Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images and pervasive language.
Running time: 85 minutes
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Manuela Velasco, Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca
If you are a horror fan, you probably already know the pleasures to be found in Paco Plaza’s and Jaume Balaguero’s outbreak thriller [REC]. The Spanish-language film took the concept of a zombie infection, ran it through the lens of a first-person, hand-held camera and then unleashed a ghoulish parade of prickly, low-budget thrills. It was the movie Diary of the Dead wanted so badly to be; the chilling, ground level document of an epic event with an emphasis on sympathetic, unlikely characters. Last year, it was translated, rather clumsily, into the American flick Quarantine. That film, like the aforementioned Diary, failed to really humanize the people at the heart of the event.
Now, [REC] 2 has arrived, brought to us by the same directors, and the question is, have they managed to capture what was so compelling about the original film? The answer is yes, and no. At any rate, [REC] 2 is an intense, exhilarating cinematic ride and one highly recommended for fans of horror or zombie flicks. What works in its favor is the choice to immediately follow up the events of the original with two new groups of characters, and then intertwine those stories throughout. The tenement building that served as ground zero for what appeared to be a zombie infection is again the film’s dark, menacing setting, and the action begins with a ready-for-bear SWAT team heading into the now sealed off apartment with a medical officer in tow.
What they discover inside is both exactly what we expect and thematically fresh from other, similar exercises in the subgenre of the zombie film. At the close of the first, there was a suggestion made that the cause and course of the infection was more supernatural as opposed to viral. [REC] 2 follows up that tantalizing concept with a real game-changer for the occupants of the building; how does one stave off an epidemic triggered by something outside the bounds of modern medicine, or in fact, natural biology?
Balaguero and Plaza don’t even hold to the same slowly-building horror format of their initial work, instead transforming the setting and their antagonists into something better suited for an edge-of-your-seat action picture, populated with endless jump scares, twisting of narrative perspective and as many nightmarish death scenes as possible.
Visually, this is a sharper, clearer picture than the first and there’s something a bit more theatrical about its set pieces and stylistic flourishes. There was a shabby, improvised feel to the original [REC] that helped ground its shivery scenario. But this time out, the boys have seemingly jumped genres; there’s a slick and relentless nature grafted onto the infected. As the script begins to rethink their behaviour and genesis, their attack and appearance grow increasingly more fearsome and crazed. When the SWAT team encounters them, the shaky, haphazard style of the camera subtly shifts to a canny observer of carnage. The transition is nearly seamless, and the only calling card of the technique is found in the chills up your arm, or that thrill jolting through your system.
The weakness that prevents [REC] 2 from becoming the equal of its predecessor is in the area of character development. First time around, the slow escalation of events allowed the audience to understand and empathize with the survivors, so by the time the dark frenzy of the later sections arrived, there was a significant investment. Here, by amplifying the threat and jumping right into the action, there’s no time to get to know or relate to the new group. In fact, just as we are getting used to the SWAT team, the picture throws another curve ball and begins again with a set of teens who have wandered into the building via the sewers. They were decoration in the first half, and then are suddenly cast as the protagonists in the second. It’s clever, but works against the need for well realized characterization.
It was never going to be easy to balance the new pacing and focus with the strong characters. Here, the people get sacrificed—in more ways than one—although Balaguero and Plaza have taken this into consideration and actually shrink the focus and scope of their ambitions. [REC] 2 is pared down to the point where it’s as lean and mean as a traditional survival horror could be. There are few let-ups between attacks and revelation, and each sequence is tied so precisely to the next that they form an ever-coiling spring of suspense.
I walked out of [REC] 2 reminded of the potential for horror to actually provide scares and anxiety without resorting to gutter-level shock tactics. Like the film it follows, this is one thrill ride worth taking a second time.