With A Most Horrific Year, Senior Staff Writer Randall Colburn analyzes and reflects on the most critically acclaimed horror movie of every year, starting in 2015 and moving backwards. Spoilers are guaranteed.
Worldwide Gross: $32,492,948
Certified Fresh: 90%
We take light for granted. There are kids who don’t even know what whole, enveloping darkness is. Smartphones and tablets are nightlights.
Years ago, before those things, I was walking home beneath humming street lamps and the glow pouring from dorm room windows. I was coming from the campus computer lab, backpack strapped, the pad of my footfalls and some distant laughter the only sounds. I walked down the central thoroughfare, past the edge of campus, and through a stretch of trees that gave way to a series of low-rent housing complexes.
This walk was familiar, but the darkness within the trees wasn’t. I couldn’t see trees. Only a canopied darkness. The gravel below my feet was a gray smear. My sneakers crunched over it in a way I’d never heard before. When I emerged on the other end, I encountered not just a wall of shadows but also utter silence. I had no smartphone to open. No cell phone, either. No watch. I coughed, and it felt like I’d punctured air. For a moment, I was convinced that everyone had left somehow. I believed that existence had been raptured, or UFOs had sucked up whatever it was that breathed.
And somebody screamed.
But the scream was laughter. And it felt far away.
All that was missing, I suddenly realized, was light. The streetlamps, the garden lamps, the apartment windows — each was empty, black, and silent. A power outage. I walked back down the wooded path. On the other end, the dorms still glowed. So did the lamps. I turned around and saw darkness, isolated. Different grids.
I walked to my apartment. Through windows I saw unmoving shadows. My building was unfamiliar. I tried to unlock the wrong door. Inside, Eric sat in darkness. His voice sounded different.
I laid on my bed, fully dressed, in complete darkness. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t sleep until the lights came back on.
I can’t remember ever feeling so disoriented.
Chaos takes on copious forms. There’s, like, the burst of firearms. Or even just the clatter of dropped dinner plates. The loud stuff: Cacophony, feelings, shouts. And then there’s quiet chaos — a power outage, election results, the news of a friend’s death. I understand the latter more than the former, but that doesn’t mean one doesn’t inform the other. In whatever sense, chaos breeds disorientation. Chaos makes you feel lost. That’s a hard thing to capture in a movie. [REC] does it.
It was filmed in Barcelona by horror veteran Jaume Balagueró and relative newcomer Paco Plaza. It follows Angela Vidal, a TV reporter who, on her show, While You’re Sleeping, follows a crew of firefighters throughout one evening. A routine call in an apartment building leads them to an old, feral woman in a bloody nightgown. Soon, no one in the building — not the firemen, the cops on hand, or the residents — are allowed to leave. Cops block the door. Glimpses out windows reveal men in masks holding assault rifles. A helicopter circles overhead. Angela encourages her cameraman, Pablo, to keep filming, even as whatever’s infected the old woman begins manifesting in acts of ravenous violence.
[REC] is often dubbed a zombie film, and, yeah, it more or less is. The infection travels through saliva. Your skin rots. You develop a taste for human flesh. And, taking a cue from 28 Days Later (the sequel to which, 28 Weeks Later, was also released in 2007), the zombies are fast and frantic. This last wrinkle is what propels much of the horror, especially considering the action primarily unfolds in the building’s narrow stairwell and even narrower hallways. There’s nowhere to go.
And that’s always the case, right? That there’s nowhere to go. There are locked doors, or the monster is ubiquitous. In [REC], though, there’s truly nowhere to go. It begins with the ambulances outside, then the blocked door. “My husband’s outside,” one woman says, “saying there’s loads of cops blocking the street.” The lobby shrinks as we gain the understanding that something much, much larger is going on outside. An officer begins whispering words like “biological,” “nuclear,” and “chemical” as an unseen official begins shouting orders through a megaphone outside. In what’s perhaps the film’s most unsettling moment, Angela runs to a picture window just in time to see the building being vacuum-packed inside plastic. Then a health inspector enters, clad in that most bone-chilling of outfits: the biohazard suit.
In any other movie, we’d be outside with the cops. We’d ping-pong between character perspectives. We’d understand. Here, however, we don’t. We never do. We never quite understand. That’s because the entire story unfolds on one camera.
Yep, if you haven’t figured it out yet, [REC] is a found footage movie.
“Found footage” have become dirty words in modern horror. It wasn’t long after the release of [REC] that Hollywood began co-opting the core tenets of found footage horror films like The Blair Witch Project — really, it began with Cloverfield, which was also released in 2007. You know what I mean: the shaky, first-person camera, the improvisational feel, the limited perspective. It was refreshing when applied to low-budget fare like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or the aforementioned Blair Witch, but by the end of the ‘00s, the approach was being retrofitted to scripts that weren’t meant to be filmed in such a style. A few years later, drek like The Gallows, Area 51, Apollo 11, and last year’s Blair Witch remake all but rendered the style superfluous. Since these movies didn’t need to be told this way, all emphasis went towards the unfortunate aspects of the style: the queasy camerawork, the lack of visual flair, etc.
It’s also important to remember that found footage was still in its infancy when [REC] was released. Aside from Blair Witch, its only pertinent forebears were Cloverfield and George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, all of which were released in the same year. The approach hadn’t been done to death yet, and the reviews reflected that.
It’s almost impossible to find a review of a modern found footage flick that doesn’t call for its moratorium. However, [REC] was received positively by critics, with The Guardian noting its “nerve-shredding intensity” and The Observer praising how it “corners you with the ferocity of a Spanish inquisitor with a branding iron and holds you there to the bitter end.” Time Out even went so far as to laud the fact that the true nature of its threat remains unknown. The film’s detachment from traditional narrative irked others, though. Variety called it “lazily scripted, without even a pretense of character development or psychological depth.”
They’re not wrong. There really isn’t much of a script, nor do the filmmakers bend over backwards to help us know who these characters are. We never see Angela not on the job. We never even see the face of her cameraman, Pablo, ostensibly our second lead. The firefighters are doing their job. The threat arrives early. Soon, everyone’s screaming. But that’s exactly the point: Found footage aims to unnerve by stripping away the sheen of a Hollywood production. An abundance of narrative or depth only serves to hinder it.
To keep the audience a step ahead of the characters is a sign of solid writing, as it serves to heighten the tension and ensure the audience clearly follows the narrative. This is the case for any number of classic horror movies — Halloween, The Exorcist, etc. To keep the audience a step behind, however, is a trickier proposition. It’s what the Texas Chainsaw Massacre does to great effect; most of its horror comes from the fact that we’re as lost as the characters (none of which are particularly well-developed, either, for what it’s worth). The Blair Witch Project does this effectively as well. Almost too well, really. The film’s final minutes in the abandoned house are a masterwork of disorientation, the likes of which dissipates into a lingering dread once the final image connects all the dots for us. It’s profoundly effective.
[REC], on the other hand, gives us no such satisfaction. There are no clues early in the narrative to portend the supernatural component that rears its head in the film’s petrifying final minutes, which raises about a dozen more questions before concluding with only the flimsiest threads of understanding. We’re left with disorientation, the sense that we missed something along the way.
In the world of [REC], so many people have the answers. The thing is, we never see those people. And the people we do see? We only rarely witness what becomes of them. Some characters appear only to remain eternally off camera, their fates confined to whatever dark corners the lens never seeks out.
It’s a horrible feeling, isn’t it? To know that you’re the one who doesn’t get it?
Yes. It is.
My favorite uncle died when I was 13. He had a brain tumor that came and went and destroyed his mind and body. The last time I saw him before he got sick, we went to a store that specialized in Star Wars collectibles. I got a Boba Fett figurine.
He died three months after my mom’s dad and three months before my dad’s dad. I knew they died. I knew how they died. I wore a suit to their wakes and funerals. I read Stephen King books in the car on the way to and from them. Nobody talked to me.
I sat at the top of the stairs, listening to my parents cry downstairs. I couldn’t make out their words. My dad mentioned a therapist once, offhandedly. Dinners were eaten in silence. Doors slammed. My mom whispered on the phone. I began smelling smoke in their room. She had quit smoking two years before. It was a big deal when she did. We had celebrated.
We went to the funeral home for my uncle’s wake, and we were told to leave. My mom told me to wait in the car. I watched my mom, in a robin’s-egg-blue dress, argue with my aunt, who I’d never seen not smiling before this. Her teeth were clenched. We weren’t allowed to see my uncle’s body. I didn’t know why. Thirty minutes later, we saw it finally. I don’t know what changed. But we left soon after.
We sat in the back row at his funeral. My aunt’s family sat in the first row, despite him not being their blood. My grandma had to crane her head to see her son’s body. I asked why we were sitting there, and my mom said because my aunt was crazy.
There was a reception after, but we weren’t invited. We drove there anyway. “Are we going in?” I asked. My mom said no. Instead, my grandma got out and walked, all by herself, across a dusty parking lot and into a small, yellow restaurant. “Was she invited?” I asked. “No,” my mom said, “But it was her son.”
My grandma paused with her hand on the knob. It took her a minute to go inside. We drove away.
I still don’t know what happened. I still think about it.
2006 was a bad year for horror. The standouts were all more or less in the comedy vein: Slither, Fido, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. Otherwise, the J-horror remake craze was gasping its final breaths with Pulse (a stain on its brilliant source material), and the move to remake American classics was in full force. Remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, The Omen, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre dominated the cineplexes. The only great horror movie to come out that year was Neil Marshall’s The Descent, an international export in much the same vein as [REC].
2007, on the other hand, was a great year. Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse series culled nostalgia for exploitation, while filmmakers with similarly ambitious visions rolled out films like Michael Dougherty’s Trick r Treat, Mitchell Lichtenstein’s Teeth, and Frank Darabont’s King adaptation, The Mist. And [REC] wasn’t the only horror hit to have manifested overseas: J. A. Bayona’s The Orphanage surprised everyone with its eerie, throwback narrative.
[REC] stands out, however, not only because it’s the scariest of these movies, but also because it reflected a shift in visual storytelling in much the same way as Cloverfield, a solid, ambitious, but ultimately uneven film that essentially serves as a counterbalance to the intimacy of [REC]’s use of the form. Both drew inspiration from the same source, however, but it wasn’t The Blair Witch Project. Rather, it was the advent of YouTube in 2005; Plaza himself has said that seeing all the old TV footage and lo-fi, handheld clips on the platform was what led to [REC]’s style.
To this day, [REC] remains the best existing example of found footage horror. It’s slavish in its devotion to looking not like a feature film but rather something you stumbled upon online. There are no credits, no comprehensible character arcs, no tidy narrative. Of course, all that changed with [REC] 2, which collects all of the original’s intangibles and smooshes them into a narrative that’s more or less The Exorcist (With Zombies). They use found footage’s visual strengths as well as they did in [REC], but with a devotion to narrative and clarity that tends to undercut the scares. [REC] 3: Genesis begins as a found footage film, but then pivots to a traditional style. [REC] 4: Apocalypse doesn’t incorporate it at all. While the third film weaves some clever humor into the proceedings, the fourth essentially functions as straightforward maritime action-horror, which doesn’t really suit the material.
Sorry, Robert McKee. Story sucks sometimes.
[REC]’s final minutes unfold in utter darkness. We’re guided only by the night vision of Pablo’s camera, which captures Angela tripping and scrambling to find a foothold. Even if she found one, though, you’re never at peace in the dark. When you can’t see, you can’t comprehend. When you can’t comprehend, you panic. You sink. You drown.
There’s cruelty in keeping someone in the dark.