What a weird road the [REC] series has traveled. After the successful release of the first film, which can be fairly described as a modern classic, its directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza were smart enough to realize that to a successful sequel should revisit all the things that made its predecessor so effective: the claustrophobic surroundings of that Barcelona apartment building, the cast of quirky characters slowly transforming into hideous mutants, the emaciated hammer-swinging thing residing in the attic, and most importantly, the inclusion of the found-footage aesthetic. [REC]2, a clever sidequel, posits: say, what else could be going on in that apartment building? And while on paper that sounds like a total cop-out, it worked just fine. Going beyond its ability to strike gold twice utilizing an identical concept, it took things one step further by introducing a rather interesting idea: what if this "disease" being passed from person to person via bite and turning everyone afflicted into bleeding, shrieking, gooey ghouls was, in actuality, demon possession? With this idea in motion, the ghouls of [REC] didn't have to just scream and hurtle at their prey. Now they could sprout wings, or crawl upside down on the ceiling. Now there was the simmering suggestion that it would not be a scientist who could potentially find a cure, but a priest. Now we suddenly had The Exorcist in the back of our minds, and that ain't a shabby association to call forth.
While some factions of the audiences didn't fully embrace this new demonic twist, [REC]2 was wildly popular, and so it wasn't long before not one but two more sequels were announced: [REC]3: Genesis, and [REC]4: Apocalypse. However, in a surprising move, the co-directors also announced that each of them would be tackling one of the sequels solo, and even more surprising, abandoning the found footage aesthetic that had helped to make the series so far stand out from its flesh-ripping cinematic colleagues. And so, with two solid films already winning over most horror fans, audiences waited to see just what kind of new ideas its creators would bring to the table.
They got their answer: stupid.
Paco Plaza took the first swing with [REC]3: Genesis, a film severely hampered by its overly aggressive but laudable attempts to avoid treading derivative ground. While a worthy endeavor, the dropping of the found footage technique, the insertion of constant and too-silly humor, and setting the film prior to the events of the first all led to an entry that was uneven, inconsistent, and lacking in any thrills.
With the long-confirmed fourth and final entry in the [REC] series looming on the horizon, this one under the guidance of a solo Balagueró, audiences once again waited to see if the franchise would go out with a bang instead of a whimper.
That law of diminishing returns refuses to ever cut audiences a break, so [REC]4: Apocalypse eventually arrived, unseating [REC]3 from its very brief record of being the weakest of the series. In what amounts to an even stupider film than Friday the 13th: Jason Takes Manhattan, [REC]4 has our characters running loose on a barge as one by one its collection of military soldiers and doctors fall victim to the very "disease" they have been trying to cure. Manuela Velasco, Spain's own beautiful doppelganger for Marisa Tomei, reprises her role from the first two films as the battered and bloodied Ángela Vidal, who following her nightmarish experience in that demon-infested apartment building has been whisked away to this same barge, filled with the aforementioned military personnel. Very far from shore, and cut off from the rest of the world, she and several others find themselves quarantined by a gaggle of doctors in an effort to figure out what is causing the disease, and how to cure it.
While [REC]4 is in some ways an improvement over its predecessor, thankfully jettisoning all the cheap cartoon humor and contributing an entry that actually feels like it belongs to the [REC] series, unfortunately it gets nearly everything else wrong. The attempt at series continuity by utilizing Velasco is certainly appreciated, but her character is utterly misused, setting her up as a red herring for much of the film's running time until the third-act twist that, to be fair, is a genuine surprise, but to be fairer, is surprising because of how cheap and shameless it is. The twist "works" not because the film was successful in subtly setting it up, but rather because it was unmercifully lazy - the kind of "gotcha" moment played out in that theoretically non-existent wasteland of Offscreen Land where Balagueró insisted on hiding it like an Indiana Jones relic, because to have seen it play out on screen under the pretenses with which we were already provided would have made the twist obviously lazy.
Say, speaking of lazy, why take the time in having the virus spread from one person to the next when you can just say, "Oh crap, the food's infected," and demonize a whole slew of people at once? And if [REC]4 suddenly doing an about-face on the whole "demonic possession spread by bite" thing and instead having it spread through some dripped-on lamb wasn't bad enough, a really unnecessary and unintentionally silly adversary has been added to the mix to chase around our human cast: monkeys. And not just monkeys, but badly-rendered CGI monkeys, their "realism" at a level usually reserved for Planters' Nuts commercials.
Director Balagueró seems to miss the found-footage technique he and his co-director had employed on the first two films, but while he doesn't resurrect the gimmick for this go-round, he attempts to bridge the gap between amateur POV shooting with traditional film, utilizing the ever-popular handheld approach that is at best disorienting, and at worst downright nauseating. Occasionally, filmmakers are sometimes tempted to obscure the lack of substance in their film by depending on all manner of disorienting camera techniques to fool their audiences into thinking something dramatic is happening, and here Balagueró is no different. Close-ups of blood being drawn or weathered men standing around talking are shot with all manner of quick zooms by its cinematographer who seems to have swapped out a tripod for a stair-machine. What's supposed to seem interesting and intense is actually quite dull.
Speaking of dull, [REC]4 takes entirely too long to get going, and once it does, it has no fucking idea where it wants to go. The revelation of demonic possession spreading from one person to the next introduced in [REC]2 is barely a footnote here, as if the filmmakers realized far-too-late they had written themselves into a corner. "Oh crap, if they can fly, then what's the point of quarantining everyone on a ship?" etc. But no wings are sprouted, no ceilings are walked on. And without being able to use, no hyperbole, one of the creepiest and most effective images in modern horror - that of the sickly gaunt Nina Medeiros swinging her hammer blindly in the dark - Balagueró opts for an altogether different path: instead of Ángela running for her life through the dark bowels of a ship, pursued by something so monstrous that the only thing it has in common with mankind is a disturbing depiction of its form, instead Ángela can be found running through the bowels of a ship, being pursued by...monkey sounds. LOUD monkey sounds.
Still, this idea does make for a killer dramatic moment: with the stirring Zimmer-like musical score by the talented Arnau Bataller beginning to mount, Ángela flees her tiny-primate pursuers through the dark, desperately heaving herself through nooks and crannies of the ship, and finally she sees the way out; she throws herself to freedom, screaming, in near hysterics; she surprises another character who happens to be searching for her at that very moment, and before he can say a word, she looks at him with near-madness in her eyes, and in one long triumphant cry of release, bellows, "MOOOOOOONKEEEEEEEEYS!"
[REC]4 is the fourth part of a once-solid series that lost its way halfway through. It wants to use CGI to ensure a dramatic ending, but it can't afford it. It wants to have a big cast, but doesn't know what to do with any of them, that is beyond having all of them running around in the dark yelling "Vamos!" at each other. It wants to expand on the previously established [REC] cannon, but then...it doesn't. This proclaimed final entry in the series still not only manages to set up a [REC]5, but one that promises this series will still be swinging blindly in the dark.