablo tag along for the ride (much to their later regret).
It doesn’t take long before the movie plunges you head first into a claustrophobic quarantine, trapped with residents infected by a ravenous zombie virus a la 28 Days Later. Locked in by a nefarious government presence, Angela and Pablo attempt to survive while continuing to report, hoping to tape evidence of their ordeal for future legal battles. The film slowly builds up in intensity like a rollercoaster climbing up a tall hill. As more people are infected, and a higher proportion of the building’s population turns rabid, the film’s cramped apartment setting soon becomes increasingly claustrophobic and vicious. About twenty or so minutes from the end, the rollercoaster cart finally plunges down its summit and the film releases all of its tension in a ferocious frenzy as nearly every now-infected resident chases Angela and Pablo up the apartment building stairs. It’s a memorably heart-pounding sequence, one that I can still clearly recall over a year after seeing the film.
The main appeal of the found footage genre is the intimacy of seeing directly through the eyes of the camera. Unlike most horror, which unavoidably places a barrier with the camera between its audience and what is transpiring on screen, [•REC] has the advantage of making its audience feel as if it is right there with Angela and Pablo. No moment in [•REC] exploits this opportunity than its harrowingly tense finale, which is incidentally the film’s most immediately recognizable scene. Utilizing its camcorder’s night vision mode, the film traps Angela and Pablo (and by extension the audience) in a small apartment with a horrifically emaciated and infected tenant.
[•REC]’s reputation as a horror film may be tainted by the trashy genre it occupies, but it nevertheless represents a film realizing the full potential of its structure. It’s an exception to the loads of garbage pumped out by the found footage genre, and perhaps with some time to disconnect from the early 2000’s, it will take its rightful place next to the best films of the slasher era. If one can look past the shaky camera and low budget, there is a surprisingly well-crafted and nerve-racking 78-minute thrill ride to be found in [•REC].