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Shriekfest 2010: “[REC],” “Candyman,” “28 Days Later”

“[REC]” (2007)
Starring Manuela Velasco, Pablo Rosso, Claudia Silva, Ana Velasquez

Most horror films try to give us a jolt or two, but the great ones tap into those way-down-deep primitive fears we try to pretend we’re too evolved to have. In the frenetic and chilling “[REC],” directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza accomplish this task with not much more than a hand-held video camera, an apartment building and a small cast required to react more than act. Presented as found footage, the film details a routine day of shooting for Spanish TV reporter Ángela Vidal (Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo (Rosso) that turns ghoulish. The pair, getting footage for a documentary TV show, tail a fire crew on a distress call to a Barcelona apartment complex. A crazed elderly woman attacks one of the firemen, the building is swiftly quarantined and the alarmed residents are told nothing. That first chomp-down gives “[REC]” a violent shove into action overdrive, with an infection turning the trapped residents into raving, uncontrollable creatures. The jittery camerawork is an ace fit for the tight setting, and there are off-camera bangs and shrieks aplenty in the dark to keep the terror quotient consistently high. Given the volatile setting and lickety-split pace, the characters-as-types approach works well (there’s no time to care about the people as anything other than humans). And the ending, a sublime combination of claustrophobia, nyctophobia and our fear of unexplained noises, is a harrowing descent into hell. A-

“Candyman” (1992)
Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, Xander Berkeley, Kasi Lemmons

“Candyman,” with its focus on the pervasiveness of urban legends, tells a familiar story from an unusual perspective. Instead of morality play about the dangers of meddling kids with too much time on their hands and a death wish, Clive Barker’s film spins a bizarre, spooky and downright metaphorical yarn about how these legends not only survive but thrive through the years. Helen Lyle (Madsen), a graduate student, wants to author a thesis on urban legends. There is one in particular – of a murderous spirit called “Candyman” (Tony Scott) who haunts a crime-ridden Chicago housing project and may have killed a tenant there – that intrigues her. She and her friend Bernadette (Lemmons) attempt to summon the spirit, believed to be a murdered slave with an understandable grudge, in her bathroom mirror and laugh nervously when nothing happens. Oh, would that it were that easy. In summoning Candyman, Helen gives him free reign of her mind. She begins to have blackouts, people around her meet gruesome ends and the police hold her directly responsible. And to a degree, Helen wonders if she is guilty – of stirring memories best left slumbering, of feeding Candyman the fear and hysteria he needs to keep killing. Scott’s sinister performance is fodder for permanent night terrors. Deeper and scarier than Scott, though, is the notion that we create such legends and never let them starve. It’s a fate we doom ourselves to over and over. B

“28 Days Later” (2002)
Starring Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Megan Burns, Brendan Gleeson

Just when zombie films started to get that icky, not-so-fresh feeling, along came “28 Days Later.” Danny Boyle has given the genre the makeover it badly needed. For starters, the “zombies” in question aren’t zombies at all, but human beings driven mad in 20 seconds (or less) by an unnamed disease. Replace the ragtag group of anonymous, generic survivors with Jim (Murphy), a London bicycle courier who awakens from a coma to find the world burning; Selena (Harris), whose has learned that surviving an apocalypse is easier when logic squashes feelings; and Frank (Gleeson) and Hannah (Burns), a father and daughter who, out of sheer emotional necessity, open their lives to Serena and Jim. They form an unconventional family and decide to strike out toward Manchester, where a crackly radio broadcast informs him the militia possesses “the answer to infection” – a decision with predictably awful (yet still surprising) consequences. Key to “28 Days Later,” which is part psychological thriller and part end-of-days tale, is the dreary cinematography and the taut atmosphere Boyle creates. He avoids the gore clichés, the “Boo!” scenes and the spare, obvious musical chords of warning, at every possible chance. So when the shocks come, they feel as uncalculated as everyday life gone horribly wonky. Murphy, Gleeson, Burns and especially Harris offer sympathetic — and intensely human — characters that make this situation more poignant than anyone would expect. A

Nolan elegantly probes world of dreams in “Inception”

The Forger (Tom Hardy) and the Point Man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) dream of big guns in "Inception."

“Star Trek” touted space as “the final frontier.” Christopher Nolan’s expansive, brain-bending “Inception” makes a case for human dreams as the true unexplored, untapped realm. There’s an underbelly of reason there. The outer boundaries of dreams — even more than the blackness of space — could be unknowable, or just inconceivable. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief-for-hire who invades the subconscious of his mark and steals information, spends more time in dreams than in reality. He believes he can navigate the human subconscious better than anyone and that he can control his own.

The characters in “Inception” feel much like the people in human dreams — ephemeral and furtive, but with an element of humanity that smudges the line between the conscious mind and the subconscious. There is a core of emotion to them that sets “Inception” far apart from typical heist films (the scenery and the apocalyptic-feeling Hans Zimmer score do the rest). We know little about Dom’s team members, but their interactions provide some real-world touchstones. Though these people could be projections of someone’s subconscious, but that’s beside the point. They instill a level of trust between viewers and the director. Dom’s capable team consists of Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the point man who researches Dom’s marks; Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger whose arguments with Arthur supply the film’s funniest moments; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a young architect Dom hires on his father’s (Michael Caine) recommendation; and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist skilled at creating sedatives. The job, proposed by business tycoon Saito (Ken Wantanabe), will be the trickiest Dom has attempted: infiltrate the mind of Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), heir to his father’s company, and plant the idea to dismantle his inheritence. This, however, is not an in-and-out job. Dom and crew must descend into dreams within dreams and root the idea in catharsis. Yet the deeper Dom goes into Robert’s dreams, the deeper he goes into his own, and Dom’s memories of his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) are bursting their prison.

Much like “Memento,” the structure of “Inception” defies linear analysis. The beginning, middle and end are there; they bleed into one another. Besides, the story is dreamlike in the way the beginning is hazy. All the immediacy lies in the middle, which is where viewers find themselves. There are dreams and meta-dreams and even dreams inside those; Nolan fashions these dreams, designed by Ariadne and populated by the mark’s minds, like everlasting gobstoppers. The dream layers seem interminable, and the only way to leave them is through a kick: the feeling of falling, or death, in a dream. There’s only one way to determine reality from a dream, and that’s the presence of a person’s totem, an artifact or self-made object. (Dom’s metal top is integral to the fabric of the story and to his memory of Mal and the part of his subconscious only Ariadne has seen.) The thought of making visible this shifting other plain boggles the mind, but Nolan — with an astronomical budget and shoots in six countries — pulls it off. He’s limited only by his imagination, and his imagination is vast. Mountain fortresses on snowy peaks, cliffs collapsing into the ocean, trains that barrel down city streets, fights in revolving hotel halls — these are sights that demand and deserve marveling. Wally Pfister’s cinematography, when combined with Zimmer’s trumpeting score and Nolan’s gift for confounding, is a sight to see.

More surprising than the images and the stunts, though, are the characters. Written in true Nolan fashion, they are not swallowed up by their majestic surroundings. Page finds curiosity and, better still, empathy in Ariadne, both amazed and horrified by the job she’s accepted. Hardy and Gordon-Levitt are a dream comedy team, lightening the atmosphere with their bickering, while Watanabe is no-holds-barred intensity. We can’t discern how close to the vest Saito is playing, and Watanabe doesn’t want us to. The talents of Caine and Cotillard continue to make impressive what should be minor parts. DiCaprio’s Dom is becoming the actor’s specialty: the man eaten away by pain and guilt he’s convinced he can hide from everyone. He assumes he’s the architect when it’s possible he’s as lost as everyone else.

Grade: A-