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My uncharitable belief about the found footage genre is that it's the perfect storm of a lack of talent in front of and behind the camera, in many cases (that I've seen), the marriage of performers who can't act to directors who have no idea of how to frame a shot. And typically, when they come together, it's to create the illusion of naturalism and the real, but usually, the conceit to have everything be documented at all times with near-hysterical actors screaming their lines into the camera gives us the exact opposite (and worse, these films are seldom scary).
For a lot of these reasons, and exhaustion with that particular genre (and general zombie fatigue), I didn't warm to co-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza "[REC]" (remade here in 2008 as "Quarantine" with "Dexter's" Jennifer Carpenter in the Manuela Velasco role). But for whatever reason, I decided to give their followup, 2009's "[REC]2" a chance.
And with that film, these two not only found a way to make the found footage element work, but actually integral to the plot while making the flesh-eating monsters in their film something far more interesting than the usual shuffling zombies.
First off, let me walk back some of what I said at the top of this post--I don't think the found footage is, at its core a bad genre, in the same way that I don't think Westerns or sports movies are inherently superior genres. In fact, this bit from Balagueró in a 2008 interview gives them add resonance in this day and age:
We are part of the YouTube generation and I think that is affecting the way that people make films and consume images. More and more we are exposed to new things because of the internet and movies are not only made for DVD and the theatres anymore.
I think, in a sense, "[REC]" is very contemporary, and what makes it different from the two films you mentioned earlier is that this movie happens in 2007 and we, personally, were very influenced by the work of kids playing around with their camera and putting the result up on YouTube.
Here, he's talking about the democratization of filmmaking thanks to new, cheaper, and easier to use tools that allow anyone with a phone to create and share content. What he brushes against a little is that this idea also influences the style of films that have been given life thanks to the rise of easy content sharing: the films of TMI. Every little thought, every moment, every gesture of a character is relevant and important because for whatever reason, it's relevant to the filmmaker.
Extrapolate that to the found footage genre, and it's a perfect mesh of a generation that's always recording, always documenting, and a style of movie that requires constant documentation to make their conceits work. I can appreciate (if not actually like) the "Paranormal Activity" movies with the understanding that these are movies from a very "me" centered POV. This is what happened to me. This is what I thought about it.
And "[REC]2" is, at first glance, right there with the rest of them: the persistent, shaky camera, creepy creatures slinking in and out of the frame, and characters freaking out at one another because things have gone too far.
What allows this film to set itself apart from other "why won't they put the camera down" horror movies like "Cloverfield" or "YellowBrickRoad" (2010), is that first, the cameras are, for the most part, bolted to the Spanish SWAT team protagonists, breaching the monster-infected/infested/possessed building of the first film just minutes after its conclusion. The second is that in the final act, the camera serves as a lifeline for the surviving heroes, in infrared light source the sole means of seeing the infernal menace living in the apartment building (the reveal that a certain door can only be seen through the lens of a camera is brilliantly right out of video game logic).
The stories sees the SWAT team escorting the mysterious Dr. Owen (Jonathan D. Mellor) through the building to help him find a vital blood sample that could stop the spread of the infection. In a twist on John Carpenter's "Prince of Darkness" (hey, you should be making a recommended watching list here), Evil might just be a scientifically quantifiable and identifiable thing, but instead of living in a jar, it might have taken home inside of a young girl.
Where the first movie was essentially about what would happen to an apartment building on lockdown with monsters inside,"[REC]2" is about creating and then unlocking mysteries about the first film, pulling the focus all the way back to the idea of capital "E" evil as a conquerable thing. Plus, bathed completely in darkness and shot almost entirely from the helmet cams of the increasingly panicked cops, it's great POV horror because the viewer, like the characters, have limited line of sight and there's a shared sense of vulnerability there.
Plus that ending, which ties both movies together... wow.
I've written about the slightly disappointing third entry, which drops the handheld camera work for a more narrative feature aesthetic (and comedy); a planned fourth film is on the way from Jaume Balagueró. "[REC]2" is easy enough to see with a 2011 DVD release from Magnolia Pictures and various VOD options (iTunes, Amazon, etc.). It's worth catching with the lights low and no distractions as soon as you get a chance to see it.