While many of my younger colleagues were eagerly anticipating 2015 as the year of Avengers and Star Wars and Mad Max and Jurassic Park, I will admit I was primarily looking forward to finally getting a chance to watch two other movies. The first was Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly. I consider Farhadi to be among the elite filmmakers working today and his last two movies, A Separation and The Past rate very high on my list of 21st century movies. About Elly is the critically acclaimed film he directed before those two, but which had never received general release in the States until right now. I plan on seeing it very soon.
The other movie was [REC]4.
For those unfamiliar with the REC series, it began life as a found footage horror in 2007, co-directed by Spaniards Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza. That original movie, about a Barcelona apartment building that is sealed off when a zombie-like infection begins spreading, featured a bravura performance by Manuela Velasco as the spunky reporter who gets trapped inside with the residents and a couple of firefighters. It is one of the best and most natural uses of the found footage concept, and remains among the best found footage horrors ever produced. It has spawned three sequels as well as an American offshoot, first released as Quarantine in 2008.
Here is a quick recap of the predecessors to [REC]4:
Seriously? I just told you.
Picks up immediately after the first movie with a second team entering the building. This uses multiple helmet-mounted cameras to increase the visual field, which is both a plus and a minus. Though fairly creative, it doesn’t maintain the original’s tension or sense of claustrophobia, and the need to time shift and introduce a whiny group of meddling kids in the second half begins to derail the story. But the end, featuring the return of Velasco’s Angela Vidal and some good back story, is effective.
[REC]3: Genesis (2012)
Any time you need to add a word like “Genesis” to your title, there is danger afoot. Plaza directed this one by himself, and it is not very good. He most likely thought that the original concept was played out and the franchise required a reboot. This movie leaves the apartment building to tell a parallel story of the infection spreading through a wedding at a remote castle-like building. It begins, for no real reason, with the found footage premise – someone is making a video of the wedding – and then rather quickly abandons, for no real reason, the found footage premise. This is barely a horror film. Though it has shocks and violence, it is so campy and silly that it becomes frivolous. There are plot holes galore, and apart from a blood-soaked bride wielding a chainsaw, there is nothing memorable. Neither Velasco nor Javier Botet (as the truly terrifying monster) are present.
John Erick Dowdle directed the American remake. It is very much like the original [REC] only not as good. Though there are several improvements in the script, Jennifer Carpenter’s shrill performance in the role originated by Velasco really hurts.
Quarantine 2: Terminal (2011)
Whereas the parallel storyline in [REC]3 fell flat, this John Pogue-directed sequel takes the idea of a parallel story and soars with it. A passenger on an airplane has been infected and after managing to land, the authorities sequester the survivors in a vast airport terminal. Unlike [REC]3, which shifted genres, this remains a tense horror/thriller and in terms of character, plot, and logic, it rivals the original [REC} for “best in series” honours.
Which brings us to:
[REC}4: Apocalypse (2014; American release, 2015)
First off, the “Apocalypse” is not the kiss of death, though it is a very poor choice of titles. This is purported to be the final instalment, but there is nothing particularly apocalyptic about the movie. That said, it is a very reassuring return to form for the series. Balaguero is back in command and the campiness of the third movie is nowhere to found. And even better, Velasco is back as Angela Vidal – no longer spunky. Now she is a manic bad-ass who may or may not be abetting the parasitic life form that turns its victims into rabid zombies.
This one picks up immediately after the second movie ended, with another team entering the Barcelona apartment building with the intention of destroying it. But when hunky doctor Guzman (Paco Manzanedo) discovers Angela, terrified but alive, he just has to rescue her.
From there, in terms of method, this becomes a rather standard horror. Apart from occasionally watching characters on security monitors, there is no hint of found footage. It also jumps ahead in time to move Angela, Guzman, and several others to a ship in the middle of a vast ocean. On board, there are a few survivors of the infection, including an old woman who was a wedding guest (the only nod to [REC}3), the benevolent captain and crew of the ship, and some sinister medical types who come equipped with an entourage of military men toting big guns. The basic construct finds Angela, Guzman, and their allies battling the medical guys and trying to figure out what is being done to them.
The isolation of the setting works very well for the horror. There is nowhere to escape, but there are plenty of dark hidden corridors in which to seek refuge. There are secrets hidden behind locked doors, and there is a big storm a-brewin’. Balaguero milks the setting for everything he can. There are very effective moments featuring minor characters who have the misfortune of working in lonely places like the ship’s galley or engine room. One by one, the major characters will be picked off until we are down to the final survivors. This is nowhere near groundbreaking stuff. But for fans of this type of thing, it is very effective.
There is also a brief scene involving a ship’s propeller and rabid monkeys that clearly works as the money shot.
In the first movie, Angela was the quirky, funny character, but after what has happened to her, that persona would not fit here. So we get Ismael Fritschi as Nic, the ship’s slovenly and loveable tech guy, to provide the quirkiness and comic relief. He is a very good addition, messily eating and spilling his way through the horror. As for Angela, whether wearing a skimpy hospital gown early on or the more appropriate loose sweats later, she now kicks ass. Her evolution is one of the best things in the series. She may not have the gravitas of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien franchise, but when you consider where she began, her arc is even better. As is true of actors in most horrors, Velasco’s work here is highly underrated. (The same is true of Perdita Weeks’ performance in Dowdle’s modest 2014 found footage horror As Above, So Below, or Essie Davis’ stand-out performance in The Babadook.)
So there is really nothing apocalyptic, and with the final frames, there is certainly the possibility of more sequels. But that is not likely. [REC]4 has not enjoyed very much success. At this point, no one is clamouring for more. Not even me. Though I will always have fond memories of Manuela Velasco, Javier Botet, and the fat slug-like creature, the series should be put to bed. But at least it can drift off to slumber on a high note.
As for About Elly, I am still really eager to see it, though I suspect it won’t even have a hint of rabid monkey guts.