Paste’s ABCs of Horror is a 26-day project that highlights some of our favorite horror films from each letter of the alphabet. The only criteria: The films chosen can’t have been used in last year’s Century of Terror, a 100-day project to choose the best horror film of every year from 1920-2019. With some heavy hitters out of the way, which movies will we choose?
The breakout success of Paranormal Activity tends to be credited as a sole factor in the sudden proliferation of found footage horror cinema in the late 2000s, but it should really be noted that the emergence of that film was less a cinematic bolt from the blue and more the natural result of where the genre had already been headed in the back half of the decade. Found footage horror had been around in fits and spurts ever since the watershed event of The Blair Witch Project, but continued access to cheap, professional-grade video equipment seemed to result in a particular surge of hand-held indie horror from 2005 onward. By 2007, in fact, the spark had become a blaze—Paranormal Activity was actually the eighth found footage horror feature released that year, but by far the most prominent. Shortly behind, it, though? There’s REC, which along with The Orphanage helped make 2007 a banner year for Spanish horror cinema making inroads around the world.
REC, remade in the U.S. the next year as the instantly forgotten and disposed of film Quarantine, is about as close as you can get to a perfect distillation of the “shaky cam” school of horror. It’s one of only a few such films that provides good justification for why someone is filming the events at all—in this case, because we’re seeing the first person perspective of a TV documentary camera crew throughout a single evening, as they tag along with firefighters responding to a distress call. Little do they know that they’ll soon be sealed in the apartment building by suspicious government agents, as a mysterious, zombie-like infection quickly spreads through its inhabitants. This sets us up with a classic premise of zombie fiction: Who among our band will manage to live through the night?
Technically it’s not a zombie film, of course—at least, not the walking dead by any of our traditional definitions of them, but it’s the structure that matters rather than the details of our assailants, in very much the same way as Lamberto Bava’s Demons—a zombie film in everything but name. Directors Paco Plaza and Jaume Balaguero take that easily grasped dynamic and wed it to the same intense distrust of authority that George A. Romero also possessed, reserving empathy only for the poor tenement dwellers caught in the middle. On one end, they have their neighbors attempting to eat them alive. On the other, a government that is more interested in “containment” and research than they are in saving lives.
Unlike so many of its lesser imitators, the strength of REC is that it never feels forced, or like a simple vehicle for a slideshow of scary images that occasionally come lurching into the frame. Many similar found footage films following “camera crews” in spooky or haunted locations find it difficult to justify their chaotic sense of movement, as the camera bounces around in an artificial manner that only highlights the lack of traditional “cinematography,” calling attention to the director’s intent to frighten. REC, on the other hand, moves in a way that feels notably more organic—the film crew are there on a job, methodically going from room to room conducting interviews and gathering hints about what is truly happening in this building, with the unraveling mystery only occasionally punctuated by bloody exclamations of gore and violence. It feels more genuinely like a recovered artifact, and calls less attention to its status as a horror film.
That isn’t to say that REC isn’t without its bountiful jump scares, of course—some, such as its instantly iconic closing moments, are still being imitated shamelessly in found footage horror releases (now a rarity once again) more than a decade later. But this unassuming little Spanish flick managed to pull off those scares with a verve that would rarely be replicated, including in the three REC sequels that would follow.
Today, you could perhaps make the argument that REC feels a little bit dated, especially to a viewer who absorbed their fair share of found footage horror in the late 2000s and early 2010s. But imitators like Atrocious or Quarantine also made it clear that the framework of a film like REC is deceptively simple—it looks like anyone with a camera and a few friends could pull it off, but if that was the case we’d be awash in found footage horror masterpieces. Suffice to say, REC remains the exception, rather than the rule.
Note: There exists an English dub of REC, occasionally available on streaming services, but the original Spanish audio is vastly preferable, as the dub adds an unwelcome layer of artificiality that makes it more difficult to focus on the struggle of the characters. Do yourself a favor and watch REC as it was originally released, rather than in a format that strips it of much of its cinema verite roots.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.