Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza, the makers of the [REC] series, have shown they aren’t afraid to break with tradition. While “[REC]” and “[REC] 2” followed the same basic trajectory of horror world building, “[REC] 3: Genesis” took a sharp right turn into a completely different horror sub-genre. “[REC] 3” mostly left behind found footage and went straight into gore comedy, ala “Evil Dead”. To say this was a brave break from tradition may be a bit of an overstatement, but the moxie it took to traipse out of the beloved canon and into something completely different had to be admired if not fully appreciated.
Then comes [REC] 4: Apocalypse, which on its surface is more of a return to the first two films. But, pretty immediately under the surface, it becomes clear that [REC] 4 is about as far from its predecessors as it could possibly be. Firstly, it could be argued that this isn’t a horror film at all, but a full-on action movie. Gone are the moments of tension or fear, replaced by weaponry and running heroes; lots and lots of running heroes. Secondly, [REC] 4 completely obliterates the twist reveal given in [REC] 2. The priests are thrown by the wayside and we are back to science.
While neither of these points allude to the complete derailment of the franchise, it does point to how intent that Balaguero and Plaza are to morph the [REC] series to an entirely different experience than that of the one they laid out in the first film. It really is a strange sensation to watch filmmakers so intently shift and change their approach and interpretation of their own material over the span of four films. In a way, it is incredibly admirable that neither men seem comfortable riding that particular cash cow to its eventual death. Instead, they both seem more interested in new narratives and new approaches to their stories.
The problem with [REC] 4, though, is that it doesn’t really work. Subtract the [REC] franchise, and the shifting approach, [REC] 4 is a story filled with contrivances, cliches, and stiff storytelling. When a film can be encapsulated by the phrase “It’s like this movie, but with this added” you have a narrative problem. The problem is that [REC] 4 is like a lot of movies, but with not much added. That is an even worse problem.
From the chubby IT guy with an obsession with his candy bars to the chainsaw inspired motorboat weaponry, [REC] 4 is more of a mash up of previously explored ideas than an entry in a franchise that prides itself on originality. That is the problem with [REC] 4, not that it’s badly made or technically deficient, just that it has nothing new to offer and sometimes actively negates the greatness of the previous films.
In the end, [REC] 4 probably falls victim to an element that many horror franchises fall victim to, too much world-building. Considering that horror depends on the unexplainable and unknowable, watching scientists explain things and chubby IT guys displaying previously hidden documents can’t help but derail the experience of the film. Walking into an apartment filled with unexplainably ferocious tenants is scary and effective, even a wedding that gets laughably bloody is effective, explaining things on a boat whilst the protagonist grabs a boat motor and screams “MONKEYS!” is less then effective.