I’ve been finishing off a conference paper on Cloverfield recently, focusing on the way it sets up and then obscures a series of opportunities for spectacular display (an aesthetic motif that extends to the opacity of its marketing tricks), and this has led me to seek out other films that squeeze a generic situation through the fixed template of a found-footage, citizen reporter approach. I might have dedicated a post to George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead if I didn’t consider it a complete misfire: although it is set up with the delicious premise of uploaded reportage on a zombie apocalypse, not for a single scene does it successfully simulate the chaotic mess of amateur shooting under the pressure of an unfolding crisis: it was even upstaged by The Zombie Diaries, released in 2006 and bearing the same narrational conceit. Romero’s zombie series, none of which seem to take place in the same story world (each film restarts the clock on the end of the Earth and never references previous undead uprisings), promised to provide a running commentary on contemporary societies, with the near-accidental civil rights outrages of Night of the Living Dead and the consumerist parody of Dawn of the Dead being particularly apt, so a critique of the current obsession with capturing anything, everything on camera seemed like the perfect choice for a walking-corpse make-over this time around. But it looked as though Romero couldn’t bear to sacrifice the explicit focus on close-up ripping flesh in exchange for the jerky and frantic style that goes with the territory in the latest wave of handicam horror films. It ended up looking pretty much like other recent zombie films, when you’d ideally like Romero to still be leading the pack, and even had the gall to resurrect (pun lazily intended) the regular canard of trying to make the audience feel guilty for their fascination with horror: “Are we really worth saving?” George, you’re not going to convince me that I deserve to die just because you show me a few rednecks who enjoy taking down people who are already dead – especially not after you’ve spent a whole series of movies telling us that the ones who are prepared to subdue their emotions and finish off the undead spectres of their loved ones are just doing what has to be done.
Anyway, this line of inquiry brought me round to REC, a film whose publicity campaign was especially careful in concealing its Spanish origins from English language audiences. The set-up is simple. A local news-crew, consisting of Angela and her cameraman Pablo (who is never seen in front of the lens), is following a fire-crew to capture their overnight routines for their magazine programme “While you’re sleeping.” Hoping to see some action, they get more than enough when a routine visit to a distressed resident in a tenement block sees them trapped inside the building when the authorities quarantine the area to contain an outbreak of an unknown infection that makes its subjects abnormally aggressive and just a bit more cannibalistic than the national average.
The simple beauty of the handheld horror film is that it pretty much writes itself according to generic conventions, but still feels a bit fresh due to the novel perspective. But it’s going to get stale quite quickly. Recent efforts in this direction, like a delayed reaction to the massive success of The Blair Witch Project and its rereleased forerunner The Last Broadcast are really just revisions of the pseudo-snuff, found-footage pretences of Cannibal Holocaust, the Guinea Pig movies (the second instalment of which Charlie Sheen famously reported to the FBI, believing it to be the real thing and thus giving it the best publicity its makers could ever have hoped for – the mind boggles at the thought of a movie too sordid for Charlie Sheen!) and probably the Faces of Death series, which mixed real death footage with staged carnage; the Faces of Death website, with a slick design to mark its 30th anniversary re-release, now features a series of explanations of which bits were fake, though it no longer seems to matter – there are plenty of people who will swear blind that those guys were really eating the brains of live monkeys in that Middle Eastern restaurant. What seems interesting to me is that once you blur the boundaries between documentary and reconstruction, you deplete the truth claims of each. And that’s probably a good thing – we should all be putting a critical distance between ourselves and the media that wants us to accept its content at face value. Anything that reminds you that the tics of factuality can be easily mimicked can only be productive on that front.
It should be no surprise that the caught-on-camera aesthetic has been mostly exploited by the makers of horror films: most horror films derive their effect from delaying the moment when you get a clear view of the threat, and having a situated camera operator, as opposed to an omniscient, distanced observer reporting the action can only accentuate that effect when handled correctly, if the shaking camera, oscillating focus and erratic framing is performed skilfully enough to suggest a photographer situated within the events and as much subject to danger as any of the other fictional characters. It is, of course, compulsory that whoever holds the camera will suffer a terrible fate. Film-makers just can’t seem to resist the temptation to overthrow the holder of the gaze and deliver the frightening illusion of an unhelmed movie, if only for a few moments. Also, the old horror film paradox of not wanting characters to enter the haunted house, but needing them to do so if the film is going to complete its required mission of showing you something horrific, finds a good home in films where the camera operator is not just your proxy onscreen, but an endangered figure within the story. It’s a perfect illustration of Bolter and Grusin’s notion of digital media’s double logic, whereby increases in immediacy (the mediating apparatus is seen to disappear, giving the spectator more direct access to the experience of the content) are matched by greater hypermediacy (the presence of the medium and its technical trappings are made more apparent). It is the film-makers who have carefully constructed the illusion of their own absence, attempting to make all of the film’s formal elements perform the style of another medium. It’s crucial that you notice these stylistic codes (shaky camera, jagged editing, overloaded sound, misframed subjects, compression artifacts), but that you attribute them to the diegetic equipment and crew rather than to the fully funded, unionised team that really put it together and hid the joins.
Another fear that connects REC to Cloverfield (which was released a few months afterwards) and Diary of the Dead is that of public emergency. If a majority of horror films have tried to give you the fright of being singled out and trapped by a murderous individual (see the Saw and Hostel films for the most starkly personalised killings of the genre’s recent resurgence), then these films play on the terror of escalating panic, of the chaotic stampede, and the ever-present danger of getting finished off and disappeared by the authorities sent to deal with the problem in the first place. The misdirection and obfuscation that characterised the Cloverfield viral marketing campaign was exactly calculated to create a good mock-up of that kind of paranoia and confusion. Unlike Cloverfield, REC does not build in a romantic quest to give structure and familiarity to its messy destruction – REC is not a story so much as a situation. Angela, the reporter who stays on camera for most of the running time, transforms from a keen but slightly jaded young woman (she’d clearly prefer to be covering a major news story instead of asking what firemen have for dinner) into a voracious newsgatherer, constantly exhorting her cameraman to “shoot everything.” Alongside the usual horror film questions about who will die next or what might have caused the outbreak is another narrative about whether or not the film will get made. Will they manage to get the shot and bring about a neatly tied up ending? These are ordinary narrative imperatives dressed up in the vestments of documentary, generic tropes masquerading as found footage.
SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. Don’t read on if you plan to see the film…
Although the film plays out like a standard-issue zombie movie, with a lethal infection gradually thinning out the cast, it reaches a higher pitch of suspense using a night-vision camera for a macabre finale. It turns out that the infection was started by Vatican-sanctioned experiments in curing possession (or has the Vatican mistaken a virulent infection for demonic possession and botched its attempts to stamp it out), and the last room in the apartment block still houses the first patient, a hideously emaciated, flesh-hungry screamer who provides a genuinely unsettling finish. It’s a chilling finale, shifting in a totally new direction, but the de rigeur killing off of the camera crew abruptly segues into an unwelcome Euro-metal closing theme that pisses on the hard-earned tension and pushes you out of the fiction with dismissive swiftness. The body horror of this sequence is achieved not through CGI or camera tricks, but by the wonders of the old-school freakshow tactic of making up actor Javier Borter, who suffers from Marfan Syndrome. The low-rent zombie effects that precede this moment don’t set up the expectation of one final horror, so it’s certainly a frightening sequence that tips the film sideways into Evil Dead territory, even having a voice on a reel-to-reel tape recorder that holds the diaries of an experiment gone horribly wrong. Like all the best spooky tales, it finishes on a flurry of death that provides closure (the mystery is pretty much solved, and there’s nobody left to die) at the same time as it leaves the evil unvanquished, the documentary unfinished. That’s what all these mock-doc horrors all have in common. The film never really gets finished…