Tuesday, September 13, 2011
REC 2, Quarantine 2, and the Limits of Found Footage Filmmaking
I love found footage movies. When they're done right, they live up to their name of being "found footage"--namely, film and/or video footage that was "found" and edited together for our viewing (dis)pleasure. They're like horror films told solely from the victim's perspective: no cutaway shots to the monsters, ghosts, and/or madmen, no background music to let you know when something bad is about to happen. On the other hand, when found footage films are done wrong, they are either dreadfully boring (such as The Wicksboro Incident) or the story that the filmmakers want to tell doesn't really fit the found footage style of filmmaking, so they abruptly break with the style at some point during the movie. This break usually happens towards the end, when footage is inserted that either wasn't found (such as The Last Broadcast) or couldn't be found because the logic of the story clearly indicates that the footage would've been destroyed before anyone could see it (such as The Last Exorcism).
In the 2007 Spanish film REC, the story is told through video footage captured by journalist Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her camera operator who become quarantined inside of an apartment building during an outbreak of an unknown illness. Quarantine is the American remake of REC, and it is very faithful to the plot and visual style of its source material. Where the two films differ is in their sequels: REC 2 stayed with the found footage format and Quarantine 2 abandoned it, opting instead for a cinema verite style that's similar to found footage in appearance but is not limited to found footage storytelling conventions. This difference between the two sequels demonstrates the limits of the found footage subgenre of horror, with Quarantine 2 making the somewhat wiser decision. Read on for my full review, which contains some spoilers.
What make REC/Quarantine compelling is that it took the narrative structure of Night of the Living Dead and pulled it inside out. Instead of a group of survivors who seek to maintain a shelter that protects them from an outside epidemic, REC/Quarantine traps a group of ordinary people in the very building where a virulent epidemic is starting and surrounds them with armed authorities who will kill them on site if they try to leave. It's easy to empathize with these trapped characters, who understand why they are forced to stay where they are but still have the overwhelming desire to survive--even if the public would be better off they don't. With such harrowing, personal drama at the heart of the story, the found footage format enhances it by capturing the characters in their most vulnerable moments.
What sets REC and Quarantine apart is how each film ends, where the starting point of the infection is revealed in the top-floor apartment. REC has the infection turn out to be some kind of demonic possession that stemmed from Tristana Medeiros, a girl who was being treated by a Vatican-appointed priest in the apartment, while Quarantine reveals that the infection was rabies-like pathogen engineered by member of a doomsday cult who lived in the apartment. Despite Quarantine's almost identical plot to REC, these differences in outcomes play out differently in each sequel.
REC 2 stays at the same apartment building as the first film, and it begins almost exactly where REC ended. Dr. Owen (Jonathan Mellor), an official from from Spain's Ministry of Health, and a team of SWAT troopers (who each have helmet-mounted video cameras, hence the found footage) enter the building. On the other hand, Quarantine 2 likewise begins almost exactly where Quarantine ends, except in a Los Angeles airport on a red eye flight that's leaving for Nashville. One of the passengers becomes infected with the hyper-rabies pathogen and the plane forced to land in an air port in Las Vegas, which is then placed under quarantine. With REC 2 dealing with the beginnings of a demonic possession epidemic and Quarantine 2 depicting the ongoing containment of a terrorist-made bioweapon, you'd think that REC 2 would the more ambitious and outrageous film--something along the lines of the Evil Dead or Demons movies. Yet it isn't, and I think that the found footage format has much to do with that shortcoming.
REC 2 centers on Owen's mission to find a cure for the possession epidemic by getting a blood sample from Medeiros. Since this search takes place in just one apartment building, Owen and his team don't have very many places to go, both in terms of location and plot. Of course, complications occur that hinder Owen's mission--such as the possessed people in the building who attack them, a fight with Medeiros, and Medeiros' original blood sample bursting into flames--but they are largely superfluous, padding the plot to stretch it into a feature-length tale instead of creatively contributing to it. This padding includes a lot of repetitive attack shocks, shouting, shooting, and jiggling footage of people running up and down stairs. (REC 2 has so many jumbled stair climbing shots that I couldn't help but to think of a line from Ghostbusters, uttered by Bill Murray as he ascends a seemingly endless staircase: "When we get to twenty, tell me. I'm gonna throw up.") Some of the intense, feral action scenes will leave you slack-jawed, but those scenes alone can't save a script that doesn't have much to do.
Another problem with REC 2 is its pacing. The sequel starts in the middle of the epidemic, so it doesn't give us much time to learn about the new set of characters. Such a brief, hurried introduction makes most of the characters feel interchangeable. The only unique character is Owen, who is later revealed to actually be a priest sent by the Vatican on a secret mission to contain the possession outbreak after the failure of his predecessor. However, this revelation happens within the first 20 minutes of the movie, and the other characters don't get anything to do to identify them as unique individuals.
Yet where REC 2 stumbles the hardest is in its search for more "found footage" once it exhausts most of the dramatic possibilities with Owen and his SWAT team. Almost one-third of the way into the movie, the narrative shifts to a group of teenagers who have their own video camera and decide to break into the apartment building through the sewer after seeing the commotion going on around it. Yet even the teens' sketchy motives for entering a building that's covered in protective plastic sheeting and surrounded by fire fighters, ambulances, heavily armed police, and helicopters with high intensity spotlights can't provide a plausible reason for the teenagers to keep their video camera running for as long as they do. Angela and her camera operator kept their camera running in REC as part of their professional obligation to document a disease-like outbreak, while the SWAT team in REC 2 keeps their cameras running at the behest of the priest from who they receive their orders. On the other hand, the teenagers keep their camera running while they are being chased and attacked for no other reason that the narrative requires them to so that there's enough footage to make for a feature-length film.
That said, the teenagers run into two other characters while they're in the apartment building: The father of an infected little girl who was seen in REC and a firefighter who helps him get into the building to find his family. Given his emotional investment in the apartment building, the father should have gotten more scenes to add more dramatic depth and give someone with whom the audience can empathize. However, because neither the father nor his firefighter escort have a logical reason to carry a video camera, both characters are quickly dispatched along with the narrative opportunities they would've provided.
REC 2's "flashback" finale further emphasizes the problems that the sequel has with the found footage format--namely, how enough video footage can be provided by the movie's characters to tell a complete story. The flashback is the same piece of night vision footage that features Angela at the end of the first REC, only a few minutes longer. Given the overall conclusion of REC 2, this snippet could have been put on the end of REC--but there would've been no point at all behind REC 2 had that happened. (That's right: REC 2 is an 85 minute movie that leads up to single major plot development that could have been included in the final few minutes of the first film.) The end of REC 2 also suggests that the apartment building will be burnt to the ground with all of its contents inside. This makes sense in the context of sequel's story, but it defeats the purpose behind shooting REC and REC 2 as found footage movies. After all, how can these movies consist of found footage is there is no footage left to find?
Looking back, I can see why Hollywood remade REC and made the changes that they did. Not only did the source material prove to be successful in its own country, but the new ending in the remake that features the terrorist-made bioweapon perfectly captures America's paranoid mood after 9-11 and the anthrax-by-mail cases that happened the same year. Quarantine 2 capitalizes on the 9-11 connection by shifting the setting to locations commonly associated with terrorist activity: an airplane and an airport that features post-9-11 security features. The film paces itself well, the characters are believable and sympathetic (albeit mundane), and the end product tells a satisfying story that sheds more light on where the hyper-rabies infection came from and where it might go next. Yet by abandoning the found footage angle, Quarantine 2 loses something in unique the process; with a few minor edits, it could easily be renamed as a sequel to 28 Days Later or the remake of The Crazies and nothing would be lost. I can't imagine how the found footage format could've improved Quarantine 2, but what it gains in narrative flexibility by not being a found footage movie it also loses in franchise distinction.
Of the two flawed sequels, I liked Quarantine 2 better. Quarantine 2 tells a complete story with differentiated characters and a logical sequence of events. Furthermore, its story behind the virus' origin is much more consistent and intentional than what is provided in REC 2. On the other hand, REC 2 is a sequel that I want to like because of its potential, but it's just too frustrating and plotless to merit recommendation. I think that the idea of a demonic possession spreading like a disease is a fascinating idea, much like how Ringu and Ju-On (and their respective American remakes) explored a similar idea of lethal ghost hauntings spreading like a disease. Had REC 2 dropped the found footage style of storytelling, it could've freed itself to explore its characters and underlying plot threads in more compelling and less arbitrary detail.
It could very well be that the found footage subgenre's biggest strength--the visceral feeling of seeing a horrific situation occur through the eyes of one of its victims--is also its biggest weakness when it comes time to make a sequel. After all, found footage films are mysterious by their nature, and not knowing the true nature of horror depicted in the footage is what makes them so frightening. When the mystery behind the horror is revealved, the fear surrounding it recedes considerably, more so than other kinds of horror films. While the possibility of a Quarantine 3 is uncertain, two more REC sequels are in the works and they will retain the found footage format. Hopefully, these sequels can put the mystery and fear back into the story that started in REC.