Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Pain in Spain

I've had to give up buying expensive import DVDs over the last couple of years, so I'm considerably behind the wave of hype surrounding Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [•REC] (2007). I also missed the American remake, Quarantine when it was in theaters, but the original item rampages off in directions I can't imagine an American film ever going.

Basically, you have The Blair Witch/Cannibal Holocaust set-up. A camera crew--in this film, a TV news crew filming a documentary about local firefighters--thrown into a horror situation. The situation here is a zombie outbreak in an apartment building. We see the movie in the first person through the lens of the news camera. The conceit of the movie is carried through to the end: there is no score and the actors are reacting to things they haven't anticipated because none of them was given a complete script. This film pulls a pretty neat inversion of the Rio Bravo/Night of the Living Dead scenario, because instead of being barricaded inside a farm house or a shopping mall with the living dead laying siege from the outside, this film quarantines its characters inside with the zombies. This simple reversal is good for squeezing some new thrills from a tired scenario. It also manages to draw an explicit connection between Romero's zombie films and The Crazies, with its clean-suited storm troopers, a very threatening image in [•REC].

Up until the end, this is more or less old wine in a new skin, but then something interesting happens. Our heroine and her erstwhile cameraman retreat to the unused penthouse and discover one of those convenient expositional walls of newspaper clippings. While this in itself is a pretty blatant cliche`, what it does to the movie is not. Is the zombie outbreak the result of a virus? Or something much, much darker. The end of the movie argues for the latter. What we have here is something very similar to what co-director Jaume Balaguero attempted in Darkness (a film that I liked, but few others did). He's set up a set of expectations, and then pulled away the curtain to reveal something else. And here, the movie has some level of cognitive disconnect, because it's really NOT organic, but it's executed during a portion of the movie that is as pile-driver scary as anything I've seen in recent cinema. If I start to think too heavily about what the ending of the film actually means, I think the whole thing might start to unravel. The technical conceit of the movie creates an experience that is always in the moment, which creates an exhilarating "ride" movie, a pretty good one, but it teeters dangerously on the brink of ridiculousness if the audience is given time to think. Still, there's no shame in this. [•REC] joins films like The Descent and Haute Tension as a contemporary horror film that gets by on the force of its film making rather than the brilliance of its screenplay.

Still and all, the run and gun style employed here does tend to obscure some of the film's other technical accomplishments. We never get a good look at the little girl in the film once she turns zombie, which is a shame, because, as the supplemental material on the DVD shows, she's pretty damned creepy:


Alex de la Iglesia is one of the directors who contributed to the 6 Films to Keep You Awake anthology series for Spanish television. The series was Spain's answer to The Masters of Horror in the US, but based on Iglesia's entry, and on Jaume Balaguero's entry (about which I'll write in my next post), the Spaniards kicked the holy crap out of the Americans.

The Baby's Room (2006), Iglesia's entry, is one of those epistemological haunted house movies where reality becomes suspect. The director approaches this in a fairly classical way, though there is an infringing influence of Asian horror and it's ghosts in the machine. You have a young couple who have just bought a palatial home at a suspiciously low prices. They hear odd voices on their baby monitor, and, when they place a camera in the baby's room, the husband begins seeing a man sitting next to the baby's crib.

Somewhere in the middle of Stephen King's Dance Macabre, King suggests that haunted houses are really the pool of Narcissus, where haunted people gaze and lose themselves in the reflection they see. They are often stories of doppelgangers. He might very well have been talking about this film, because it establishes the house as a reflecting pool before the credits roll. Literally, as it so happens:

Horrible things glimpsed in mirrors is recurring motif in this kind of film, and lo and behold, this film indulges that element, too.

But Iglesia is too smart a filmmaker to just throw these images in without thinking hard about them. He winks at the audience at one point by throwing in the old "horrible thing under the bed" trope as a clever insert. Significantly, this isn't treated jokingly, and the director wrings the maximum amount of mood out of it.

The interesting thing about haunted house movies in this era is that ever since The Amityville Horror and The Shining, it's usually the male partner who cracks, whether it's James Brolin dreaming about planting an ax in his wife's forehead or Jack Nicholson attempting to do the same. There's an underlying unease in these kinds of movies about the role of men as breadwinners among the bourgeoisie--and owning a house is the ultimate in bourgeois status, after all. This spills into other aspects of the male social role. The Baby's Room takes its deteriorating psyche into the work life of its hero. Oddly, it ignores his sex life.

In any event, it's a pretty classical haunted house movie, but it's an expertly made one that generates that wonderful sense of frission in the back of the head at key moments. What more can one ask of a horror movie?

Current tally:
2 movies
2 first time viewings


DeAnna said...

It sounds like Quarantine is a direct remake of REC. I haven't seen REC, but I did buy a crappy, scratched DVD of Quarantine at the last Scarecrow $2 used DVD sale and even the stills you include look like they are from the same movie. But it sounds like REC is the superior film as Quarantine was entertaining, but a very fleeting movie experience. I was just barely drawn in and not invested enough in the characters or situation to get much suspense from the experience. And apparently, it has a different ending. Makes me curious to see REC.

Bob Turnbull said...

I had seen "[rec]" before and just watched "Quarantine". Though DeAnna's right in that there are very similar shots and the plotline is very much the same (including winding up in the penthouse at the end), I find [rec] to be superior - by a long shot.

I'm trying not to be judgemental about American remakes either...Yeah, they usually drop the ball, but you never know. In this case though, it just doesn't come together like [rec] does. A variety of reasons - the characters, the way scenes are shot, the flow - it all adds up to less of an experience.

Granted, I saw [rec] with an audience and had a blast with it (people giggling in anticipation, etc.) whereas Quarantine was in viewed via DVD and I already knew many of the plot points (falling body, final shot, etc.).

That'll be in my next post (along with another not so hot American remake - "Shutter").

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Bob.

Yeah. I watched Quarantine this morning and it reminded me a LOT of Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho: mostly the same thing, but lacking...something. Or maybe it's the additions. I was distracted by some of the familiar faces (the documentary aspect of the original trumps the remake), and I thought there were a lot of Hollywoodisms that were absent in the original, particularly in the firehouse scenes where the sexual banter seemed, well, out of place. I'll be writing about this sometime later today or tomorrow, I would guess, but I doubt I'll say more than this.

Bob Turnbull said...

"particularly in the firehouse scenes where the sexual banter seemed, well, out of place"

Exactly! I've already written up my little paragraph for this, but I pointed out the same thing - there were only hints of flirtation in the Spanish version. Here, the one guy claims to the others he'll have sex with the reporter by end of night. Was that really necessary? What did they intend the viewer to get from that?

Kids these days...