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-[Film Reviews]-, European Cinema

‘REC’ (2007, 2009): Tao of the Found-Footage Technique

Directed by: Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza || Produced by: Julio Fernandez, Carlos Fernandez

Screenplay by: Paco Plaza, Luis A. Berdejo, Jaume Balaguero || Starring: Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano, David Vert, Vicente Gil, Martha Carbonell, Carlos Vicente, Jonathan Mellor, Oscar Sanchez Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Claudia Silva 

Music by: N/A || Cinematography: Pablo Rosso || Edited by: David Gallart, Xavi Gimenez || Country: Spain || Language: Spanish

Running Time: 78 + 85 minutes = 163 minutes 

In a future installment of my Filmmaking Pet Peeves series, where I explore my most hated industry trends in popular cinema, I’ll describe my distaste for the “found-footage” format in gratuitous detail. That cinematographic technique, an extreme metatextual form of handheld camerawork without stabilizing equipment, whereby characters act as their film’s diegetic director of photography (DP), exploded in the late 2000s-2010s thanks to the success of the Paranormal Activity (theatrical releases 2007-2015; streaming releases ongoing) franchise and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008), among others. On par with the melodramatic overacting of demonic possession-horror and the excessive, grisly carnage of James Wan, Leigh Whannell, and Eli Roth’s early 2000s splatter films (also known as “gornos” or torture-porn) in terms of their polarizing nature, movies built around this oddball setup have long since lost the transgressive, guerilla filmmaking tone that may have defined early pioneers of the format like Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Blair Witch Project (1999). I have seen enough alleged quality (re: critically acclaimed) features shot with this technique to decide the found-footage style is (1), at the very least, not for me, and (2) pails in effectiveness to similar cinema verité-inspired handheld techniques (e.g. Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass’ innovative work on the Bourne [2002, 2004, 2007] trilogy) within narrative filmmaking.

Left: Much of the diegetic geography of REC ’07 is built around its apartment’s central staircase. Bottom: The iconic final shot of REC’s night-vision sequence was ripped off by Quarantine (2008) and became the most recognizable visual of the series.

The freeform, immersive aesthetics of handheld camerawork are a great tool in the proper context, but incorporating the camera as a diegetic instrument within a narrative is something I find at best distracting and at worst comical. Too often, found-footage (FF) photography is used as a lazy excuse for sloppy shaky-cam, which obscures a scene’s content, or produces unintentional comedy thanks to unnecessary running commentary from the character-cameraman in charge of the whole affair. FF cinematography furthermore begs the question as to why its characters keep filming — again, all camerawork is diegetic here — when the practice has become most associated with the horror genre, a narrative formula whereby characters must escape overwhelming antagonists by any physical means necessary. You don’t want a camera weighing you down in those types of stories.

One of the better FF-properties that snuck into theatres before the Paranormal Activity craze (the first installment premiered at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival, but didn’t release into public commercial theatres until 2009) is Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC (short for “record,” as in a camcorder). Remade a year later in Hollywood as Quarantine (2008), REC and its 2009 sequel (REC 2) represent not just one of the better FF horror movies ever made, but also one of the more intelligent subversions of paranormal pseudoscience and demonic possession fiction on film. These films don’t escape their cinematographic format, unfortunately, but their setting, concept, and direction outside the FF cage have stayed with me.

The 2007 and 2009 films are essentially small-scale zombie films limited to a single location, a Barcelona apartment under ominous government quarantine. Like an even more claustrophobic version of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) but with the manic, agile infected from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, REC ’07 feels at home with frantic, handheld cinematography until the frame starts to shake like an earthquake to the point where you can’t follow the action. The earlier, calmer parts of the film, as well as the few legible wide shots in the latter two acts where we can get our bearings, maximize cinematographic tension as our small, intimate cast grow more and more desperate. The infection rate begins slowly but accelerates with the body count, made all the more impactful by an admirable cast who feel like real people rather than airbrushed movie stars. 

The horror-action sequences of REC 2 are intense, but even when you can make out what’s happening on-screen, the shootouts are dependent on numerous contrivances like our castmembers refusing headshots, refusing to shoot at all in certain instances, lacking basic melee weaponry, taking their eyes off their targets, etc. Contrived, I believe the word is.

Though REC 2 is less visually chaotic than REC ’07, it also feels less comfortable with the FF aesthetic given its focus on a small tactical police unit that investigates the same apartment complex following the events of the first film. A few first-person point-of-view shots add some flair, but overall, the sequel would’ve benefited from a more conventional action focus with mobile yet precise camerawork a la Emmanuel Lubezki’s work on Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Innaritu’s filmographies. I tend to find much of Lubezki’s work, particularly that on Iñárritu’s movies, showy and over-the-top (Hey Ma, look at me, I’m the DP!), but that striking, dynamic visual style would’ve fit these REC features perfectly.

I’ve come to the conclusion that no film will win me over through the found-footage format, no matter its strengths outside that cinematographic style. Every found-footage film I’ve ever enjoyed, including the REC films, has impressed me in spite of its intrusive camerawork and not once because of it. I see no argument within REC most of all, but also across found-footage films more generally, how the same narrative could not have been achieved via a Paul Greengrass-esque documentarian approach or an Emmanuel Lubezki-style of motion-controlled long takes, just with greater clarity and precision. REC parts I and II take advantage of lean, well paced scripts, solid locations, and a range of good performances, but squander them with distracting cinematography that accentuates questionable storytelling decisions.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: REC feels like the counterargument to the Jaws (1976) effect, whereby what we can see and from what we can decipher meaning is what scares us. Characters running from or shooting rabid zombies infected with demonic pathogens inside a quarantined apartment complex should be a cinematic funhouse, and when DP Pablo Rosso holds the frame still longer than a split second, these movies often are. When the FF gimmicks take centerstage over the realistic characters and/or emphasize their occasional dumb decisions that feel out of character, REC ’07 and ’09 are less fun.

—> ON THE FENCE; the REC franchise was a cinephile commodity during the late 2000s compared to its 2008 American remake, the Paranormal Activity franchise, and numerous other FF horror features, but time has not been kind to its parent format.

? Why did one of those soldiers in REC 2 commit suicide when he had more than enough ammunition to eliminate his attackers, all of whom were funneled into a single doorway?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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