The appeal of handy-cam horror movies is the realism. REC is one of the best horror movies I've seen in years, it is fucked up and awesome. But even in a movie as smart and scary as REC, the realism winds up being a problem, too.
Aside from the danger of nausea, the biggest flaw with these movies is the constant screaming. And yes, it might be realistic that characters would just go screaming from one horrible scene to the next, but oh my god it gets grating. Sometimes realism just isn't interesting. In actual speech people spend a lot of time saying, "um" and "like," but those things make for boring and awkward movie dialogue. Good dialogue conveys realism without actually being as dull as real language. Why can't this be done with screaming, too?
REC knows that it is a problem. This is a film made by people who know what they're doing. They know the limitations of the form, and they do their best to minimize the problem. There are sections where the sound cuts out of the camera, or where the volume drops like the audio is malfunctioning. These moments provide a welcome break from the screams, but aren't the solution we need.
Why can't screaming be scary in horror movies again? It is just the default response to shit going foul. There's no need for acting, people just scream and run around flailing their arms. Watching people screaming isn't scary. And I never remember anything from these scenes. The scenes that stick with me are the few moments where the movie surprises me, or chills me. In REC there is only one memorable screaming scene.
The camera crew arrive at the building with firemen, and are led to the apartment of an old woman by police. The old woman is covered in blood and attacks one of the cops, and everyone freaks out, screaming, yelling, and they carry the bleeding cop back downstairs. Downstairs they find the doors they just entered are blocked off, and there are health authorities outside. They are quarantined. Nobody knows what is going on, and the characters start fighting with one another. It is a hectic series of revelations that changes our focus again and again. First we're focused on the old woman, then escape, then the cop's injuries, then the quarantine, then who is in charge. It's like a regular survival horror movie on fast forward. And then a body drops screaming from nowhere and lands right in the middle of their argument with a sickening wet crunch.
THAT scream stuck with me. It started quiet and grew faster than I could understand, at first I couldn't even figure out what the sound was. And then the body hit. It was unexpected and it was horrific and it was over before I realized exactly what was going on. It loomed larger in my imagination than it lasted in the film, and it stuck with me. When I describe the movie to friends, that's the scene I always describe first.
REC begins with a long section introducing the main character and creating a feeling of normalcy and calm. We don't really grow to like the main character, or understand her particularly well, but it is an effective opening in any case. She's established as real. And when the fucked up shit happens, it happens fast. This is REC's biggest strength, I think. The violence isn't on screen for very long in the jumble of the camera. We don't have enough time to judge whether it's real or not, like the violence in the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It happens and then we're left with a brief memory while we try to understand what we saw and what it means. Less isn't more, exactly. But it's better.