I was bullied by my grandmother into successfully watching my first horror movie. It was Scream, and when I got too scared and tried to leave, my Taiwanese grandma snapped at me, “SIT DOWN. It’s only a movie.” My cousins and grandma had always loved spooking me into crying with Hong Kong B horror, but this time, the lovely old lady would not let me back out. I stayed, and it changed my movie viewing forever. I still spook easily, and a good jump scare can still get me, but for the most part, I’ve realized that it’s only a movie. It’s always only a movie.
Of course, there are exceptions: films where immersion and my suspension of disbelief are woven together so beautifully that I forget this simple credo that helps my little, skittish heart through most horror media. Here’s a chart to illustrate the distinction, for me:
|Scary, but “only a movie”||GET ME OUT OF THIS ROOM|
Note: all links go to IMDB, in case you’re wondering if they’re “the original version or the remake?”
Observant horror fans will notice a tiny trend: there are a lot of foreign movies in that right column. For me, American horror provides an easy scare: American movies love pointing out what you should be afraid of and saying over and over again, “See how spoooooky this is?” Japanese movies tend to focus on the idea of scariness by forcing the audience’s eye only on what’s scary.
Compare the Japanese version of The Ring with its American equivalent. In the Japanese version, Sadako appears from the TV. The film cuts exclusively between Ryuji and Sadako. Even when the phone rings (as it does in the American version), we hear it off screen, and Ryuji gropes for it, showing it as a useless lifeline to the outside world.
In the American remake, Samara comes out of the TV, but in profile. We cut to Noah, who looks at the TV, and the phone, and his desk. We cut away from the room entirely, showing the woman at the other end of the phone, coming to the rescue. The danger isn’t in the already-scary “girl coming out of a TV” option; the director shows us how much trouble Noah is in, and how much effort is going into his trouble.
Unlike Japanese and American films, Spanish horror revels in bodily trauma. And no, not bodily trauma like Saw. Spanish films do something very simple to the body, and with directorial magic, they exploit pain to its fullest. I’ve never seen a Spanish horror movie tell only one character’s story: the fear is distributed through the whole cast and manifests in different ways.
Which brings us to [Rec].
My high school friends and I reunite every year by renting a beach house and partying for a whole week. A tradition of this trip includes a select group of horror fans, crowding together in a dark room and watching a horror movie. I watched [Rec] for the first time, crowded with four male friends around a 17” laptop screen. 30 minutes into the movie, I gave up, asked to pause, and returned to the viewing room with a pillow to hug. Within five minutes of that, all of my guy friends had made the same concession: we all needed something to hide behind.
[Rec] follows a young reporter, frustrated with her dumb lifestyle beat, and hoping that her latest assignment won’t be too boring: hanging out with a local fire station for a night. Lucky for her, the fire station gets a call to investigate an old woman trapped in her top-floor apartment; they beat the paramedics there, and our heroine Angela comes along. Part of what’s great about this movie is that Angela is tiny, but brave—oftentimes plunging herself into danger for the sake of a story that may make her career.
The spooks come from several directions. First, the camera is operated by a patient, sometimes-speaking cameraman, Pablo. While we rarely see Pablo’s face, we know by his interactions with Angela that he’s also brave, and eager to help. Together, they go to a small, four-story apartment building, where the enclosed community of apartment living has gathered, concerned about the old woman in the top unit.
The creep factor is already there, but Angela’s perspective introduces us to the rest of the cast: an aloof East Asian couple, a sick girl with a missing dog, and the old woman, who doesn’t answer her door. When shit hits the fan, the information and the scares come hard and fast. A firefighter is thrown down the stairwell from the top floor; his face looks like it’s been bitten by a wild animal. The girl throws up, attacks her mother, and scurries off into the old woman’s room. All the while, Angela is interviewing the apartment’s tenants, who find quickly that the health department has barricaded them inside the building.
Angela’s persistent reporting yields only scarier details: the dog was found outside, with an unknown virus, and the only people allowed in are doctors in HAZMAT suits.
“Okay,” you’re saying. “So it’s a zombie movie.”
It sure is! But the ideals of Spanish horror permeates the movie: from the washed-out colors and tiny environment (no swarms of restless corpse people banging on windows here), to the well-developed sympathetic characters, to the fast-paced action with Angela whispering, “Cuidado…Cuidado!” behind a camera pointed into perfect darkness. Body horror is captured perfectly when the health department swabs a bite for the mystery virus: the shot makes you think about what being bitten by another human feels like. [Rec] isn’t an homage or a treatment of the genre. If anything, [Rec] thinks genre comes second to scaring the hell out of you and four of your guy friends.
The gore in [Rec] is effective, because it’s purposeful and limited. Jump scares are signaled, but the camera makes you hesitate and wait, when Pablo hesitates and waits. Angela’s voice is always in our ear, her panic reflecting our panic. [Rec] is incredibly well-constructed, but it’s hard to see it working on you, because the situations are just so terrifying.
My grandma taught me I could watch horror movies, and [Rec] taught me how. A good horror movie keeps you in the room, until you emerge, breathless and shaky, from the world inside.