I find it fitting that I finally saw REC at the Fantasia Film Festival, as it was Fantasia programmer and longtime pal Mitch Davis who first clued me into it. After last year's TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival to you laymen) Mitch and I were on the phone, him giving me the lowdown on on the hits and misses of the festival. REC wasn't screened officially at TIFF, but a special screening was held for buyers and festival programmers there in advance of the film's November opening in its home country of Spain, and the report that I got back from Mitch actually made me salivate with anticipation. While I have to concede that Mitch is one who is often given to hyperbole (ever read his Fantasia program notes? Love ya, Mitch!), when Mitch really loves something you have to listen, and his love of REC - on top of similar reports from others whose opinion I trust - put this at the top of my "must see" list. It screened at last year's AFM and had a now-legendary screening at Sitges (both of which I missed) to even more raves, so I figured it would be hitting the festival circuit big time... but nothing happened. Sundance, Film Comment Selects, Philly, Tribeca, SXSW (among others) were all REC-less (no pun intended, but I'll take the compliments), leading me to believe that something was up, and that something is QUARANTINE, a major studio (Sony) remake that's already been shot (shot for shot, apparently) and is scheduled to open in October (do NOT watch the trailer, as it gives away some of the best moments, including the ending, of both films). Sony, as it turns out, doesn't want you to know that REC exists and has bought the rights to it and is keeping it away from U.S. audiences in an effort to not spoil their version's chances. (No doubt they'll just toss it off to DVD after it opens, but thank goodness for imports). However, Sony doesn't own Canadian rights, henceforth the film's North American premiere at Fantasia, bringing everything full circle, at least for me.
So does REC live up to the hype? It certainly does, making it one of the few films made this decade that has actually succeeded in scaring me. There's plenty of good, solid jumps here, a surplus of tension and a genuine sense of dread and menace throughout. Balaguero and Plaza have taken the hand-held horror premise - now something of a cliche - and have made it effective by presenting it as a newscast that starts out as fluff and then, of course, turns serious. What's particularly good about this approach is that people react differently to a news crew as opposed to just somebody with a video camera, giving the camera crew a sort of authority that doesn't really exist. Knowing that something is going to be on the news gives folks as false sense of security, the idea that people will see what these characters are going through, while at the same time putting them on the defensive, so it adds a bit to the drama, in addition to effectively eliminating the obnoxious characters traits that has sunk some of the other hand-held horror pictures. Balaguero and Plaza have casted the film quite well, with perky and cute newscaster Manulea Velasco anchoring the film as we see it all through her eyes, specifically as a light news reporter more and more out of her element, and I'd also like to single out Javier Botet as a fireman whose sudden disappearance from the story is what really sold me on the film. If something can happen to this guy, we're all shit out of luck.
All this said, REC isn't perfect, even at just 77 minutes. Specifically, it's the filmmaker's attempts to provide some kind of answer to what's going on that risks sinking everything. It's all unnecessary, and even though it leads into one final creepy climatic scene, by this point I thought that REC might lose me, so I'm glad it ends when it does. That said, it's probably one of the best times you'll have at the movies this year, providing you're lucky enough to see it in a theater (Canadians, for once you've got one over on us Americans). My experience seeing REC at Fantasia were what seeing movies is all about, full of people screaming and freaking out and having a hell of a lot of fun while going through this shared experience of communal fear and terror, everyone knowing that it's just a movie and that no matter what happens to the characters, they're all going to be OK. I have serious doubts that QUARANTINE will be able to replicate this (good luck the filmmakers behind this one), and Sony deserves a serious tongue lashing for not allowing U.S. screenings of REC so that people will be able to replicate this experience in a roomful of screaming strangers. Bootlegs are already out there (as are the illegal downloads), but I don't know how well REC will work at home, nor do I really want to. Once again, I had a wonderful, magical (yes, I said magical) movie going experience at Fantasia and even though I'd be happy to see REC again, unless my next screening finds me on Rosario Dawson's couch, the two of us caught in a fear-induced embrace that leads us to, ahem, other kinds of embraces (hey, a guy can dream, can't he?), I doubt it will be hard to top. Actually, that whole Rosario Dawson scenario would be much harder to top, so forget what I just said and enjoy REC.