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…

P.S. Hey, I got all the way through this post without mentioning that the obligatory, knee-jerk American remake, entitled Quarantine, has just come out. I planned it that way.

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11 thoughts on “[REC]

  1. I was pleasantly surprised on seeing REC without really knowing what to expect. I didn’t exactly find it original (everything from Cannibal Holocaust and Demons 2 to Evil Dead and Chris Cunningham) but felt that it jumbled its influences up in an effective manner to create an interesting end product. The only thing I didn’t like was the Romero-styled ‘characters screaming angrily at each other’ moments which felt more like an easy way of keeping the tension up during a lull than a naturally arising occurence for the characters.

    “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.””

    I’d agree in the sense that I get the impression that Angela does want to be that kind of voracious reporter – after all, isn’t the main reason camera crews tag around with the police, fire and ambulance crews the chance to capture a violent, dangerous or degrading ‘real life’ situation for the viewers to enjoy from the safety of their homes? (Could we also consider REC as being a kind of post 9/11 film, since that documentary covering the day by those French filmmakers began as a portrait of the daily activities of a New York fire crew and then took on the extra significance due to the timing)

    I would sort of characterise her as a reporter from a programme aimed at children like say Newsround who has an opportunity to start doing reports for adult audiences and is not yet entirely comfortable with speaking to an older group of people. This is likely just my own interpretation but I guess it would speak to her ambition (it may only be a small step up to handling a programme about night workers but she may be hoping to move onto the main news eventually) as well as her seeming a little out of her depth even in the early scenes at the fire station with a rather forced matey banter.

    Perhaps another good comparison would be to Sarah Greene in that Ghostwatch programme, where she brings all her children’s presenter baggage to a more adult timeslot, yet still retains her child freindly banter and persona. Also Ghostwatch uses night vision in its final confrontation.

    It never strikes me as if Angela has a handle on her situation once things spiral out of control with the first attack by the old lady. Up until then she is stage managing, keeping upbeat and affirming the order of society to her viewers (and us), but after things are taken out of her control she seems to be more of a broken woman. Or rather she retreats to just shooting everything with some futile attempts at ‘creating a narrative’ out of her world focused on the authorities outside and getting character profiles from the other inhabitants of the building.

    One of the interesting things about these films would seem to be to “let someone know what is going on here” – but more than just narcissism it would seem to provide the character filming with a purpose in the story and often it seems to cause them to act with omnipotence, as if because they are filming the events through a camera there is no possibility of their being in any actual danger (whether that is taken as a statement about the blurring between reality and illusion – between ‘documentary’ and fictionalising for effect, or whether it could be seen more as people not feeling threatened by anything they see on a screen and actively place that barrier between themselves and the events to try and protect themselves).

    It makes sense then that the final sequences of Blair Witch, Cannibal Holocaust, Rec, Cloverfield and so on all end with that security of the camera operators being destroyed as they are killed. The finality of this could just be due to practical considerations (once the person filming has been killed who will continue to film?), but it also feels as if it is a necessary lesson for our characters to learn – that there is no inherent security through being the person wielding the camera, only for the audience who later view the footage you leave behind. In that sense there is no ‘final girl’ in these horror films any more – the audience now fulfills the role of the one who carries on with the knowledge of the events that have occured by watching the tape.

    Perhaps a good early example of this idea might be John Savage’s photographer in Salvador who is killed while trying to photograph a plane strafing a village with gunfire.

    If you don’t have respect for what you are filming, whether it is a lion or tiger in the jungle, a warzone or a possessed apartment block, then you are likely to be brutally killed through your underestimation. Though just going into such environments in the first place already signifies a lack of respect, or at least an intention to exploit events for your own gain, that marks such characters for an inevitable, end reel death.

  2. Thanks for your fulsome response, Colin – I think you wrote more than I did! I wish I’d seen the Criterion forum discussion on [REC] before I’d posted, though.

    Having studied it closely, I’m less fond of Cloverfield than I was when I saw it at the cinema: that masterful marketing campaign was obviously a short-term effect. But I do like that it never goes for that very fashionable motif of punishing the observer. That annoyed me especially in Diary of the Dead – the “we’re as bad as they are” and the “do we really deserve to be saved?” ending was a lazy clip-on moralising bit of nonsense, especially after the whole film was about the power of documentary evidence and citizen journalism to locate the truth away from the “official version” (i.e. it celebrates the uncensored horror of amateur reporting). And even more especially after the film showed a really prurient interest in close-up, flesh-chewing, gut-spilling violence. The film makes it plain that those walking corpses are not your friends and family anymore, so you shouldn’t feel bad if you have to shoot them to rescue the living, and suddenly we have to feel terrible about taking them out? Plus, the implication that we might all deserve to die because we have a hard-wired fascination with horrific images is probably the most reactionary thing I’ve had thrown in my direction by a movie in a long time…

    I have to dash – got sidetracked into a bit of a rant there, but I’ll respond to your REC comments in due course.

  3. I’ve actually just picked up Diary Of The Dead, though more out of a sense of duty to Romero than any real enthusiasm after hearing the mostly negative reviews of the film.

    I’ll be looking forward to Dead Set over the course of this week – I’m willing to put aside by phobia of fast zombies for the chance to see a zombified Davina McCall! (How will we tell the difference?)

  4. I can’t get Dead Set in my part of the world. No cable services or Freeview in my bit of Exeter. I like Charlie Brooker, though. But I prefer the slow-moving zombies, too.

    I’d certainly noticed the deaths of all the camera operators in every single one of the first-person horror films I’ve seen. Man Bites Dog especially. It’s an absolute certainty that that’s how it always ends! (I’m being arrogantly sure about this in the hope that someone will be indignant enough to point out an exception to that rule…) It’s supposed to be very frightening, leaving the film unhelmed and leaving the viewer completely unaccompanied in a dangerous place. I know it’s not cool to be scared by Blair Witch, but I found the ending really unsettling. But I wouldn’t like to conclude that the camera crews deaths were always ‘justified’. In stuff like Cannibal Holocaust and Man Bites Dog, the observers have become participants who cause the horrors they set out to capture. There’s always a moral quandary about whether or not they should be filming things or intervening to prevent it, but I wouldn’t want the REC people to die just because they preferred to see firemen in action attending to an emergency instead of playing basketball and flirting in the canteen. All (good) horror films play on the conflict between that desire to see something horrific but fearing it at the same time. The first-person trope just makes it a bit more literal and direct.

  5. I’m curious – can I borrow it? Had my fill of minimalist/undramatic art cinema at LFF and could do with a refreshing change.

    The other annoying thing about ‘Diary of the Dead’ is that it’s so easy/lazy to ask ‘are we worth saving’ by positing a contrast between trigger-happy rednecks and ‘us’ (the ‘everyman/woman’ central protagonists) when all the characters are either downright selfish, deeply flawed, shallow or just plain irritating. Are we really expected to go: ‘wow, George, yes, you’re right – what a pertinent question. We’re clearly just a bunch of shits after all.’

    P.S. Good to see you around these parts as well, Colin!

  6. I agree that it is not as vicious to its filming characters as Cannibal Holocaust or Man Bites Dog. Perhaps Rec is closer to The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield in that the people filming could be considered naive and even irritating in their self assurance as they go into the situation with the feeling of being in charge, yet that shouldn’t mean that they’re entirely deserving of their fates.

    In a coincidence I’ve been reading through J.G. Ballard’s collected short stories on my train to work and came across a story called Theatre Of War from 1977, in which the US is stationed in Britain propping up a corrupt puppet British government and the middle classes in major cities against a ‘British Liberation Force’ formed mainly of the young, who control the rural areas (in a displacement of the Vietnam War to Britain). The story is written in the style of a World In Action script and near the end the initial commentator is killed in the ‘pacification’ of a village. Another commentator announces that they are presenting this programme edited in accordance with their colleague’s wishes, and as a tribute to him.

  7. I hate to change the subject, but if I could jut go back to that great point about the double of logic of immediacy and hypermediacy. I found this example of the first person horror narrative really helpful in making concrete the ideas of Bolter & Grusin et al which I have been reading lately. I agree this is the perfect illustration of the double logic.

    But how about other examples that B & G give which aren’t so cut and dry. For example, Rock music, how can music be immediate? It seems that the logic of immediacy (especially) works perfectly in some examples but has to be stetched in others. I wonder if the experience of listening to music on vinyl is seen to be more immediate that clicking on shuffle on itunes? Anyway I have really digressed now!

  8. Matthew – of course you can borrow my copy of [REC]. We should meet up soon anyway.

    Thanks, Colin – the Ballard story sounds perfect. Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park ends in carnage, though I wouldn’t include it in the ‘found footage’ cycle, and the crew are not wiped out. I also spotted a tendency to kill off reporters and camera crews in disaster movies. The original Godzilla has an announcer continue reporting right up until the last moment he and his team are crushed; in The Day After Tomorrow a reporter is blown away by flying debris; again, Diary of the Dead has reporters amongst the first victims; one of the first people killed by the Martian heat ray in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is carrying a camcorder which drops to the ground. We then see through the viewfinder as the destruction continues. I’m sure there are many others. Perhaps an interesting motif deserving a bit more investigation?

  9. Thanks, Rob – that’s not a digression. Perfectly relevant. I’m rather jet-lagged right now, but looking forward to tending my blog as soon as I’m over it and on top of my in-tray.

    I agree that the remediation model is not a catch-all system for understanding how media operate, but I’ve found it useful in thinking about how media alter their forms, and how they might be caught in the bind of showing themselves off even as they aim to disappear. That “double-logic” is, I think, reflected in the spectator’s own wish to be immersed while at the same time being analytically enabled.

    Maybe the musical immediacy comparison works if the notion of immediacy is connected to immersive surround sound, or the use of headphones to block out external noise – the pops and scratches on vinyl are reminders of the medium’s make-up, but they’re also what many listeners relish and listen for. But then they might also be added digitally, like on a lot of recent Tom Waits records, which often use hi-tech equipment to make his records sound older and rougher.

  10. “The other annoying thing about ‘Diary of the Dead’ is that it’s so easy/lazy to ask ‘are we worth saving’ by positing a contrast between trigger-happy rednecks and ‘us’ (the ‘everyman/woman’ central protagonists) when all the characters are either downright selfish, deeply flawed, shallow or just plain irritating. Are we really expected to go: ‘wow, George, yes, you’re right – what a pertinent question. We’re clearly just a bunch of shits after all.’”

    Exactly. Some days, I’m quite sympathetic to the “humanity deserves to be overrun with zombies” argument, but in DOTD it was such a clip-on conclusion that they hadn’t worked for. The rest of the movie even seemed to have been working against it for the most part – the “director’s” enthusiasm for full-blooded depiction of the horrors of the apocalypse was recovered not as ghoulish fascination but as a necessary and revelatory truth-telling mission.

  11. Pingback: [REC]2 « Spectacular Attractions

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