To Let (2006)
★ / ★★★★
Mario (Adrià Collado) and Clara (Macarena Gómez) are in a bind. If they do not secure an apartment within fifteen days, they will have no place to live. But Mario has good news. In his hand is an ad for an apartment that claims to be spacious, affordable, and located in the suburbs. It sounds just like what they are looking for so they meet with an eager realtor (Nuria González). However, when they get there, the place seems to be located in a dangerous area and though the inside offers a lot of room, it is dingy, dirty, and requires a lot of work. Mario and Clara wish to leave but the real estate agent does not let them.
“Para entrar a vivir” is a fifteen- to twenty-minute short film, at best, stretched into seventy minutes of bad survival skills and a whole lot of unpleasant screaming. While the premise has some potential given that the apartment complex functions as a sort of house of horrors, there is not enough meat and juice to make it a satisfying experience.
The screenplay by Jaume Balagueró and Alberto Marini does not give the characters a chance to be remotely likable by allowing them to behave like normal people responding to a life-threatening situation. What always bothers me is when a character has the body size and frame to match and perhaps overpower her assailant—in here, the villainous realtor is frail-looking—and yet she either stands around waiting for a bad situation to turn worse or when she does decide to fight back it appears as though she has never seen a horror movie. Is Clara being a couple of days pregnant supposed to be an excuse for her idiocy? I don’t think so. On the contrary, she should be written smarter, hungrier to survive because the little guy or gal inside her is worth fighting for.
The formula of a chase followed by an act of violence and then another chase gets tired fast. Because it is unable to break from this pattern, the picture becomes a predictable bore. The camerawork does not help the situation. When a chase dies down and the booming score is on the verge of disappearing, the camera remains to shake left and right. It is uncomfortable to watch especially when it goes in for a closeup of a terrified victim’s face. The point is to get us to feel safe again before that inevitable “Gotcha!” moment. It is impossible to get to that point with the camera wobbling about.
We know absolutely nothing about the couple being chased around the building. Clara got on my nerves. She is whiny in the car on the way to the appointment. She is whiny (and disrespectful) when they are getting a tour of the place. And she is whiny when there seems to have no escape route. You’d think she’d change her strategy because her whinging gets her nowhere. It is not the actor’s fault. She is not given anything to work with. Maybe if we were provided background knowledge of Clara being privileged, snooty, and everything always going her way along with her boyfriend endorsing such behavior, perhaps the constant whining would make sense.
“To Let,” directed by Jaume Balagueró, lacks creativity, technical understanding on how to structure and execute good scares, as well as characters worth championing to make it to the end. And with such a deliberately ugly ending, it only supports that the writers could not care less about the people suffering on screen.
★ / ★★★★
Staff and patients of Mercy Falls Children’s Hospital, located in the Isle of Wight, are supposed to evacuate the building and move to a more conveniently located hospital in the middle of the island, but a recent train crash leaves St. James little room for the merge. So, for the time being, they are to remain where they are despite very strange occurrences in the building. For instance, while a boy (Lloyd F. Booth Shankley) with one broken femur is getting his X-Ray done, somehow a second break occurs even though no one is in the room with him. Is it caused by a rare a disease, a form of witchcraft, or an unknown entity?
“Frágiles,” written by Jaume Balagueró and Jordi Galceran, directed by the former, is a most underwhelming experience because although the story takes place in a creepy children’s hospital, not much is done with it on the script level as well as on the level of performance. When the would-be scares finally arrive, they are as typical as they are draining. We’ve all seen horror movies that depend on special and visual effects during the last act because they offer little else prior to that point. This work belongs under this category.
Amy Nicholls (Calista Flockhart), a replacement night nurse, is a complete bore of a protagonist. While Flockhart is good at evoking sadness mixed with fear, especially when Amy walks down dark hallways during her shift, Amy is written to be untrustworthy. She is a confusing rather than a conflicted figure because her tragic history is often veiled. Her superiors walk around the “terrible thing” that happened prior to her being hired. Since we are kept in the dark so consistently, how are we supposed to understand her as a person who works with children as well as how she thinks and reacts when her patients are in mortal danger?
The supporting actors are less convincing. Elena Anaya who plays one of Amy’s fellow nurses plays her character without consistency. In one scene she seems to care a lot about the work she does. In the next scene, she is cold and afraid of everything. There is no explanation as to what triggers these sudden changes. Halfway through, I began to think that she has a mood disorder even though she is not the one taking medication.
On the other hand, Richard Roxburgh as the lead doctor is deathly one-note. I wondered if he did actual research so that he is able to put a special stamp to his character or he simply watched how soap operas portray doctors. This is because Dr. Marcus neither exudes intelligence nor practicality. He’s just a nice guy, probably well-built under that white coat, designed to console when things are hard for Amy and when Amy asks him to look through files.
Everyone keeps talking about how spooky the place is but nothing special happens. (Although one good sequence involves an elevator.) While there are annoying throwaway shots like a shadowy figure walking across the foreground when our protagonist is not looking, most frustrating is the fact that the writers seem to depend on one thing to get us to care: the potential victims are sick children. Of course no one wants to see them get hurt or die. There is barely an active attempt to involve the audience in its mysteries.
[REC] 4: Apocalypse (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Having been rescued from a high-rise apartment complex, Ángela (Manuela Velasco) finds herself on a ship with scientists who are trying understand the highly infectious disease that drove the apartment residents into a killing spree. Key to that understanding is having an animal model. Monkeys are placed in cages, but it is only a matter of time under one infected primate escapes and bites a human being.
“[REC] 4: Apocalypse,” written by Jaume Balagueró and Manu Díez, is a standard, gory horror picture with nothing new to show or say about the genre, zombies, or science once again going wrong. The last section of the film involves a timer counting down before a bomb goes off. It is the longest twenty minutes; I wished all of the characters would get stuck on that ship prior to the inevitable explosion because it would mean that the movie was finally over. Of course, the lead character must survive for a possibility of a sequel.
The writers and filmmakers show no understanding of how to make an effective horror film. They have this wonderful environment—a sizable ship surrounded by endless ocean—and most of what is shown is desperate, sweaty-looking characters running around and shooting guns. Once in a while they manage to grab another weapon but the novelty wears off quickly because these scenes rely only on blood and not an active attempt in building suspense or intrigue.
The editing is manic, almost nonsensical, and so we never get a chance to appreciate scenes that should have been memorable. It rests on showing an enclosed space and fitting as many bodies as possible within that space. It is supposed to provide a claustrophobic atmosphere but it does not work because far too many cuts are made before we realize that escape is nearly impossible. Far too many directors confuse rapid editing or quick cuts for creating a sense of urgency. This is most common in bottom-of-the-barrel action and horror films.
Ángela is neither written nor portrayed as a compelling character. She is a survivor but not once do get to feel her inner strength and drive to want to keep living. Velasco plays the character flat and passive at times. Ángela is the only woman on that ship and yet she is almost treated as an afterthought. Why bring back a character when there is no point in showing her again? We learn nothing about her past, who she is, and what her plans are for the future. She is on the screen only because she survived the first movie. I found that depressing.
Directed by Jaume Balagueró, “[REC] 4: Apocalipsis” highlights the exhaustion of the series. It insults the viewers by assuming that watching characters run around is entertainment and that showing blood is special. The filmmakers responsible for creating this dung could learn a thing or two from the master of blood and story David Cronenberg.
Sleep Tight (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
César (Luis Tosar) claims he has never been happy his entire life, not even when good things happen to him. But he has a solution: by making those around him completely miserable, maybe being unhappy will not be so bad. César works as a concierge in an apartment complex thereby having access to the keys to the residents’ front doors. He has managed to make everyone unhappy with the exception of Clara (Marta Etura), always having a skip to her walk and a smile on her face every time she steps out of the elevator, down the hall, and onto the streets. César feels an inconsolable need to destroy her.
“Mientras duermes,” based on the screenplay by Alberto Marini, has a very dark and sharp sense of wit and humor about it which is made all the more compelling by a main character so creepy, watching the film will make you want to look under your bed and behind your closet before you turn off the lights and head on to dreamland.
It is not without a carefully constructed scenes of suspense. César is a man of habit and he will do almost anything to stick to what he knows. He knows Clara is alone in her apartment and so before she comes home from work, he sneaks into her place and hides under her bed. He waits so patiently without making a sound until she goes to sleep. When everything seems to be safe, he slides out from under very meticulously and uses chloroform to knock her out. Then the real terror begins.
This may sound like a cheap exploitation film but it is actually quite the contrary. We know he is bound to get caught one way or another. The question is when, under what circumstances, and how he will react. The girl who lives across Clara, Úrsula (Iris Almeida), knows exactly what is going on but she does not tell anyone as long as César gives her everything she wants. We, as well as the main character, know that the blackmail is simply a leak that is plugged but not fixed. What he eventually ends up doing to Úrsula is cruel and amusing. Since the execution is controlled and complements the material’s tone so well, it works as morbid entertainment.
What works less effectively is the manner in which César’s suicidal thoughts is communicated. Scenes that take place on the roof while he contemplates jumping are wasted minutes. We know he is not going to jump because the movie will be over otherwise. Hence, the tension is not only minimized, it also disrupts the details of César’s extracurricular activities. We are creeped out by him and yet we cannot help but watch him. As much as he is enslaved by his thoughts and habits, so is our curiosity to the subject.
Directed by Jaume Balagueró, “Sleep Tight” engages us by playing with our fears especially in terms of what is going on in other people’s heads because we really have no way of discerning thoughts from true intentions. It follows in the footsteps of great thrillers in that it has a knack for turning our worries into uneasy chuckles without minimizing the darkness and cruelty from behind César’s eyes–the very same window that we are forced to look out on.
[REC] 2 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“[REC]²,” written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, began a few minutes after a reporter (Manuela Velasco) was dragged by a zombie-like creature into darkness. This time, a SWAT team (Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso) and a health minister (Pep Molina) made their way inside the quarantined building to get a specific blood sample. They hoped to make an antidote just in case the biological infection touched the general population. But the Ministry of Health wasn’t telling the truth about his identity. He was actually a priest and there was something in the blood that the Church was determined to have. “[REC]²” was enjoyable because the dark atmosphere, which made its predecessor so chilling, remained foreboding. The hand-held camera remained the picture’s conceit but it still worked. When a character turned a corner, I anticipated that a zombie was right there waiting for its next victim. What I liked most about the the film was it didn’t rely on the atmosphere to keep us interested. Instead of giving us the same concept and the only disparity consisting of different characters running around the apartment complex, it tried to answer questions about what the reporter saw at the end of the first film. That is, the specific reason why the other priest experimented on a little girl and possibly other children. However, “[REC]²” became less interesting when we stopped seeing the events through the SWAT team’s perspective. Three idiotic teenagers (Andrea Ros, Pau Poch, Àlex Batllori) decided to sneak inside from the sewers with, of course, a video camera. There was a sudden shift in tone. Since they argued so much, their situation just felt silly. When they were on screen, I felt like I was watching a banal slasher flick instead of a horror movie with a solid concept. “Let’s get out of here!” insisted one of the doomed teens. But she didn’t have the courage to leave her friends. Why? If I was convinced something was a really bad idea, I won’t do it. I have a brain and a will of my own. It had gotten so irritating, I actually wanted them to get bitten and turn into zombies so there would be no more whining. The movie had a couple of wonderful scares. My favorite, although requiring a leap of faith, was when our protagonists discovered that there was a place within a room invisible to the naked eye. The camera became a necessary tool, not just a conceit, to see the place of interest. While one holding the camera was able to see in darkness, the rest of them were blind. The monster could be right next to them and they would have had no idea. Our hearts beat a little faster for them. It had moments of creativity but the multiple perspectives was executed with a lack of focus. Nevertheless, I give the writer-directors credit for turning “[REC]” upside down. Unlike most sequels of the genre, “[REC]²” felt necessary.
★★★ / ★★★★
Having seen and being impressed with the remake called “Quarantine,” I just had to see the original. I think both are very effective even though they pretty much had the same scenes. In “[REC],” astutely directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, it had less exposition but the audiences quickly cared about the reporter (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman. The reporter had a certain spunk and enthusiasm and what the cameraman saw, we saw so there was an automatic connection there. Everything starts off pretty light as the reporter interviewed the firemen about their every day happenings. Things quickly went for a darker turn when the firefighters got a call from an old apartment complex. At first, they thought it was just an old woman that fell and needed help. But when she started attacking and biting people, everyone pretty much knew that something more sinister was going on. People started dying in gruesome ways in the hands of zombie-like infected people and they get quarantined by city officials without an ounce of explanation. What I love about this film was its natural ability to build tension after each scene. There were moments when I thought that if I was stuck in the building with them, the exact same thing could happen so I was definitely more than engaged. “The Blair Witch Project” was undoubtedly this picture’s biggest inspiration but it managed to tilt just enough to have an identity of its own. The best part of the movie for me was the last fifteen to twenty minutes when they finally made it inside the apartment on the top floor. Such scenes revealed to us that it had more to it than “28 Days Later”-like zombies. The disease had a history and I wanted to know more about it. (Maybe a sequel?) But, of course, the scares did not end there. I felt like I was in that dark room with them as they tried to use the night vision option on the camera. I tried not to blink because I was expecting those “shock”/”jumpy” moments. But even then I was surprised and things popped out of nowhere. If one is a horror film fan, this is a must-see. However, this is definitely not for those who dislike shaky cameras in order to add some type of realism to its craft.