Screenplay by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle, based on the movie [REC] written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza
Directed by John Erick Dowdle
Jennifer Carpenter: Angela Vidal
Steve Harris: Scott Percival
Jay Hernandez: Jake
Johnathon Schaech: Fletcher
I decided to review an original and a remake for HubrisWeen this year, but never considered what it would mean to pick two movies next to each other in the alphabet (SPOILER: It's hard to pay attention to the same plot two movies in a row and I didn't want to get to this one until the last minute). But on top of that I went with a remake that shows up before the original. So you're looking at my thoughts on the cover song before the original track, at least if you're reading my reviews in order in October. If you've just come to this review from an archive link, I'm going to assume you've already seen [REC] and want to know how this one compares to it.
It starts out without opening credits and with journalist Angela Vidal in front of a fire station, ready to do a segment on the Los Angeles fire department for a television show called The Night Shift. The movie establishes its found-footage bona fides by having Angela go through several takes for her intro segment, and shows what would appear to be a larger budget than its Spanish predecessor by having two fire engines leave, lights and sirens on, while she's off to the side of the frame saying that if she and her cameraman had gotten there sooner they could be doing a ride-along.
She does an interview with Bob, a firefighter who explains that about six out of seven fire department responses are for medical issues, not burning buildings. Anything from chest pains to serious injuries are par for the course. He also says that almost every ambulance out on the street is affiliated with a fire department, which makes me think that Fishbine & Unity went under some time in the last thirty-plus years or so. Bob's a really good sport, especially when Angela asks him for tips about sliding down the pole to get to the garage while wearing a skirt ("...Well, pantyhose help."). At the dining hall, Bob introduces Angela to Jake and Fletcher, the two firemen assigned to public relations detail this evening.
The artifice peeks around the corners in this movie just as much as it does in [REC]; both films feature a quick moment where Angela clips a battery-powered microphone to a fireman (and the cameraman says he's gotten complaints about how he never provides enough B-roll footage, so he's going to shoot everything that happens). This is vital for the illusion to be maintained--the dialogue will be audible even if a character is off-screen, and by acknowledging that effort has been taken to make the characters' voices legible the viewer can stop thinking about it and just enjoy the show. Jake's endearingly bad at being on camera, too, which is nice. Why would a fireman necessarily be polished and engaging in a media appearance? It's also nice that Scott the cameraman occasionally mentions that footage won't be usable; while setting up the first act of a horror movie, the more convincing and grounded everything is, the more shocking things will be later when stuff gets crazy.
Fletcher appears to be a grimmer and more sour person (maybe it's just the truly impressive 70s moustache he's rocking; maybe he really is a jerk). He's got at least a little bit of a sense of humor as he tests the profanity limits of the show he's on in the most immediate and practical way he can think of. But he's game enough to show off a hook ladder and explain how it used to be used to climb up the sides of buildings in the 20s and 30s, to be eventually replaced with extending ladders that did not have a wicked three-foot metal hook on the end. There's also the requisite bit with a dog, where Fletcher introduces Angela to the station mascot, Wilshire, and explains that dalmatians were firehouse dogs because that breed got along well with horses (which was an important consideration prior to the internal combustion engine was developed). It also turns out that firehouse dogs were trained to stop traffic at intersections back in the horse-drawn wagon days, which I would assume meant that they went through a lot of dogs. One assumes Wilshire is also used for school talks and things, because he's trained to stop, drop and roll on command.
Jake and Fletcher give Angela a tour of a few other parts of the station, including a quick run through the locker room to surprise one of the firemen singing in the shower (the camerawork is blocked amazingly well here to keep from actually seeing anything) and the testosterone-poisoned atmosphere starts to get to Angela a little bit. (There's also dialogue taken from the original film about how Angela wants there to be a call that night so she can get good footage for the show, while the firefighter points out that the good nights are ones where nobody's in danger). Something added for the American remake--Fletcher, not realizing that his mike is transmitting to the camera, betting another firefighter a hundred dollars that he'll have sex with Angela before the end of the shoot.
While Angela is checking out the tiny sleeping quarters for one fireman ("It's like my college dorm room without the pink,), an alarm goes off and Jake tells Angela she got her call. And similar to the Spanish original, the cameraman can't slide down the pole with his gear so he's got to take the stairs. They jump in the truck (with some excellent use of the camera's movement to let the viewer know what's going on even when it's not immediately clear) and off they go to the emergency call. It's the louder, more EXTREME! American version so they use the lights and sirens. During the drive, Fletcher calls out numbers and directions; he's not navigating, as it turns out. He's signaling where the attractive women are on the route ("There's an eight at three o'clock,") so that the other firemen know which way to turn their heads en route. Angela is lightly appalled and at least Fletcher fully owns his situation, admitting that he's a jerk.
They pull up in front of a four-story apartment building; Jake and Fletcher and two other firemen hop out of the truck, as do Angela and Scott. The firemen bring their door-opening tools out. An older white guy in a bathrobe meets them on the street and guides them into the building, where two police (one white, one black) have already arrived. A cop brings everyone up to speed: An old woman in one apartment needs help; the neighbors don't remember Mrs. Espinoza ever really talking to anyone in the building before. Some of the dialogue from the original is repeated re: what the heck a cameraman and journalist are doing following the firemen and cops around. The man in the bathrobe is the building superintendent and he's got the keys, so nobody has to smash any doors in--or at least that's his sincere hope. Mrs. Espinoza has locks on the inside that he can't open, so one smack with a sledgehammer is used in lieu of more subtle ways of gaining entry.
Mrs. Espinoza is at the end of a long, dimly lit hallway and the cameraman is stuck behind more than half a dozen people trying to get a look at what's going on. Mrs. Espinoza's dog shows up for a quick jump scare, and when she's finally on camera she's got wounds to her chest and neck, quite a bit of blood on her housecoat and appears to be foaming at the mouth. But she's also able to talk to the cops, so she isn't mindless at this point. When the cameraman turns on his portable spotlight Mrs. Espinoza screams and everyone yells at him to turn the light off, which he does. As a nod to American procedures, all the cops and firemen put on latex gloves before proceeding. Not that it helps--when the white cop turns away for a moment Mrs. Espinoza jumps on him and bites a chunk out of his neck (captured in closeup by Scott, who knows that when something bleeds, it leads a newscast). One of the firemen and the remaining police officer hustle the bite victim downstairs while the other firemen stay up in Mrs. Espinoza's apartment and restrain her.
And down in the lobby, when they try to get the bitten cop outside for treatment, the two authority figures find that the door has been locked from the outside--and nobody in the lobby quite knows why. One of the firemen actually asks if there's a doctor in the house. Best they have inside it a veterinarian. Tempers flare inside as everyone naturally wants to know what's going on and neither the police, the cops or the journalists have any answers. The "Please remain calm" bullhorn guy shows up and says they're working hard to get everyone out of the building--but assuming the people outside are the ones who locked the doors in the first place, why can't they just unlock them and open up?
There's a fabric workshop in the lobby of the apartment building (sounds legit), and the super says there's a back door they can use to get the bite victim outside for treatment. Just like the original, there's a little girl whose father ran out for antibiotics and whose mother is on the phone with him; the news from outside is that there are police everywhere outside. And a fireman falls from the second floor to impact on the lobby floor in the middle of this status update. Fletcher's injured badly and bleeding heavily from his neck. The remaining cop and fireman run upstairs to see what's going on and order Angela and her cameraman to stay in the lobby; of course they don't do that.
Scott takes point walking down a long hallway, looking for whoever is making noise and breaking glass things. A woman charges out at him, collapses and dies (and then Jake comes on the scene, knowing no more than the other characters or the audience). Mrs. Espinoza walks into the frame again with a distressing amount of blood on her mouth and all over the front of her clothes. When she screams and charges at the cop he shoots her three times; both Jake and the officer are adrenaline-poisoned and react badly to the camera in their faces. Angela seems pretty traumatized herself; be careful what you wish for when you want good footage for your ride-along show...
Jake tries to take command of the rapidly deteriorating situation and tells everyone still in their apartments to go down to the atrium (hampered by some of the tenants not speaking English). One woman on the fourth floor is semiconscious at best, and foaming from the mouth. Angela and Jake lift her up to get her downstairs as well. Her breathing would sound better if it was tubercular and she vomits on the floor. While Jake and Angela are getting the sick woman out of her apartment a rat skitters across the floor to attack Scott, who stomps it to death and seems stunned that a rat would decide to come after him.
Down in the fabric workshop Jake goes for the back door, armed with his door-pummeling sledgehammer. There's already soldiers in desert camo and gas masks waiting for him; he backs off rather than getting shot. The loudspeaker voice thanks everyone for their cooperation after politely informing them that all the exits are sealed and telling them not to try and get out of the building. One of the tenants wants to know why the military is calling their situation a "BNC", and then everyone's cell phones die simultaneously. Neither do the televisions or radios, for that matter. After being pressed a few times, Jake defines the term as a potential biological, nuclear or chemical threat and then tries to play it off like it's nothing particularly to be worried about, since they're a lot more common than people think. This does not actually calm anyone down.
The super tells Jake there's an upstairs office that has a window above a ledge; the fireman could jump out the window and get to the ground. There's already a pair of troops on the roof by that window, and they keep Angela and Jake back while someone else seals off the building with sheets of plastic. Angela tells them there's a camera crew inside and that their tactics are going to come to light; in the most realistic part of the movie, the soldiers don't even waste breath responding to her.
The uninjured cop has a patented George Romero Authority Figure Breakdown, pulling his gun on Jake and shouting threats; the fireman tells him that the outside forces don't care about him any more than they do anyone else in the sealed-shut building. The moment passes and Angela's the last to leave the room, the blurry figures of the soldiers still visible outside through the plastic sheeting.
Angela does a report segment from the lobby just as the vet tries to treat the nasty fracture of Fletcher's shin and stabilize the bitten cop; one of the tenants makes a cheerful offer to bring down some of the Vicodin from his massive drug stash upstairs (and then tells the policeman he can't be forced to incriminate himself right after saying he's got his own pharmacy stash). The vet explains that he can't really do anything other than the most basic care for the two injured men, and that Fletcher has multiple broken bones and internal bleeding that needs actual medical treatment.
The next scene is Angela interviewing Briana, the little girl whose father went out to get antibiotics for (and can't get back in the building). She's been sick for weeks and mentions that her dog got sick first, a plot detail repeated from the original film. The next interview (an opera teacher and his prize student) gets cut short when Fletcher is back on his feet and shambling into the lobby--and I dare you not to cringe when you see him putting weight on his broken shin and watching it bend. He's also foaming from the mouth and goes down like a ton of bricks when the veterinarian sedates him. The vet also is a natural to figure out what's happening--he gives a checklist of everything wrong with the woman who's also in the workshop with the cop and Fletcher, and says every single thing happening to the trio of infected people are rabies symptoms. He's never seen a person with the disease but he's familiar with it from his veterinary practice. Although he says it takes months for symptoms to become apparent and both bite victims developed them in minutes. He also gives a crash course in avoiding infection--if the infected person's blood gets in your mouth, eyes, other mucous membranes or into an open cut you're going to get it.
Oh, and there's even better news--once symptoms show up in a person, rabies is invariably lethal.
A drunken tenant has an argument about whether or not it's safe for everyone to be in a big group in the lobby with an infectious disease present, and while he's arguing with the cop the music teacher and student sneak up a back staircase to their apartment, hoping that their rabbit-ears TV will pick up a broadcast and let everyone know what's going on. Angela and Scott follow along discreetly and get up one floor to find a rabid dog growling at them. They're saved when the drunken belligerent guy takes the elevator to his floor and he gets attacked; his screams from inside the elevator are more unnerving than seeing a CGI dog bite him would be, so kudos to the filmmakers for showing a little bit of subtlety in their rabid dog attack scene.
In the opera teacher's apartment, the TV crackles and spits to the point where only a little bit of the news reports are coming through, but the official statement from the CDC is that everyone inside the building was already evacuated and the people going inside are just carrying out precautionary measures. And then the power goes out completely (which means the rabid dog is stuck in the elevator, at least. While the power's out, the infected woman from earlier attacks the group and Scott beats her to death with the camera in a scene that's fatal to my suspension of disbelief, I'm sorry to say. Sure, lots of blood gets on the lens and there's a legitimately well-done scene where you see Scott clean it off at length, but that glass should be shattered and completely opaque from the damage. There's some great "barely holding it together" dialogue from everyone after the scene too, so I'm just going to nod, smile and forget this happened. This is also the scene where Angela takes off her bloodied shirt and is down to the white tank top that the other Angela Vidal had in the Spanish original.
Everyone winds up in the textile workshop on the ground floor as the cop tells everyone that the CDC has informed him that a doctor will come in to give a blood test, and the people who are cleared will be able to leave. The vet earns his Not Helping Right Now merit badge by telling everyone that a blood test doesn't reveal the presence of rabies. Oh, and that the bitten people have rabies. And that in order to actually test for the disease doctors need a sample of brain tissue. The cop tries to gloss over all this distressing new information and kinda succeeds. He and Jake take roll with a checklist of the apartments in the building, another scene duplicated from the original. And just like the original, there's an attic apartment that nobody's been in for months and a paralyzed old man bedridden in an apartment owned by immigrants (African instead of Asian in this version).
Night falls, and a hazmat-suited doctor and a trio of bodyguards walk in from the outside (and Angela does a quick segment explaining to her future viewers what's going on). The cop inside points out the bloodstains from the two injured men in the lobby and a gun-toting CDC guy demands that the camera be turned off. Scott claims that it's shut off and keeps taping; the feds go to the workshop room and examine the two infected men. Angela opens a door wide enough for Scott to get a shot, but Jake notices and they get the door shut in their faces. There's a remade "shoot through the transom widow" scene where Scott sees that Fletcher gets handcuffed to the table and injected with something that--from Jake's reaction--was supposed to euthanize him so the CDC doctor can drill into his head and take a sample of his brain tissue. Fletcher wakes up and bites one of the hazmat-suited doctors, and in the rush to escape the room the vet is locked inside.
The vet says he's fine and hasn't been bitten, but while he's talking calmly and rationally about how they need to let him out he vomits a half pint of blood on the pebbled-glass window set into the door and then punches through it. The uninfected cop demands that the CDC doctor explain what the hell is going on. The doctor first says nobody has the proper security clearance to hear about it, which implies some really bad news, but almost immediately he drops the information bomb. A sick dog at a vet's office had something in its bloodstream that nobody recognized, and attacked other animals. The other animals went berserk an hour or so after being bitten by Puppy Zero, and the dog's owner was traced back to the apartment building. And it's not a good sign that little Briana is flinching away from the camera's light when everyone's attention turns to her. She bites her mother and runs upstairs; Briana's mom gets handcuffed to the stair railing.
The CDC guy gives Jake a syringe and says to inject the girl with it, but not what's in there. And it's a moot point because the officer gets bitten when the kid moves faster than he was expecting. He holds the girl back and tells everyone else to flee, knowing that he's been infected with a bite. Mrs. Espinoza attacks Jake and he beats her to death with his sledgehammer, and while everyone's running downstairs to the lobby the hear the tenants screaming as the infected have gotten to them. Everyone runs upstairs, except for Briana's mother (who is still handcuffed to the railing and is immediately attacked by a screaming rabid plague victim).
In the hideout room, everyone panics--it turns out the CDC doctor was bitten, as was Sadie the music student. When her teacher cuts through the plastic sheeting over a window and waves to get the attention of the outside forces, a sniper caps him within seconds (which, honestly, is what I think is the likeliest actual response to a building full of contagious-disease victims). Angela realizes that the official plan of action requires the death of everyone who might have been exposed to the disease, and the camera starts going into the Saving Private Ryan handheld effect later beaten to death in movies like Gladiator. And that's really too bad, because it yanks the viewer right out of the film when a new effect gets used. For all the well-handled ways the movie is and isn't like its inspiration, there's a couple of jarringly awful artistic decisions that don't work at all.
The super tells everyone about a drain cover in the basement that goes to the sewers, but seconds after he says the key to the floor panel is in his apartment the now-rabid CDC doctor breaks through the glass door he's confined behind and bites him. The super's wife refuses to abandon her husband and gets attacked by Sadie; everyone else flees up one floor to ransack the superintendent's apartment and get the key. They don't remember which apartment they need to find and run downstairs to check the mailboxes; Jake kills the immigrant man on the stairwell in self-defense. They figure out the apartment they need to find (it's on the third floor, of course) and Briana's mom has gone full-bore rabid by this time. Jake gets by her and calls the elevator, killing the rabid dog inside with the sledgehammer. Everyone's in a full-on panic as the elevator goes up a floor and when it opens, Sadie attacks Jake, who beats her down and then breaks her neck with Scott's help (this killing, along with the immigrant guy getting stomped on the stairwell, are blocked to suggest more of what's happening than show it, which is a neat choice--there's plenty of blood and screaming already, so leaving a little bit to the imagination here is commendable).
Angela thinks she was bitten and Scott tries to talk her out of thinking it; when they run up to the third floor the immigrant woman attacks and gets pitched over the railing in a scene that either uses a great bait-and-switch cut to a dummy, plenty of CGI or a stunt performer really earning a bonus that day. When they find the keys and flee, Jake gets attacked and bitten by a rabid infectee on the stairs and Scott sees the staircase swarming with plague victims. Angela and Scott, the only remaining characters without super rabies in their bloodstreams, run the other way and get to the attic apartment. They get inside with less than a second to spare and the damaged light on Scott's camera flickers on and off; the cameraman figures that since the room was locked there won't be anyone in there and it might be possible to find a way to escape.
But first they've got to walk past hundreds of cages with rats inside them, and the "crazy person stuck newspaper articles on the wall" wall has the headline CULT DEFECTOR TALKS OF ARMAGEDDON VIRUS. That's an even less good sign than the rabid tenants, cops and firemen outside. Another clipping refers to a bioweapons lab break-in, which just puts another layer on the shitcake. In another room they find stacks of medical files and news clippings and a bunch of chemistry equipment; it's one hell of a scoop if there was any way for either of them to get out alive. They also find a reel-to-reel tape player that works even though there's no power in the building, but it plays so slowly they can't understand anything on it.
The ceiling trap door falls down, provoking more screams from Angela and an eventual plan: Scott will do a pan with the camera up in the attic so they can see if it's safe to go up there; when he does, a screaming child figure swats the camera and breaks the light. Scott turns on the night vision as a way to try and see where they're going to get out, and someone--or something--hears them moving around. And it's about time, considering how much screaming and arguing was going on before. It's what I guess is the cultist or Patient Zero of the plague, emaciated and walking around in his tighty whites (actualy, at this point they're his crusty rusties). He's got a hammer in one hand and is just as hampered as Angela is by the lack of light. Scott figures this out and they try to sneak by the figure but he makes a noise, and winds up getting beaten to death. Angela fumbles around, finds the camera, and tries to make her way out but screams when she sees the plague man eating flesh ripped from Scott's neck; it beats her and loses her, and when she tries to crawl along the floor it grabs her and yanks her back impossibly far and fast into the dark.
This one's a competent cover version done by a group that's obviously well-versed in what made the original work, and who tried to put their own stamp on the material. There's lots of little touches that make the story more American (I'm thinking of the sniper kill specifically here, but it's not the only thing that helped ground the remake in our society rather than in Spain--and that shows a commendable amount of forethought and consideration on the filmmakers' part). But it comes across as a second-tier copy rather than the original, I'm sorry to say. The performances are all quite good (and it's nice to see someone from Ally McBeal getting a horror movie on his resume), but there's a lot of it that doesn't quite jell. I wondered who was feeding and watering the rats in the meth lab / disease warfare apartment, among other things. There's a couple of really serious missteps with the way the handheld camera is used to provide a point of view for the action as well. There's a lot that went right with the film but plenty that could have done better as well. The original is the way to go with this one. Sorta like listening to a decent but not great cover of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker". It's nice to see someone else is a fan of something I liked, but there's no reason not to go with the original if you have the chance.
Which, if you're reading these reviews on the days they go live, you can do tomorrow. See you then.
This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:
The Terrible Claw Reviews: Quatermass and the Pit
Yes, I Know: The Queen of Black Magic