Latarnia presents CASTILIAN CRIMSON
The Spanish Horror Film





Director: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza
Screenplay: Jaume Balagueró, Luis Berdejo, Paco Plaza
Photography: Pablo Rosso
Cast: Manuela Velasco,
Pablo Rosso, Vicente Gil, Maria Teresa Ortega, Manuel Bronchard, Maria Lanau, Claudia Font
Running time: 75 minutes

Review by Mike Hodges

Two of Spain’s leading horror film makers, who both rose to international prominence thanks to Filmax and its genre division Fantastic Factory, joined forces last year to direct the company’s latest horror hit, currently enjoying a triumphant nationwide cinema release. Critics have been divided over the result of the combined labor of Jaume Balagueró (DARKNESS, FRAGILE) and Paco Plaza (SECOND NAME, ROMASANTA), but audiences rapidly catapulted the film into the top grossing bracket following its premiere at last year’s Sitges Festival, where the movie picked up four awards, including those for Best Director, and Best Actress for Manuela Velasco.

Long time pals Balagueró and Plaza had previously been assigned by  the studio supremo, Julio Fernández, to co-direct a ‘fly on the wall’ feature length spin off of the popular TV show OPERACIÓN TRIUNFO (the Spanish equivalent of POPSTARS) back in 2001 as the winning contestants embarked on a concert tour of major Spanish cities.  [REC] is a whole different type of ‘reality’, being another addition to the ‘found footage’, POV, mockumentary subgenre. The screenplay was penned by the two directors together with  Luis Bermejo, co-scripter of CHRISTMAS TALE, Plaza’s entry in the FILMS TO KEEP YOU AWAKE telemovie series. The story couldn’t be more basic, though that’s appropriate enough for a film in which the raison d’etre is not the ‘what’ but rather the ‘how’.  A twenty something local TV reporter, Angela (Velasco) and her cameraman Marcos (the practically unseen Pablo Rosso) are detailed to follow a unit of the Barcelona Fire Brigade through the night for a programme titled ‘While You Are Sleeping’. The first minutes of the film prime the audience for the type of ‘rough footage’ movie about to unfold, as it includes not only Angela interviewing the fire chief, chatting with the men in whose truck they’ll be riding, describing the firefighters’ sleeping quarters, trying on a helmet and so on, but also sarcastic asides and comments intended only for Marcos and obviously not meant for broadcast. The jokey, smugly cynical attitude typical of many of these ‘live’, true-life-drama reportage programmes is a perfect counterpoint to the grimness to come, and serves to heighten the anticipation that something seriously nasty is shortly to befall the firemen and their journalist followers.

Several hours of uneventful tedium at the Fire Station are finally broken when the hoped for emergency call eventually comes through, though the summons is not to put out a fire, but to force entry to a flat occupied by an old woman whose screams suggest she’s in the throes of some kind of fit. However, what should be a simple, routine case is the start of a nightmare experience for all involved - the emergency service personnel (including an aging cop already on the scene, played by Vicente Gil, seen in the 2004 Paul Naschy vehicle ROJO SANGRE and Bigas Luna’s 1987 ANGUSTIA), the reporters and the tenants of the building. On entering the appartment the elderly proprietor suddenly turns on her would be rescuers and sinks her teeth into the neck of a fireman , transmitting a deadly virus which turns those who are bitten by the already infected into slavering, bloodlusting, ultra-violent, homicidal maniacs. While the main characters are fighting for survival inside, the building is sealed off from outside (hence the title of the currently shooting US remake, QUARANTINED) and orders are relayed through loudspeakers : ‘Do not attempt to leave the building. Wait inside and remain calm.’ Anyone unlucky enough to have found themselves in any sort of crisis situation where officialdom takes the reins will undoubtedly share the characters’ grave misgivings about the outcome.

Most of the film is composed of the dizzying, frenetically jerky footage taken by the hand held camera as Marcos pushes past the other characters to get a clear shot of what’s taking place, pokes the camera round doors and window frames to film what the authority figure (one of the Nuclear/Bacteriological/Chemical emergency team hastily admitted from outside) doesn’t want him to witness, or turns to flee from a sudden violent onslaught. Credibility is severely tested by the inclusion of these latter takes, since common sense dictates that any normal person would be more concerned with self preservation and ditch such an unwieldy piece of equipment so as to get the hell out of there as fast as possible. The film makers eventually manage to sidestep such objections when the building’s lights go down, and the only means of illumination is the camera’s own floodlight , so that the camera is leading instead of following. When that eventually fails, too, the last minutes of film are shot in night vision mode, turning an already scary place into an unnerving, eerily green-tinted underworld.

The lengthy shake’n’quake sequences successfully serve to involve the audience more fully in the adrenaline pumping action and enhance the sensation of hopeless claustrophobia. The drawback is that after several minutes of this, motion sickness starts to set in, so luckily for the audience (and no for doubt  the film editor), there are a number of respites as Angela fills the time between outbursts of violence and barricade erecting by interviewing the residents of the block, resulting in several minutes of more sedate footage. Although some observers have criticised the supposed perfunctory, ‘stock character’ portrayal of the unfortunate inhabitants, the assorted performances ring truer to life than in some other famed false documentaries. Here we have  a somewhat vain middle aged gay man , a bickering old couple (Maria Teresa Ortega and Manuel Bronchard, veteran of countless ‘Paella Westerns’ and seen in Balagueró’s 1999 hit THE NAMELESS),who seem more concerned with scoring off each other than trying to understand what’s happening around them, a distraught mother (Maria Lanau) with a sick child (aha!), a resident male nurse, conveniently on hand to proffer first aid before anyone realises that the victims are far beyond that kind of help, and a Chinese immigrant family who run a clandestine textile workshop in the building’s basement. These characters may well seem to be stereotypes, but anyone familiar with present day urban life in Catalonia’s capital city will recognise them instantly, and in a film such as this, spontaneity is more of a concern than delivering an Oscar worthy acting masterclass. So much so, in fact, that the directors confided that for most of the sequences, only one actor was aware of what was going to happen, leading to a state of real tension and uncertainty among the remaining cast members (and undoubtedly the reason why Velasco, on a couple of occasions, inadvertently calls her cameraman by the actor’s real name, Pablo).

Many of the published reviews of [REC] (mostly in the Spanish media, which seem divided into either ‘love it’ or ‘loathe it’ camps) bemoan the fact that it is in no way an original film, either in terms of plot (most frequent comparisons are to 28 DAYS LATER, with its ‘rage’ epidemic scenario, though some commentators cite NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) or in terms of concept (‘a BLAIR WITCH PROJECT rip off.’). Frankly, as a valid criticism, unoriginality is a complete non-starter, in the same way that praising the state of the art SFX on display in a mega million dollar Hollywood blockbuster is a totally redundant accolade. It’s true that the action develops along the same lines as dozens of other movies we’ve all seen since the advent of Romero’s seminal walking corpses although the final reveal about the original source of the virus hauls us rather confusingly –  and gratuitously –  back to Balagueró’s favoured leitmotif,  namely the corruption of young children at the hands of  unbalanced or ‘evil’  adults as the trigger to horrific happenings years later. These particular scenes comprise the only part of the movie that could be fairly accused of falling into cinematic cliché, but on the whole the film’s success can be gauged by how far it achieves what its makers set out to do within their mainly self imposed limitations. Balagueró and Plaza’s intention was ‘simply’ to keep the audience on the edge of the seat – and frequently jumping out of it – for some eighty grueling, claustrophobic, panicky, frequently gory, nail biting minutes. Without a shadow of a doubt, [REC] is ‘Mission Accomplished’. 

Mike Hodges, copyright 2008



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