DARKNESS: Unrated Version (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Terror/Violence and Language

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Directed by: Jaume Balaguero

Written by: Jaume Balaguero & Fernando de Felipe

Starring: Anna Paquin, Lena Olin, Iain Glen, Giancarlo Giannini, Fele Martinez & Stephan Enquist

Storytime: I saw DARKNESS in the movie theater a few days after its Christmas release. Little 14-year-old me was gobbling up any possible horror movie I could go see with friends. That meant that my options were strictly limited to pretty much every PG-13 movie hitting theaters. It should be noted that my tastes weren’t nearly what they are now and I thought this movie was quite possibly the scariest thing ever. Little did I know the horrible, ugly, nostalgia-shattering truth. DARKNESS is an early film from Jaume Balaguero (who notably directed the first two [REC]s and SLEEP TIGHT and not so notably helmed THE NAMELESS). Dimension originally picked up DARKNESS for release in 2002 and then shelved the film for two years before releasing a shortened PG-13 cut into theaters on Christmas 2004. While the movie boasts an eerie atmosphere and a few spooky images, it never comes together as a coherent story populated by believable characters.

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A family has moved into an isolated house in the middle of the Spanish countryside. Little do they know that dark and mysterious stuff took place within the walls of their new cozy home. Forty years ago, an occult sacrifice was attempted with six children being murdered and one escaping. Now, something evil (of course) is in the home and lurks in the dark. When the young son of the family, Paul, finds himself being targeted by the mysterious force. His teenage sister, Regina, becomes suspicious of possible abuse from her parents. Those suspicions lead to something darker when their mother appears to be uncaring and her father is quickly going off the deep end. With an approaching eclipse and a ticking clock, Regina must solve the house’s mystery before another sacrifice is attempted…but this time with her family as possible victims.

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DARKNESS has a couple of good ideas, but fails to properly execute them. You can tell that there’s a good movie trying to break out of this mediocre mess. Flashes of it appear in a few striking images or neat moments. One of which is the darkness itself being alive and physically able move objects/cause harm when the power is out. That’s pretty cool stuff. Another decent concept is that darkness can even go as far as imitating people around it to convince gullible idiots to turn off the lights around them so it can kill(?), devour(?), consume(?) them? It’s never made clear. Which is where this movie has major problems. The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense and you can tell that early Jaume Balaguero was heavily imitating other (more successful) horror films. These echoes remind one of THE SHINING (in title cards announcing the day), POLTERGEIST (the child being terrorized by a toy), and even, AMITYVILLE HORROR (the unhinged father literally digging into the house). I was hoping that the PG-13 cut (which is 14 minutes shorter than the original R-rated cut a.k.a. the “Unrated” Version) had been heavily butchered. Having finally seen the Unrated Version, I can say that the only differences between both versions are a few drops of blood, some filler, and a number of F-bombs.

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The story of DARKNESS may be an unfocused narrative mess, but the characters are just bland. Anna Paquin isn’t exactly known for being an amazing actress, but she fills the role of stereotypical rebellious teenager in this film. Lena Olin is wooden as the mother, using no recognizable human emotions. Meanwhile, Giancarlo Giannini shows up for a couple of scenes as the exposition-spewing grandfather. The worst performance comes from Iain Glen though. He may be great in GAME OF THRONES now, but in 2002, he seemed to be imitating Jack Nicholson in THE SHINING and comes off as more laughably annoying than frightening.

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The biggest sin that DARKNESS commits is that it’s over stylized past the point of being scary. Complete with tons of useless shaky cam, occasional slow motion, and fast editing, it seems like the film is trying to compensate for its lack of emotions and creativity by using every possible camera trick in the book to aggravating effect. With all my complaints about the film, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find a handful of positive qualities in it. Aside from occasionally neat concepts, there are a few eerie images in this film that no amount of shaky camera work could soil. Besides that, there is a creepy atmosphere to this film as well as a cool ending. It’s enough to make you wish that these good qualities weren’t squandered away on such a jumbled script that seems half-finished.

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Is DARKNESS nearly as scary as I remember it being when I was 14 years old? Not at all. In fact, this movie is pretty bad in a lot of ways. The performances are terrible from everyone and the screenplay doesn’t make a lick of sense. Not to mention that the whole film has a severe case of style over substance. However, DARKNESS does have an ooky spooky atmosphere that seems far too good for this material. Aside from that, there are also a couple of interesting (though unfocused) ideas as well as a solid eerie ending. It all amounts to a middle-of-the-road effort though. Nothing comes together in a satisfying way. Instead, you’re left with some good qualities, some major problems, and a film that you really won’t know what to make of by its conclusion. DARKNESS is a mediocre mess that could be promising if someone were to retool the script and remake the whole damn film.

Grade: C

[REC] 4: APOCALYPSE (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Horror Violence/Gore, and Language

(Spanish with English subtitles)

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Directed by: Jaume Balaguero

Written by: Jaume Balaguero & Manu Diez

Starring: Manuela Velasco, Paco Manzanedo, Hector Colome, Ismael Fritschi, Crispulo Cabezas & Paco Obregon

In 2008, I was a horror-loving high school student that sought out any new scary flick. One film that had stellar reviews was [REC]. Though gaining positive word-of-mouth from various film festivals, [REC] had not seen a proper release on U.S. shores and the English-language remake QUARANTINE ensured that would remain the case for a while. Through the magic of Ebay, I scored myself an import of [REC] and on a cool summer night, I watched the film. [REC] is a nightmarish modern horror classic. In 2010, [REC] 2 came out and delivered a solid sequel. Soon after, news came that director team behind the two [REC] films were splitting up to make two final chapters in the series on their own. In 2012, Paco Plaza’s [REC] 3 turned out to be a disappointment for several reasons. I held out hope that the far more talented Jaume Balaguero would deliver in [REC] 4 (the final film). Having now watched Balaguero’s conclusion, I can sadly say that the fourth installment doesn’t fare much better than the third. In fact, [REC] 4: APOCALYPSE feels like Balaguero is phoning it in.

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[REC] 4 abandons the found footage approach in the same way that [REC] 3 did. The film opens mere minutes after the climax of [REC] 2. A special forces team is sent in to blow up the quarantined apartment building. Their mission is a success, but only one team member survives and makes it out with the still-living TV host (from the first two films) Angela Vidal. Angela, the special team member, and another survivor (from the wedding party in [REC] 3) are taken to an off-shore lab for medical testing. The determined, morally questionable Dr. Ricarte leads a team in charge of creating a cure for the demonic disease that transformed the residents of an apartment complex into possessed zombie-like maniacs. Ricarte’s experiments aren’t going as planned. As one thing leads to another, tensions arise between survivors and scientists. This isn’t helped by the demonic virus getting loose on this large ship!

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It’s extremely disappointing that Jaume Balaguero decided to approach the final installment from a traditional narrative as opposed to a found footage take that might have provided the scares that this horror film lacks. Even more of a let down is Balaguero removing the demonic elements from the [REC] series and rewriting the previous films’ histories. This means that [REC] 4 becomes exactly what [REC] 3 was: a generic zombie movie. As if to hammer this point home, most of the zombies look like exact duplicates of each other with very few exceptions. However, there is the rather useless addition of infected monkeys that are brought to life through sketchy CGI and cheap hand puppets. One infected monkey does serve a purpose near the middle of the film, but in a way that slaps the viewer’s intelligence with a monumentally ridiculous character decision.

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Balaguero does manage to get a few things half-right. The boat setting of [REC] 4 does feel fresh and the film is well shot during the non-zombie sequences. During zombie attacks, the camera shakes all over the place like the person holding it was having a seizure. There are also a couple of creative ideas that are never completely realized in a satisfying way. One of these involves effects of the virus on its main host and a certain character’s mysterious past is briefly glimpsed through a revelation that needed to be fleshed out further.

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Despite a couple of brief interesting ideas and a good setting, the plot is bare-bones in a bad way. By stripping the demonic possession angle out of the [REC] series and removing the actual style that made the first films so well-crafted, [REC] 4 resembles hundreds of other zombie movies that have come before. There isn’t necessarily anything special to make it stand out aside from the title. The story mainly consists of people running from one area of the boat to another area, all while repetitive confrontations between the living and zombies play out. Every zombie scene feels the same, but that doesn’t stop Jaume Balaguero from including plenty of them. Only a motor being utilized as a weapon stands out, but it’s used in an over-the-top fashion that feels desperate.

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[REC] 4 feels like the ALIEN: RESURRECTION of its franchise. Both movies abandon sensibilities that made the earlier entries so great and in the end, feel like many other generic films of their sub-genre (zombie or monster movies). Both fourth installments look visually slick (when the camera isn’t shaking all over the place in [REC] 4), but mainly consist of people running around ships (in space or on the ocean). [REC] 4 and ALIEN 4 both have creative ideas, but never flesh them out beyond a mere glimpse at the possibility of what could have played out instead of what actually happened. Like ALIEN: RESURRECTION, [REC] 4: APOCALYPSE feels a bit like a fan film…but in an even worse way. If you’re absolutely dedicated beyond belief to the [REC] franchise and dug Plaza’s [REC] 3, then you might find some fun in this grand finale. Those hoping for Jaume Balaguero to deliver a satisfying conclusion had best pretend [REC] 4 doesn’t exist.

Grade: D+

THE NAMELESS (1999)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Disturbing Images, Graphic Nudity and Language

(Spanish with English subtitles)

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Directed by: Jaume Balaguero

Written by: Jaume Balaguero

(based on the novel THE NAMELESS by Ramsey Campbell)

Starring: Emma Vilarasau, Karra Elejalde, Tristan Ulloa

THE NAMELESS is the feature film debut from Spanish horror master Jaume Balageuero. He’s made waves on the film scene with the REC, REC 2, and SLEEP TIGHT. After watching THE NAMELESS, it has become all too clear that this man arrived with humble beginnings. This film may be based on a notable novel by acclaimed horror author Ramsey Campbell, but it far from good. The adaptation may have garnered a lot of praise from certain sectors of the horror community, but it’s a definite polarizing watch. I’ve seen people loving or hating it. There isn’t much middle ground on this one and I fall squarely into the latter. This is what happens when you take an interesting idea and screw it up in nearly every possible way.

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A young girl goes missing and her body is found a short while later. The mangled, burnt, and desecrated remains of the child are so severely disfigured that the victim can only be identified by two key pieces of evidence, neither of which is fully concrete. Five years pass, the now-divorced mother (Claudia) of the murdered girl is deeply depressed. The anniversary of her daughter’s death is coming up and she’s taken a couple of weeks off work to gather herself together. That’s when the phone rings and a teenage girl’s voice on the other line claims to be the supposedly dead little girl. Working off coincidences and disturbing revelations, Claudia and Massera (the detective who discovered the body) dive into a dark mystery that involves pain, torture, and pure evil. There is a chance that Claudia’s daughter is still alive, but what will be the cost of finding her?

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After it won a notable award at the 1999 Fantasia Film Festival, Dimension films picked up THE NAMELESS for release in America. It took them until 2005 to finally get it out on DVD. They tagged along with Jaume Balaguero’s first English-language feature (DARKNESS, which had also sat on a shelf for two full years). It was a quick cash-grab and DARKNESS (though flawed in its own ways) wound up being a far superior effort from this director. To be fair to Balaguero’s writing skills, I hear that Ramsey Campbell’s novel wasn’t that great to begin with. Apparently, Balaguero actually attempted to take the story in a darker direction. The story does have a really dark conclusion and some disturbing imagery to boot, but it comes off with no rhyme or reason. In order for any of this to be affective, one must be invested in the characters at hand. I didn’t care about a single person in this entire movie. The conclusion could have been devastating, if there were enough reasons to care about what happened to any of these people. Part of this can be chalked up to hammy acting, but the remainder is strictly on the fault of a badly written script and a poorly directed film.

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Throughout the plot, every detail that should have been interesting comes off as boring. Torture, mutilation, and even a video tape of murder come off as shrug-inducing. In order to try to get a jump out of the viewer, quick editing and loud noises have been constantly thrown in as scene transitions. Think how the AUSTIN POWERS films transitioned from scene to scene with close-ups of Mike Myers surrounded by models, while groovy music played. Now apply that same technique to a horror film with supposedly spooky images (including a blood-soaked little girl) and some loud noises. It’s annoying in either context, but it’s made more aggravating in a film that the audience is supposed to take seriously. The music score is atrocious and over-the-top as well. Some potentially creepy scenes are compromised due to a silly soundtrack. Sometimes, restraint is better and Jaume Balaguero has clearly learned from this because later efforts like SLEEP TIGHT use music scores just enough to benefit the film. He also doesn’t blast them in every scene, unlike this annoying score.

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Then there’s the ending itself. It’s a plot twist so ludicrous that I was expecting M. Night Shyamalan to jump out and yell “What a twist!” It would be an understatement to say the ending isn’t the devastating revelation that it should have been. The final scene is laughable and doesn’t come off as convincing or remotely scary. With all my bitching about THE NAMELESS, one might be surprised to find that I actually did enjoy a couple of elements about this film. Even if the music score compromised most of it, the film builds a strong atmosphere in a couple of scenes. The cinematography is stunning. It’s clear that there may have been some inspirations drawn from SE7EN as far as the look of the film goes. The opening is also fairly creepy, which makes the downward spiral in quality that follows that much more disappointing.

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Slow-burn horror films can be nothing short of brilliant, but they can also be tedious wastes of time when done wrong. THE NAMELESS is the latter. This had such a promising plot that begs to be a creepy and disturbing piece of cinema. Instead, it’s a massive disappointment. Luckily, Jaume Balaguero has grown as a solid horror director throughout the years and drastically improved since. THE NAMELESS isn’t worth your time, even if you’re a horror purist. This is one of the few foreign horror films I’ve seen that could hugely benefit from a remake…

Grade: D

[REC] 2 (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Disturbing Images and Pervasive Language

(Spanish with English subtitles)

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Directed by: Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza

Written by: Jaume Balaguero, Paco Plaza & Manu Diez

Starring: Jonathan Mellor, Ariel Casas, Pau Poch, Andrea Ros & Manuela Velasco

REC 2 is the kind of sequel that all horror franchises should aim for. This isn’t a mere cash-in on a critically acclaimed horror classic. It builds on the story in new and creative ways, while also giving fans more of what we loved so much in REC. It’s not as phenomenal as that first film, which was pretty much a masterpiece in the found footage subgenre, but REC 2 is a bloody blast of fun! While the first REC was like the most immersive haunted house, REC 2 is like a demonic first-person shooter brought to life.

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Bringing back the found footage style and every member of the original cast (now as ravenous infected monsters), REC 2 picks up 15 minutes after the original movie ended. A SWAT team of four, accompanied by a health official enter the quarantined apartment building to investigate a possible antidote for the virus. The danger increases when the health official reveals himself as a priest and explains that this isn’t an ordinary illness. This is brought on by an enzyme taken from a possessed girl. In other words, the SWAT team is dealing with a building full of possessed people and they may not have enough firepower and faith to take them all down. To reveal anything more would ruin the surprises in store for potential viewers. Just know that the film takes a hard left turn halfway through and doesn’t head where you expected it to go at all.

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For the first half of the film, I was ready to chalk REC 2 up to being a better movie than the first. The scares and action never really let up. The creative ideas on display never got boring and the return of familiar faces as the possessed victims was a very nice touch. Everything from the set design to playing on familiar scares from the last film, added a new element that was making REC 2 the perfect follow-up and companion piece. None of the acting wavered either. There is one issue though…

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Halfway through the film, REC 2 takes a change of pace and after all the havoc experienced by the SWAT team, this sudden shift really took its toll on the film. (Minor Spoiler!) We follow a few other characters who make their way inside the building and these people were annoying and stupid. Making every dumb decision that we loathe horror characters for making. While the dynamic and chemistry in the SWAT team felt real, these people felt like they were reading from a script. Mercifully, we don’t put up with them for too long, but they definitely detracted from the movie.

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The ending attempts to bring things full circle to the terrifying conclusion of the original film with mixed results. There are some effective moments in the final minutes, but the whole idea on display is rather silly when you really get down to it. It’s a shame that REC 2 started off so awesome and wound up being just serviceable by the conclusion. It’s still a solid movie and a horror sequel that respects the original, but there are parts of it that just don’t quite work as well as they were probably intended to. Watch REC 2 directly after REC for the best experience possible, because these two films work as companion pieces to each other. REC 2 winds up being good, when it could have been great.

Grade: B

[REC] (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Bloody Horror Violence and Language

(Spanish with English subtitles)

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Directed by: Jaume Balaguero & Paco Plaza

Written by: Jaume Balaguero, Luis A. Berdejo & Paco Plaza

Starring: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Pablo Rosso & David Vert

REC is a film that is meant to be experienced, rather than analyzed. It’s the definition of a thrill-ride. The problem is that this ride has already been slightly soiled for those who unknowingly viewed the watered down lame remake titled QUARANTINE. That’s not to say that the film isn’t fun, but I can’t judge it for those who watched the remake before seeing this superior example of found footage terror. Of the last decade, this is one of the best examples of found footage done very right.

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Angela Vidal is a reporter for the TV program While You’re Asleep. Her new episode is covering the night life of a firefighter. As she’s interviewing the hard-working men, she says that she almost wishes the alarm would ring to liven up the episode. She gets her wish and the alarm sounds. It seems like it will be a relatively simple situation. A woman is screaming bloody murder from her locked apartment.

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Soon enough, it appears that the firefighters, a couple of police officers, the tenants of the apartment building, Angela, and her cameraman are way in over their heads. A deadly virus has broken loose inside the building. This sickness turns its victims into ravenous zombie-like cannibals. To make matters worse, they’ve all been sealed inside the apartment complex by the government. As the night progresses, the situation grows even more terrifying by every minute that passes. We watch as the footage reveals a worst-case scenario gone straight to hell and it makes for a scary ride!

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REC benefits from having the guerilla style filmmaking down perfectly. Everything seems natural and realistic, even when the situation spirals into a whirlwind of chaos. If you get right down to it, REC is one jump scare after another, but they’re all well-executed and handled with skill. This is a movie made to be an experience. It grabs you from the moment we enter the apartment of an elderly woman covered in blood and doesn’t let go for the remainder of the film.

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The big apartment building becomes a claustrophobic deathtrap as the movie goes on. This feels REAL and that’s what makes REC stand out among many of its found footage brethren. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the film runs under 80 minutes, making for a tight film. The part that may lose some viewers’ interest is in the middle section, where it seems like things might be dying down for a bit. Rest assured, right when the film has gotten you comfortable, REC goes off the rails and proceeds to get scarier and scarier and even scarier!

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The final moments of REC have cemented their place in many horror fans’ hearts as one of the most terrifying endings to ever grace the cinematic world. Though QUARANTINE went so far to spoil some of the fun by including the second-to-last shot in their posters, TV spots, and trailers, REC still stands the test of being able to hold its own. Definitely check out REC and forget that awful Jennifer Carpenter imitation even exists!

Grade: A

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