Monster mash: Claustrophobia edition

In honor of Halloween, I’m spending the days leading up to All Hallow’s Eve pitting off foreign horror movies against their American remakes.   We’ve spent a lot of time on Asian movies, but today let’s look at a gem from Spain:

[ REC ] versus Quarantine

Warning. Spoilers! I’m typically assuming you’ve seen the American version of the movie, so hopefully I’m not spoiling much.

The original story. Late-night TV host Angela and her cameraman Pablo join the night-shift of a local fire station to film a typical night’s work. They join a pair of firemen and a pair of cops on a rescue outing to an apartment building to help a screaming, elderly woman who is apparently locked in her apartment, but when they arrive, the agitated geriatric attacks one of the cops and nearly bites off his neck; minutes later she attacks and mangles one of the firemen, and is shot dead.   Down in the lobby, the remaining fireman Manu, Angela, and Pablo join the rest of the building’s residents to find that the police have sealed off the building from the outside, and tell the occupants to sit tight until a health inspector arrives.   So they instead tend to two wounded men as best they can in the fabric workshop behind the lobby while the film crew interviews the residents in an effort to keep panic at bay.   The health inspector arrives (in full Hazmat gear) and explains that a particularly nasty and contagious infection was traced to the building.   When he and an intern inspect the two wounded officers, they spring back to life in a rage and attack the intern, so they’re locked up in the workshop.   Unfortunately, at that moment a little girl who lives in the building is discovered to be infected after she pukes up on her mom.   In the pandemonium that ensues, the infected in the workshop break out while the infected in the building (the girl and the old lady) start attacking again.   Pretty much all hell breaks loose, and in a failed attempt to escape, Angela and Pablo are forced up into the penthouse of the building.

They find it belongs to a Vatican official who had been experimenting on a supposedly possessed girl in an attempt to isolate a biological cause (and therefore a potential biological cure) for demonic possession.   When Angela and Pablo try to escape through the attack, they’re attacked by an infected boy, breaking the camera’s light (their only source of illumination).   They then realize that they’re not alone in the penthouse: the possess girl (now a lumbering monster) is in there too, and when she hears them in the dark she attacks and kills Pablo before dragging Angela screaming of into the dark.

The two movies. Released in 2007, [REC] is a first-rate horror movie.   It is shot entirely as a documentary: everything is seen through the perspective of Pablo’s camera, and there is no soundtrack of any kind.   (In fact, there are no sets of any kind either: the entire movie was filmed on location!)   In some very obvious ways, of course, this immediately reminds one of The Blair Witch Project: there’s plenty of shaky camera work and sound glitches, but whereas BWP relied on the unsettling nature of unseen monsters hiding in shadows of an expansive woods, [REC] is immediately, uncomfortably, almost unbearably claustrophobic.   The building consists of almost nothing but a narrow lobby, the textile workshop, a winding spiral staircase… and an ever increasing number of very visible, very agitated monsters running up and down them.

I find the pacing of [REC] to be almost perfect: it starts off pleasant enough, establishing the basics of its protagonists in the first few minutes through a series of clips for their late-night show.   Once they get to the apartment, the movie lurches uncomfortably between moments of unbridled tension (as the infection spreads) and moments of calm (to catch your breath).   However, pretty much the instant that the little Jennifer upchucks on mommy dearest, the movie turns into an unstoppable fifteen-minute clusterfuck of loud, riotous terror, as the infected spring out at you from every possible shadow and door.   And then, just when the screaming and yelling couldn’t get any worse, the movie is more or less plunged into ten more minutes of almost absolute silence (as they stumble about the penthouse), and that if anything is infinitely worse.   By the time Angela and Pablo realize the possessed girl is in the room with them, I was almost too terrified to breathe myself, lest the horrifying emaciated ghoul thing heard me.

The 2008 American remake might look exactly as expected: it has a bigger budget, better cameras, bloodier make-up, and gothickier locals (for example, the clean and efficient textile workshop form the original has devolved into something   Jigsaw would’ve dreamed up for Saw XXXVIII), Americanized simplifications (the entire Vatican subplot is dropped for the simpler explanation of Doomsday cultist lived upstairs) and is more or less a ramped-up, shot-for-shot reproduction of the original. Even the reporter has the same name: Angela Vidal.   Everything about this set-up says it ought to suck.

But, oddly enough, it doesn’t.   Instead, if anything, it’s far more terrifying.   It is a testament to the superbly unerring terror of the original that I still find the sequel’s reproduced bits as frightening.   However, thanks it’s looser purse strings, Quarantine can explore in greater detail the uneasy aspects of the original.   For example, Quarantine jacks up the claustrophobic factor by amping up the government’s response: the Army and the CDC get involved, shut off the building’s cable almost immediately (leading to a memorable (and new) scene involving death by camera), and demonstrate their resolve in sealing the building by having a sniper execute one of the residents when he tries to escape through a window.   It also jacks up the contagion of the virus, making it clear that its not the people but the animals that are infected, with horrifying attacks on the residents by both dogs and rats.

Even when the movie “dumbs it down,” it’s more effective.*   My only major gripe with [REC] is the tape-recorder Angela finds in the penthouse that conveniently explains the origins of the virus and the mystery girl they discover.   The American remake decides to eject the more complicated idea of “Vatican officer isolating a biological agent responsible for demonic possession from girl” in favor of “unnamed doomsday cultist breeding Armageddon virus,” but as a result the entire penthouse sequence becomes significantly creepier.   In addition to not knowing to expect some new monster there, the penthouse has also (quite naturally) devolved into a lab, filled with cages of rats and other icky things.   (Indeed, in a clever poke at the original, the tape-player Angela finds in the penthouse how only plays a fraction of its intended speed, making it not only unintelligible, but freaky-sounded as hell.

* With one exception.   In the original, when Angela and the camera search for the workshop key, fireman Manu remains outside the apartment to protect them; when they return, he is absent.   When Angela calls for him, Pablo turns the camera down the stairwell… and a frenzies, bloodied, infected Manu looks up from the next floor down.   That Manu gets infected is itself unexpected, but that it happens off-camera and without heroic fanfare seems so unfair and unAmerican.   The sudden sight of Manu’s infected face is for me the scariest scene in the movie, not because of any inherent BOO! factor, but because the terrible unfairness of it — not even the hero can escape a pathetic, criminal death — perhaps the most realistic horror… and the saddest moment too… that the movie dishes out.   In contrast, in the American version, we see fireman Jake go down swinging to protect Angela and the cameraman, and while we know he’s a goner, we never have to see him as a cannibalistic crazy.   That’s infinitely less scary, and less sad.

The verdict. It’s a tie.   Both are excellent movies.   The original movie feels low budget and real, as if it really was the video diary of an ill-fated film crew.   [REC] is consistently (and uncomfortably) claustrophobic and real and sad at the same time.   The remake, with its slicked up effects, no longer feels like a documentary, but it’s still scary and claustrophobic, and what it lacks in subtlety it makes up for with white-knuckle pacing and a truly brick-shittingly scary finale.   See ’em both.

Update. I should point out that the American version might not be as dumbed down as I thought.   My take was that the “Man from Boston” who lives in the penthouse was nothing more than a doomsday cultist working on his own Armageddon Virus: he’s the tall specter in the penthouse, and the kid in the attic is either his son or one of his victims.   However, folks have noted that if the tape player is sped up, it says “It appears the spread will be impossible to contain. November (7th?), something unexpected has happened. Our brothers in the east have come under suspicion…”   This leads some to suspect the Man from Boston actually a tragic hero: a cult defector who was trying to synthesize a cure after his son, the boy in the attic, is infected, but became infected himself when one of his test rats escaped.   Hmmm… looks like I’ll have to watch Quaratine again…

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