Most are familiar with director Jaume Balagueró as one of the co-creators responsible for one of the most terrifying series in modern horror, [Rec], but the rest of his genre dedicated filmography doesn’t have as big of a following as it should. Balagueró comes from a class of Spanish filmmakers, along with the likes of J.A. Bayona, Paco Plaza, and Alejandro Amenábar, who created a new wave of horror at the turn of the century. Their films didn’t just put horror on the map in Spain, a country where horror was relatively sparse prior, but it made the rest of the world take notice, too. Balagueró’s films prove he’s adept at both physical and psychological terror, and a unique voice in horror worth paying attention to.
This independent Spanish horror film marked the director’s feature debut, and it also happens to be the least known among his works. A slow build horror thriller that opens with a police crime scene in which the body of a small child is found stuffed down a well. The grisly autopsy that follows shows the body mutilated beyond recognition and proves the poor child suffered horribly before death. Only a piece of jewelry can help the parents identify the body as their own missing child. Flash forward five years later, where mom Claudia still hasn’t moved on. She receives a call one day from her dead child, claiming that dead body was a plant by those that took her, and she’s still very much alive. It sets off a twisty spider’s web of conspiracy as Claudia seeks to solve the mystery of who was on the phone, and what really happened to her missing daughter years ago.
That slowness is likely to put off viewers, but Balagueró takes his time building mystery and unnerving cult lore. The deaths are gruesome, and The Nameless are super creepy. It’s here that he establishes his fearlessness in refusing to wrap things up in a tidy, happy bow. The Nameless didn’t make its way stateside until after his English debut, though, making this 1999 release one of the decade’s most underseen horror films.
Balagueró’s English language debut didn’t fare well upon release stateside on Christmas day in 2004, at least not critically anyway. It’s easy to understand why. The marketing presented Darkness as a familiar haunted house tale, which turned out not to be the case at all, and the ending was pretty grim – far from the norm at the time, especially for a Christmas release. It also didn’t help that despite the rich occult mythology at the heart of the film, Balagueró hadn’t quite mastered his storytelling yet and Darkness could be vague at times.
The plot follows an American family as they settle into a home that was the site of the disappearance of six children forty years prior. The move alone would be stressful for any family, but patriarch Mark (Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen) is suffering from Huntington’s disease, and his symptomatic outbursts put an additional strain on his wife, Maria (Lena Olin), teen daughter Regina (Anna Paquin), and young son Paul (Stephan Enquist). While Paul seems susceptible to the ghosts of the house’s sordid past and Maria clings to denial, it’s Regina that delves into the house’s horrifying history in the hopes of saving her loved ones. Spooky set pieces and a unique, bleak story steeped in occultism demonstrated a lot of burgeoning potential for the director.
The director’s third feature film, a Spanish-British production, showed remarkable growth. The story was tighter, more focused, and downright terrifying. If you’re a fan of supernatural horror films, anyway. Nurse Amy Nicholls (Calista Flockhart) is fleeing her own guilt-ridden past by taking up a night shift at a rundown hospital preparing to close. She’s to watch over the children’s ward, while they’re all fast asleep, but the kids keep waking from random injuries. As Amy tries to prevent further injuries to her patients, the children tell of Charlotte, a girl who inhabits the abandoned floor upstairs.
That’s right, this is a haunted hospital story. In Balagueró’s hands, though, it’s pretty terrifying no matter how familiar the tropes. It also helps that there’s a pretty sweet story that engenders itself to the viewer well, between Amy’s desire for redemption and her emotionally engaging bond with orphan Maggie. Charlotte is one of the creepiest entities of the early aughts, too. Quick paced, charming story, and extremely creepy scares, Fragile is the perfect bridge between the director’s earlier occult tales and the intense found footage modern classic yet to come.
This made for TV movie follows a young couple trying to find a short-term place to live after selling their apartment. They discover an out of the way building with an empty flat, but the landlady doesn’t seem to want to let them leave. Ever. It’s atmospheric and tense, as the young couple (who are expecting their first child) are trapped inside with deranged people. Though, it is plagued with dumb people making dumb choices, it’s far more intense and bloody than most TV movies.
To Let was part of the new Films to Keep you Awake, or Películas para no dormir, series that aired in Spain in 2007. Balagueró’s twisty film was the second entry in this revival.
Balagueró teamed up with Paco Plaza, who he’d previously worked with on a 2002 documentary, to co-helm the decade’s scariest horror movie. The pair erased any doubts that there was life left in the found footage subgenre with [Rec], a film that followed reporter Angela Vidal and her cameraman as they cover the night shift of a local fire station for her reality series While You’re Sleeping. It’s all going well until they accompany two firefighters on a call to a local apartment building, where one is attacked and bitten by an aggressive older woman. When they find they can’t remove the injured due to a quarantine, others soon fall ill and attack, leaving the survivors fleeing and fighting for their lives.
The word “gamechanger” isn’t one to be thrown around lightly, but [Rec] is every bit deserving of the word as it completely altered the rules of outbreak horror and the zombie subgenre. To elaborate further would be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that the background of the source infection is not one that’s easily predictable. Plaza and Balagueró deliver a tightly wound, nail-biting thriller that brings the horror in every sense, right up to its terrifying conclusion.
Picking up immediately where the first film leaves off, [Rec] 2 saw Plaza and Balagueró reteaming to expand this creepy universe in a thrilling way. The core group of characters this sequel centers on is Dr. Owen, a Ministry of Health representative, and a GEO team armed and sent into the quarantined apartment to investigate. There’s also a trio of curious teens who decide to sneak past police and quarantine officials to find an underground entrance into the apartment, bringing the father of Jennifer (the infected girl from the first film) with them. Some characters prove to have hidden motives, while many of the others come to regret ever stepping foot into the building in the first place.
Claustrophobic and full of well-executed jump scares, you get a feeling that long-time friends Plaza and Balagueró were having a ball creating atmosphere and spooky set pieces. For all of the mystery in the first film, this sequel explains the interesting mythology behind the zombie-like outbreak in spades. In other words, this sequel feels more like the other complementary half to its predecessor.
The job of helming [Rec] 3: Genesis fell solely on the shoulders of Plaza, and that’s because Balagueró was busy directing one of the few films to truly get under my skin; Sleep Tight. Trading physical horror for psychological, Sleep Tight follows perpetual pessimist Cesar (Luis Tosar), a concierge at an apartment building who seeks to make everyone around him as miserable as he is. But new tenant Clara (Marta Etura) is unflappable in her happiness, driving Cesar to demented lengths to break her spirit. While Clara is fast asleep in the seeming security of her own apartment, she’s oblivious that Cesar is usually lying in wait under her bed so he can tamper with her things, her life, while she’s asleep.
Balagueró takes everything he’s learned in building fear and pours it into this deeply unsettling twist on a home invasion film, with the viewer forced to get up close and personal with psychopathic Cesar by telling the story from his point of view, as his vendetta against Clara gets darker and darker. Disturbing, uncomfortable, and a chilling master class in tension, Sleep Tight is Balagueró at his best.
[REC] 4: Apocalypse
Plaza passed the director baton to Balagueró for this sequel, who helmed the final entry in the popular [Rec] series on his own. Picking up immediately after the events of the second film, the Army sends in a special task force team to demolish the building. One officer hears Angela Vidal’s screams for help, though, and saves her. Angela later wakes up on a ship out at sea, and soon discovers the virus has followed her. Granted, fans of [Rec] 2 know why that is.
Here’s where I’ll catch some flack; this sequel isn’t terrible. It doesn’t reach the same edge-of-your-seat highs as the first two films, but it does thematically tie everything together. It gives Angela a satisfying story arch, too, as the helpless damsel turned villain turned ass-kicking final girl. Also, Balagueró always said in interviews that the most important thing in creating a found footage film is to justify the existence of the camera’s usage. If it doesn’t make sense for the camera to still be rolling, it’s going to take the audience out of the story. He steadfastly holds to that rule by dropping the found footage aspect and going traditional. I’ll also give him credit for making some bold choices in the overall mythology, even if it doesn’t all work. Though [Rec] 4: Apocalypse may be the weakest of the series, it doesn’t mean much considering just how great the series is as a whole.
Here’s to hoping Balagueró keeps finding new ways to exploit our fears. Which film is your favorite?