(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: REC understands the importance of a satisfying payoff in horror, saving its most potent chill for last.)
Endings matter. Ideal endings provide resolution and leave a lasting impression. The final moments on screen should affect the viewer emotionally on some level. In horror, the last scene tends to offer stark relief or unsettling unease via one final scare. Narratively, though, the genre can struggle with satisfying payoffs. When the mysterious unknown is inherently terrifying, tidy answers can retroactively make everything that came before un-scary. It’s a constant struggle in genre fare, with many fizzling out before reaching the finish line.
Enter Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC, a 2007 found footage film that reinvigorated the sub-genre with innovative use of its style that maximized the terror from beginning to end. Moving at a breakneck speed, REC‘s onslaught of scares rarely gave viewers time to catch their breath. More impressively, Balagueró and Plaza saved the best for last, ending their feature on such a shocking moment that it instantly became iconic.
Reporter Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rosso), cover the night shift of a local Barcelona fire station for the latest episode of TV series While You’re Sleeping. Their quiet, uneventful evening gets interrupted by a domestic disturbance call at an apartment building. The pair accompany firefighters Álex (David Vert) and Manu (Ferrán Terraza) to the location, where two police officers await. There, they’re escorted past the building’s residents in the lobby to the apartment of a distressed woman, who viciously attacks one of the officers. However, in their attempts to get the officer evacuated to a hospital, they discover the building has been locked down under strict quarantine by the military. The building is ground zero to a frightening virus that transforms the afflicted into rabid aggressors, and it’s spreading rapidly.
The Story So Far
After a few more deaths occur and Álex gets critically injured, Ángela begins to interview the residents. She speaks with a sickly child, Jennifer (Claudia Silva), who shares how her dog Max is sick and at the vet. Soon, a health inspector in a hazmat suit arrives and attempts to treat the injured while assessing the situation. He reveals that a sick dog at the vet helped the authorities trace this unique infection back to the building, allowing for the swift quarantine. Soon, another infected situation erupts that dwindles the numbers further while making it even more treacherous for the survivors.
The remaining group seeks out a key that will unlock a door in the basement, through which they can escape the quarantine undetected. Getting there, however, reduces their numbers to three; Ángela, Pablo, and Manu. Once Manu becomes bitten and infected and their path downstairs blocked by a horde of ravenous tenants, Ángela and Pablo seek shelter in the only place left – the darkened penthouse. In it, they find the walls plastered with news clippings and a tape recording that reveals the penthouse owner to be an agent of the Vatican. He was tasked with isolating an enzyme by a demonically possessed girl, Tristana Medeiros. While attempting to treat Tristana, the enzyme mutated and became infectious instead. The Vatican agent then sealed up the penthouse and left Tristana to die.
Upon the revelation behind the contagion, the attic door swings down in the penthouse. Pablo uses the camera to investigate, and an infected child knocks it down to the floor, damaging the camera’s light in the process. It leaves Ángela and Pablo in complete darkness until Pablo finds the night-vision mode on the camera. While trying to calm a panicked Ángela, Pablo spies a now very emaciated Tristana (Javier Botet) moving about the room, looking for food. He whispers to Ángela to stay quiet as the gaunt Tristana bangs around the place. Pablo tries to guide them to a safer distance, but they bump into something that alerts Tristana to their presence. Tristana attacks, pummeling Pablo to death and damaging the camera. It falls to the floor, capturing a frightened Ángela as she fumbles around on the floor, blindly searching for safety. She finds the camera but drops it again upon seeing Tristana bent over Pablo’s body. The camera faces Ángela as she belly crawls toward the camera, only to get dragged away into the pitch black.
The filmmakers use the limited range of the handheld camera to create suspense throughout; attacks by the infected can and do come from anywhere. That constant unpredictability leaves viewers on edge. Balagueró and Plaza up the ante for their grand finale by reducing the senses further. First, they plunge the protagonists into complete darkness; the night vision’s scope is minimal. Pablo, and the audience by proxy, can only make out parts of the penthouse at a time. Balagueró and Plaza then fill that narrowed frame with a closer look at the ghoulish Tristana. This jarring, visual reveal of the infectious source packs a visceral punch.
The only sound for this petrifying scene comes from Angela’s panicked breaths and whimpers, then through the inhuman screeches of the infected. Once Pablo falls, and the camera gets damaged a second time, sound becomes intermittent as it cuts in and out. With two primary senses effectively removed, it drives up the scene’s intensity to a nearly unbearable degree. Balagueró and Plaza aren’t content to show us how precarious Angela’s survival is with her inability to maneuver around a monstrous foe in the pitch black; they make us feel it too by removing our ability to see or hear what’s coming.
The closing shot of seeing our protagonist get dragged off into the darkness leaves a lasting impression. It’s both a final scare and a perfect conclusion wrapped up in one. The filmmakers wait until the end to deliver answers about the contagion, which fuels the emotional response to Tristana’s appearance. With Angela backed into a corner with nowhere left to escape, this ending makes the most logical sense, too. That doesn’t make its abruptness any less startling.
REC boasts one of horror’s most satisfying payoffs. It wraps everything up nicely while maintaining the film’s intense, nihilistic tone on a narrative level. Visually, the clever staging ensures Tristana’s brief on-screen appearance does the most damage possible in terms of scares. Above all, though, Balagueró and Plaza put the viewer directly into this fear-inducing experience through the found footage format. Manipulating the two prominent film tools, sight and sound, to induce anxiety and fear in the viewer makes REC a pinnacle of found footage horror.
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