Friday, January 21, 2011

Oh god the screaming: REC (2007)

The appeal of handy-cam horror movies is the realism. REC is one of the best horror movies I've seen in years, it is fucked up and awesome. But even in a movie as smart and scary as REC, the realism winds up being a problem, too. 

Aside from the danger of nausea, the biggest flaw with these movies is the constant screaming. And yes, it might be realistic that characters would just go screaming from one horrible scene to the next, but oh my god it gets grating. Sometimes realism just isn't interesting. In actual speech people spend a lot of time saying, "um" and "like," but those things make for boring and awkward movie dialogue. Good dialogue conveys realism without actually being as dull as real language. Why can't this be done with screaming, too? 

REC knows that it is a problem. This is a film made by people who know what they're doing. They know the limitations of the form, and they do their best to minimize the problem. There are sections where the sound cuts out of the camera, or where the volume drops like the audio is malfunctioning. These moments provide a welcome break from the screams, but aren't the solution we need. 

Why can't screaming be scary in horror movies again? It is just the default response to shit going foul. There's no need for acting, people just scream and run around flailing their arms. Watching people screaming isn't scary. And I never remember anything from these scenes. The scenes that stick with me are the few moments where the movie surprises me, or chills me. In REC there is only one memorable screaming scene.  

The camera crew arrive at the building with firemen, and are led to the apartment of an old woman by police. The old woman is covered in blood and attacks one of the cops, and everyone freaks out, screaming, yelling, and they carry the bleeding cop back downstairs. Downstairs they find the doors they just entered are blocked off, and there are health authorities outside. They are quarantined. Nobody knows what is going on, and the characters start fighting with one another. It is a hectic series of revelations that changes our focus again and again. First we're focused on the old woman, then escape, then the cop's injuries, then the quarantine, then who is in charge. It's like a regular survival horror movie on fast forward. And then a body drops screaming from nowhere and lands right in the middle of their argument with a sickening wet crunch.

THAT scream stuck with me. It started quiet and grew faster than I could understand, at first I couldn't even figure out what the sound was. And then the body hit. It was unexpected and it was horrific and it was over before I realized exactly what was going on. It loomed larger in my imagination than it lasted in the film, and it stuck with me. When I describe the movie to friends, that's the scene I always describe first. 

REC begins with a long section introducing the main character and creating a feeling of normalcy and calm. We don't really grow to like the main character, or understand her particularly well, but it is an effective opening in any case. She's established as real. And when the fucked up shit happens, it happens fast. This is REC's biggest strength, I think. The violence isn't on screen for very long in the jumble of the camera. We don't have enough time to judge whether it's real or not, like the violence in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It happens and then we're left with a brief memory while we try to understand what we saw and what it means. Less isn't more, exactly. But it's better.


  1. There's a great moment in 'Life of Pi' where Pi finds a tree covered in balls of leaves, wrapped around human teeth. He shudders and walks way. He narrates, "Fear is only vocal in movies." He says that real fear is chilling and quiet. It's too scary to voice it, it's past screaming.

  2. iwrotethissong: thats really a cool sentiment.

    i agree about the less is better. only because when you know less about something, the more you can project and use your own personal fears as fuel.

  3. "We don't really grow to like the main character, or understand her particularly well"

    I don't understand this 'we'. I admit I saw REC a while ago, but my impression is that she was a bit frustrating but generally relatable and, well, likable - enough so that I was still rooting for her (what's your attitude about spoilers on this blog?) even as the end credits rolled. I found the sequel much, much less scary; it had other problems, but the lack of emotional investment in any of those characters was a big part.

    I don't know why I'm defending a fictional character (on the Internet!). I guess it's because the effectiveness of horror movies depends on so many subjective aspects - what it feels like, to the viewer, to watch them - that it was jarring to see you assume something like that as universal. Film (and other) critics do this all the time, but that always seemed to me like getting paid for one's opinion tending to devalue other possibilities.

    I'm much too tired to write this properly, but I hope the gist made it through.

  4. kogith: Sorry,I don't mean to pretend that I'm talking about objective truths here. This blog is me thinking about these movies and how they work for me. When I say "we" I mean "we as the audience" not we as in everybody who watches it.

  5. Oh man, one of my favourite movies. The last act left me a total wreck in exactly the way horror should. Good review!

  6. There's a really great Vincent Price B-movie called The Tingler, in which Price plays a (mad) scientist who discovers the existence of a creature he calls the tingler, which grows in the small of a person's back when they're scared, and the only thing that kills it is letting out a scream. He then encounters a mute woman and, since she is incapable of screaming, devises an elaborate scheme to basically frighten her to death, at which point he'll be able to capture a live tingler specimen.

    There then follows a sequence where the director pulls out every 50s horror trick in the book to scare this woman, but without any screams. In fact, it's really interesting from an audio point of view, because the audience is more aware than usual of the sound of the movie, and thus the director/sound lead take more care over it. Probably one of the best examples of sound editing in the pre-multitrack days

    Later on, there's a part where Vincent Price breaks the fourth wall to warn the audience that the tingler has escaped and might be loose in the theater. Presumably at this point, rubber tinglers dropped from the ceiling onto the cinema audience, but I've only seen the DVD, which didn't come supplied with any rubber tinglers. The point is that at this point, all the screaming would have been done by the audience, with very little happening on-screen, and just some tense string music coming from the speakers.

  7. I haven't seen the film REC (yet), but on the subject of screams in movies; I don't think screams are scary. When the screaming starts it usually signals that the character has lost control of themselves completely and it can often come as a relief from the tension that has been building.

    For me the scary parts are when people are desperately trying to keep control for some reason (e.g. hiding and trying to keep quiet or trying to keep calm enough to perform some task - think Ripley at the end of Alien).

    Also, in horror films screaming often literally signals the end of a tense situation as it (almost) invariably leads to the screamer being killed or running insensible in to the other characters and temporary safety.

  8. Spudman101...

    I agree with you, but when I read your comment I was reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park when Sammy Jackson's hand falls on Dr. Sattler while she is trying to reboot the computer. I loved her scream in that scene, but it is only in the middle of the scene's tension..

    Movies are too subjective.

  9. Eggs: That's a good counter-example, but I'm not sure if it's the same in pure horror genre movies as it is in more action/thriller based movies.

    In modern horror films and especially the "teen slasher" movies characters seem to exist just to be killed off so there is more tendency to cap off a tense scene with a scream/death. In films where they can't kill off the character they have to be more inventive with the scares and you get nice touches like Jacksons dismembered arm.

    You're right that all of these things are subjective though (my favourite jump in JP was the 'raptor snapping at the girl as she climbs in to the ceiling space).

  10. I never understood prolonged screaming in movies. I could understand a brief shriek if something jumped out at you, but yelling your head off? My theory is that when someone is really terrified, they're more likely to lose their voice than put all that energy into screaming. Screaming is hard--your body is more interested in fleeing than making noise.

  11. I just watched this light night based on what you said Joey and it scared the living shit out of me. I think like you say some of the screams were memorable and it had images which wont leave me for a while.

    I'm glad that it didn't linger for too long, all the killings were thick and fast, but none of the characters stayed with you.

  12. I've heard that none of the actors in REC knew the fireman was going to fall during that scene. I think that's why it's by far the best part of the movie; all of their reactions were real and unscripted.

    Also, if you've watched the American version, Quarantine, which is almost a shot for shot remake, the importance of lighting in a "handycam" horror movie becomes really apparent. Quarantine relies too much on crappy lighting. REC knows when to use slight bad lighting so it's easier to suspend disbelief, but doesn't overuse it so it's easier to see what's happening.