This review contains spoilers for [REC].
You may have noticed over the weekend that the summer sky darkened over your local multiplex. On Friday, a sequel rose from the pit to make war against God.
It promised nerve-jangling horror and a strong sense of religious terror in all who beheld it. Now it swarms across multiple screens in many multiplexes, drawing harpies all about it as it pervades decency and brings all those that behold it to ashes upon the earth.
That particular abomination is called Sex And The City 2. Elsewhere, an intentionally scary sequel made a more modest arrival in the UK on the same day, and it’s called [REC] 2.
Adding to the increasingly popular ‘found footage’ sub-genre of horror, this sequel picks up fifteen minutes after [REC]. The government is sending a four-man SWAT team into the quarantined apartment building after losing contact with the minister who got infected the first time around.
Expanding upon the religious connotations of the first film’s twist ending, the team is led by Dr. Owen, a Vatican representative who insists that their mission is to retrieve a vial of infected blood from the dread penthouse of the building. No one gets out until that mission is complete.
Between them and their goal stand hordes of former people, now infected demons. With the supernatural element exposed, writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza drag the audience through a floor by floor thrill ride that complements the original rather well.
In the marketing of the film, the title looks more like [REC]2, as in [REC] Squared. This pretty much perfectly sums up the approach that Balagueró and Plaza took. They’ve magnified the first film, closely sticking to the template of Aliens by bringing in guys with guns, where previously the horror came from the heroes being caught unawares.
Comparisons to James Cameron’s films are unavoidable, but [REC] 2 owns it rather than succumbing to it. Let’s be frank, you can count the number of superior horror sequels on one hand, and this succeeds in integrating a proven formula in much the way The Descent Part 2 didn’t.
In expanding upon the initial suggestions around demonic possession, the sequel is much grander in scale, inflating the menace of the first film without explaining it to the point where it’s not scary any more. And the power of the mythology that supplants it makes the original menace all the more overbearing and horrifying.
Along the way, it accumulates a massive thematic debt to The Exorcist, most obvious in a scene where Dr. Owen actually interacts with one of the zombies. With both of these and an obvious homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing in a brief scene, you might say that this was unoriginal. Under lesser direction, it might have been so.
What such critics haven’t noticed is that [REC] wasn’t particularly original either, using the conventions of George A. Romero’s zombie canon in the context of Blair Witch-esque ‘found footage’, and that what Balagueró and Plaza exceed at in both films is handling familiar ideas in engaging and exhilarating ways.
Are there problems with it? Yes, but nothing too vast to overcome. Sometimes its own innovation can become overbearing, as in a certain section about midway through that largely seems like padding, in hindsight.
I also missed the well-rounded characters of the first film, as such character development largely falls by the wayside to the mythology. The most rounded character is Dr. Owen, played with paranoia and fervour by Jonathan Mellor, but otherwise we get four comparatively indistinct SWAT guys and a number of other more annoying characters in that midsection.
Crucially, there’s a recurring problem from the first film, in that Rosso, our lead cameraman for this run around, doesn’t contribute much as a character. Like Pablo before him, he defers largely to those we can actually see. Cloverfield still has the gold star for circumventing this problem in the character of Hud, who was always present even when he was ‘documenting’.
Also into the mix comes the helmet cameras of the SWAT team as our way in to the scenes. It allows for some picture-in-picture split screen action, if and when our heroes are separated, but also gives way to what some have said turns the film into a first-person shooter, as our perspective now has to accommodate a readied weapon too. This never bothered me as much as it might have.
My willing suspension of disbelief was profound enough for me to overlook most of these problems, mostly because the film is so relentlessly exciting. You won’t be bored for a millisecond as Balagueró and Plaza rattle through the necessarily brief running time by ramping up the stakes and masterfully telling a strong horror story.
On balance, [REC] 2 isn’t as scary as its predecessor, but it’s just as exhilarating, and I actually prefer it to the original. I fully expect a backlash from that, but it seems to me that most of the backlash to the film itself is a protest against the supernatural elements. You can be as atheistic as you like, but the fact is zombies aren’t real either.
Besides which, it’s all handled very well. [REC] 2 is lean and brutal without ever forsaking intelligence or sense, and it doesn’t skimp on twists and scares either. This must be the first film you can compare to Aliens that actually deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with it.
The open ending leaves room for a further sequel, and if they can pull it off as an ending rather than a springboard to another bloated franchise, it’ll be something very special, indeed. Because put simply, [REC] rocks.