Thursday, 2 April 2009


In George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007), the recent trend for confessional, self-shot horror cinema, post The Blair Witch Project (1999), was satirised as yet another extension of the current generation's supposed obsession with exhibitionism and self-analysis. A kind of egotistical self-infatuation facilitated, to some extent, by websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, where even the most personal or upsetting events of a person's life can be exploited in an attempt to create insight or entertainment for an unseen, possibly voyeuristic audience, no longer able to feel anything unless distanced by a television monitor or computer screen.

The concept - and Romero's presentation of it - puts me in mind of a quote by Guy Debord, which helps to contextualise the particular commentary being woven, consciously or unconsciously, throughout. "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation"

Diary of the Dead directed by George A. Romero, 2007:

Although [REC] (2007) has no such higher ambitions, the ideology at work is nonetheless similar to the Romero film. In both instances, it is the characters' perseverance and obsession with documenting the proceedings at all costs that pushes the narrative forwards. The motivation of these characters to capture, for whatever reason, the carnage and the bloodshed, inspires the real dramatic incentive to pursue this story, even if it means putting themselves (and others) in danger. It is this personal motivation that effectively transforms a routine trash-TV exposé into the lives of Barcelona fire-fighters into a self-reflexive examination into the power of the image (not only as a spectacle, but as a means of documentation: the RECording of the title), and the more important relationship between the camera, the viewer and the subject in-between.

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

If [REC], as a companion piece to the Romero film, is ultimately derivative in concept - with the snappy banner on the back of the DVD-sleeve ably (or idly?) surmising the film's creative intentions as "The Blair Witch meets 28 Days Later..." - it nonetheless succeeds over many of these similarly constructed "found-footage" experiments as a result of its authenticity. Whereas Romero's film suffered greatly from implausibility - not simply in terms of the general motivation of its characters or the development of its plot, but in the kind of situations actually being recorded (especially if we're to believe that these so-called film students are operating on a limited power-supply and budget) - [REC], by comparison, really does feel like an authentic, low-budget piece of late-night television info-fodder.

It also helps that the film is genuinely appealing, both in its themes and in its creative development; with the more outlandish twists of the plot finding an anchor through the believable performances of a cast that play on subtlety, and a general feeling of dread and uncertainty that is elevated by the skilful editing; managing to retain the obvious genre expectations of the jumps and jolts, but still remaining true to the overall creative intentions of the directors and their crew.

The appeal of [REC], beyond the more obvious genre paraphernalia, is therefore this sense of placing the spectator directly within the action via the first-person associations of the camera's eye.

Man with a Movie Camera directed by Dziga Vertov, 1929:

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

Whereas conventionally the director creates a shot, and within the frame of this shot places various objects and characters of significance to what the film or the scene is about, the self-shot/found-footage format obscures the hand of directorial control, making the audience feel as if we're discovering something that is real; something that hasn't been manufactured. We're still seeing exactly what the filmmaker wants us to see, but in a way that is much less obvious. Instead of the carefully composed images of films like The Exorcist (1973), Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980) or The Sixth Sense (1999), where there is a very clear sense of how to frame these moments of shock and suspense in order to satisfy audience anticipation, the chaos of these images, and the sometimes difficulty of having to squint out the significance, adds to the general confusion of the situation.

Halloween directed by John Carpenter, 1978:

The Shining directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980:

The Sixth Sense directed by M. Night Shyamalan, 1999:

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

It makes the viewer more active, placing us, as spectator, into the situation; not only forcing us to experience this horror as the characters themselves might experience it, but exaggerating the anticipation by deliberately obscuring some of the more important information on screen.

Many of these stylisations could be considered emblematic of a continual interest on the part of a contemporary audience for what is perceived to be a greater sense of realism. From the introduction of reality television in the early part of the decade - which itself was a lead-off from the previously popular docusoap format - a kind of real-life soap opera form of cinema vérité - audiences have demanded images that resonate on a recognisable level.

The reality-TV culture thrives on the authenticity of real laughter, real tears and real emotions; where the process of manipulation is understated, and where the usually recognisable limitations of the fourth-wall are almost entirely removed. If the filmmakers can convince us during these opening scenes that these characters are real people doing real things, then the eventual shift into the more outlandish genre territory of zombies and potential government conspiracies will be given a greater hit of plausibility. We accept the scenario as being far more convincing if placed within this style of heightened faux-documentary realism than if it were shown with all the gothic, romanticised style of the Hammer Horror-movies, or the incredibly beautiful or conventionally more cinematic terror of Bava, Kubrick or Argento.

Suspiria directed by Dario Argento, 1977:

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

It could be argued that this particular style of film, in which the audience is thrown headlong into the action, and into the horror, helps to overcome some of the less original aspects of the plot. Had the film been presented in the more conventional approach - of wide-shot, to mid-shot to close-up, etc - the continual reliance on the work of Romero - specifically Dawn of the Dead (1978) and The Crazies (1973) - as well as the early films of David Cronenberg - such as Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) - might have plunged the film into the same kind of hollow, artless predictability of the average Hollywood remake.

Instead, the wide contrast between the content, which is generic, and the approach, which isn't, help us to identify and experience these clichés and predictable accoutrements from an entirely fresh perspective. It gives a kind of greater plausibility to the general "what if..." scenario that the horror movie, as a phenomenon, has exploited since day one. So "what if..." a local access-all-areas television crew were there to document the unfolding of a film like Rabid, or The Crazies; "what if..." something like that really did happen; how would we react, etc.

At a time when most of the human race is documenting their own lives on camera phones or video recording equipment, putting these feelings on the web in order to form a connection with the world as a twenty-first equivalent of a message in a bottle (and yes, this blog functions on a similar level), the idea of someone just being there to capture this chaos is not only close to actuality, it's an acceptable truth. You only have to look at the news coverage of any recent disaster, terrorist attack or major event, from the horrors of 9/11 to the natural wonder of the recent eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the documentation of these spectacles is captured, in the absence of a professional crew, by the every-day man on the street.

This is what gives the film its recognisable weight; "real people" in "real peril". It works, but only because the thing is so well-made. It elevates itself from the usual low-budget horror cinema, not by looking down on the genre, of thinking that it's somehow better or more relevant than any other film using the same techniques, but by actually engaging the audience in its scenes of terror, in its plot, and the lives of its characters.

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

The film draws the audience in slowly, establishing a believable context in which local television news reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her never-seen cameraman Pablo (Pablo Rosso) interview the staff of a small Barcelona fire department. In the opening scenes, we see Ángela, sometimes unsuccessfully attempt to engage the fire fighters in a conversation in the hope of getting to the heart of what it is they actually do. As Pablo pans back and forth with his shoulder-mounted video camera, recording these men and women filling out paperwork, or eating, sleeping and playing sports, Ángela and the viewer are secretly hoping for something (more exciting) to happen. Eventually, a call comes in; a disturbance at a small apartment building on the outskirts of city.

From this point on, anyone familiar with how horror movies work will have a good idea of what to expect from the narrative development of the film. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of the residents gathered together in the foyer, confused and agitated - concerned for the wellbeing of the old lady locked in her apartment but also frightened - is conspicuous from their initial introduction. It is obvious that as the horror builds and becomes more focused and frenzied that this tension between the ranks will feed into the general chaos and confusion, causing mistakes to be made, loved ones to be lost and our "heroes" (for lack of a better word) to be put at risk.

As the storyline develops, and the horror-movie aspect becomes much more pronounced, the style of the film and the way it is used to reveal or obscure the elements of the plot, is perfectly utilised, as the audience are placed into these situations, witnessing them from the first-person POV vantage point of the camera, thus putting us right on the frontline. It helps that the co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza chose to have the film's actual cinematographer stand in as the character of Pablo, meaning that we really do get the sense of an actual camera man at work, framing the shots as best he can, as a professional, but also trying to keep himself and others safe in this incredibly hostile environment.

[REC] directed by Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2007:

As with the Romero film, one can choose to see [REC] as a commentary on the power of the screen-image and how it has been used in the first part of the twenty-first century, not just as a kind of confessional, but as a way of desensitising characters to their own suffering or peril. Ángela doesn't have to keep filming. She could put the camera down. She could free up her arms making it easier for her to run up and down the winding staircases, or down those long shadowy corridors. But she doesn't. Why? Does the camera remain turned on for our benefit or for hers? Again, it's that misguided sense of duty that these characters feel they need a recording of this event for whatever reason. It's also, on some level, the act of looking at the world through the viewfinder of a camera to create a filter to reality. It also shows the voyeuristic nature of the characters, and by extension the audience itself; more concerned with documenting the violence and the suffering as it happens, instead of attempting to get away from it.

If [REC] lacks Romero's pointed social commentary, it is no less representative of this curious new subgenre. As Ángela's direction to "just keep filming" is offered as a hollow echo as the final scene fades to black, we find ourselves in the world where characters feel they must record everything. It shows the genre moving further and further away from the usual self sacrifice/self preservation preoccupations that have so often triumphed in the structure and conventions of the horror movie narrative, as we expect our protagonists to escape from this evil, to flee from it, as we cheer their escape or eventual re-capture. It replaces this with a fascinating if largely observational sense of self-absorption; as the walls of civilisation come tumbling down we begin to turn the cameras, not on the event, but on ourselves, to fulfil some kind of vague misguided sense of purpose, before our own moment of expiration.