It’s tough to keep a franchise fresh by its fourth entry — especially a horror franchise — and [REC] 4: Apocalypse is not going to win any awards for trying. Originally started as a found-footage gambit, the series took a sharp turn with [REC] 3: Genesis, dispensing with the shaky-cam early on, adding more humor and removing us from the apartment building from the first two movies to plop us into a wedding. That apparently didn’t go over well with some fans, so [REC] 4, while not returning to the camera style of the first two movies, is a direct sequel to them. It brings back the character of Angela (Manuela Velasco), the TV reporter who becomes a conduit for the evil virus that infected the building in the first movie, turning people into rabid zombie-like creatures.
[REC] 4 also brings back original director Jaume Balaguero (who co-directed the first two with Paco Plaza, but left Plaza on his own for Number Three), but while he brings a glossy palette and more than competent technical prowess to the movie — with the exception of some sketchy CG — he doesn’t really expand on the premise except to put everyone on a boat this time. That is where Angela and two surviving GEO (Special Forces) team members from the squad sent in [REC] 2 to rescue her from the doomed apartment building find themselves, ostensibly to keep them at sea in case they are infected. Also on board is an addled old lady who survived the grisly nuptials in [REC] 3, as well as a team of scientists, along with military support, who intend to eradicate the virus once and for all by any means necessary.
Of course, we know from the second movie that Angela has been infected — at least we think so, anyway — and that it’s only a matter of time before there’s an outbreak on the boat. Soon most of the soldiers and crew are turned into monsters and the movie pretty much becomes a series of chases, fights and gruesome confrontations that become boring in their predictability and have as much of a human component as your average first-person shooter, which this begins to feel like. Most of the characters are either one-dimensional or distasteful, and as a side note I kept getting distracted by how much the lead scientist looked like Tommy Lee Jones.
One thing that made the original and still great [REC] truly frightening was the supernatural/religious component of the outbreak: the plague wasn’t just some new disease but demonic evil in viral form. It’s an aspect of the series that gets all but abandoned here as the scientists attempt to develop an antidote but need the original source virus, which ends up being a rather conventional parasite in its original form. To get to it, however, we have to muddle through a series of switchbacks and betrayals (along with a little retconning of the second film, if memory serves) that generate little in the way of real scares or interest.
Balaguero does ratchet up the tension when crosscutting between a handful of well-staged attacks and murders, but one truly original use of an outboard motor is disappointingly let down by some poor CG gore. That scene happens late in the film, and by that point you’re just waiting for the story — which by then includes a storm at sea and a ticking self-destruct mechanism on the ship, just in case a plague of zombies wasn’t enough — to wrap itself up. [REC] 4 is mostly well-made with a gripping scene or two, but it’s clear that the series has run out of ideas and energy: the cast and filmmakers just go through the motions as best as they can. Even though this is supposed to be the series finale, there is an opening for a sequel. Frankly, however, it’s time to turn off the cameras.
[REC] 4: Apocalypse is out in theaters and via VOD now.