I was watching [REC] again last night. I love that movie; it’s the first truly scary movie I’ve seen in a long time. There have been plenty of movies that have successfully creeped me out over the past ten years, but [REC], even after repeated viewings, legitimately scares me. And then I asked myself, “Why?”. There is nothing really innovative about it. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much an amalgam of recently successful tropes from other horror movies. You’ve got the camera-as-fixed observer (Blair Witch, Cloverfield, et al ad nauseum), the rage-zombie infestation (28 Days Later), the corpse that suddenly reanimates, the trapped-in-one-enclosed-location scenario, the creepy mad doctor’s lab, the creature that pop out unexpectedly, etc. etc. So with all these recycled horror movies devices, why does this movie make my skin crawl more so than the films it cribs from?
The best explanation I could come up with (as lame as it sounds) was that the building in which the action was contained had a very alien kind of atmosphere. Then I stepped back and acknowledged that, yes, that sounds lame. The movie was scary because the building was spooky? Weak. But then I expanded upon that to realize that it wasn’t so much the environment was different, but that everything was a little bit different because, duh, it’s a foreign movie. By its very nature, everything in a foreign horror movie is going to feel a little bit off, because it’s a different society and culture with different customs, different urban landscapes, even different architectural layouts. The emotions may be universal (fear, revulsion, confusion, sadness, self-preservation), but drop a story into a foreign country and the (American) viewer is going to feel slightly like a fish out of water.
Over the past twelve years, while Hollywood has been satisfied rehashing financially successful carbon copies of torture porn and Shyamalan-esque “twist” endings derivative of an old Twilight Zone episode, most of my favorite horror films (Pulse, Inside, I Saw The Devil, A Tale Of Two Sisters) have been made overseas. All of those movies have been preferences of mine largely because they HAVE been innovative. But even a film like [REC], which admittedly brings nothing new to the table, succeeds for me where other American versions fail because of that otherness factor. Take for example Quarantine, the American remake of [REC], and compare them side by side. The American version fails to terrify for exactly the same reason that the Spanish movie should…because it doesn’t really give us anything we haven’t already seen before.
[As a side note, I have to express my distaste for the very existence of movies like Quarantine. I call it the “Point of No Return syndrome”. Back in the early 90’s, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita was a big hit on the arthouse circuit. Hollywood saw an opportunity to make money there, but goddammit, middle Americans don’t want to have to READ when they go to the movies. So they remade the movie as Point of No Return with Bridget Fonda, and it wouldn’t have been AS insulting if they hadn’t taken key scenes from La Femme Nikita and remade them shot for shot. It was as if they were acknowledging that they really wished that the makers of the original movie had just had the common decency to shoot it in English. And I really find it hard to believe that Hollywood did a cost-benefit analysis and concluded that it would be more economical to remake the whole damn movie rather that give the original a wider American distribution with a targeted ad blitz telling everybody how awesome it was. And that applies to La Femme Nikita as well as [REC], Wings of Desire, The Seven Samurai, Diabolique, Ringu, The Vanishing, The Wages of Fear….shall I go on?]
Another reason why [REC] might be so good is that it does everything it needs to do in 73 minutes. It goes in, scares the piss out of you, and ends. Boom. Maybe it might again be because of a European sensibility, but I have to admire a horror movie that doesn’t overstay its welcome.