The negative reviews of the new "[REC]" sequel, "[REC] 3: Genesis," all strike a similar chord. The first two films in the Spanish horror series were found footage movies, but several scenes in, "Genesis" literally puts down the camera and mutates into a more conventionally shot and structured horror film with flashes of comedy. Many critics like the approach -- some called it refreshing, others compared the film favorably to the works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson -- but those that don't all pinpoint director Paco Plaza's decision to abandon the mock-documentary format. For example:
"'[Rec] 3: Genesis' is a jarring and somewhat unwelcome shift into comedic territory for the successful Spanish found footage zombie series... while the first two '[Rec]' movies were exercises in sustained tension, made more effective due to the extended shots and claustrophobic point of view of the first person camera, this sequel’s rather pedestrian style means that most potentially frightening moments are telegraphed well in advance." -- Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr.
"The most effective scenes in '[REC] 3: Genesis' are the early ones, prior to disaster striking. Opening with a fake DVD menu screen, the first twenty minutes or so take on the appearance of a genuine wedding video. Instantly immersive, the first act, as it were, sets up the characters and the joyous celebratory nature of the event especially well, with most viewers painfully aware of how downhill everything is about to go. Once the style change occurs, director Paco Plaza loses his way, unable to think of a single set-piece that's the least bit frightening or unnerving." -- Dustin Putnam, DustinPutnam.com
"'[REC] 3' is a complete failure as a '[REC]' film, but to be honest if it was an unrelated stand-alone movie the issues may not have been so obvious or damaging. It’s fast moving and features a handful of thrills along the way, but even on its own terms it’s a minor affair. But as part of an ongoing and wholly terrifying universe it’s little more than a bloody disappointment." -- Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects
Hunter's review is particularly striking. He calls it a complete failure as a sequel, but not necessarily a complete failure as a movie. It seems possible that if "[REC] 3" had been titled "Zombie Wedding" and made no attempt to connect to the previous two installments, he might not have disliked it as much. Or maybe even at all.
His comments hit on a question that floats through movie culture every couple of years: what makes a good sequel? Does a sequel need to fulfill the conventions of the previous movie in the series or can it strike out for new territory? What is more important: how it stands on its own or how it stands together with its predecessors? Is a sequel its own entity or a building block of a larger unit of storytelling?
The last time I remember having this conversation was last spring, during the release of "The Hangover Part II." The first "Hangover" felt fresh and new: with rising comic stars like Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis, and a clever and unusual storytelling structure. The film was risky and edgy, and it ended up grossing $467 million worldwide. The second "Hangover" felt stale and recycled: the stars, the structure, even specific jokes. The film was safe and predictable -- and it made $581 million worldwide. Critics argued that "The Hangover Part II" was a terrible sequel, a cynical rehash of the original. But audiences disagreed in massive numbers.
This is part of the strange creative hypocrisy of sequels. The movies that inspire sequels are invariably the most creative and innovative, but the follow-ups they inspire are often required to abandon the qualities that made the first film successful. With each repetition, a bold narrative structure becomes a blueprint, and then a formula, and then a cliché. To put it another way: viewers often want the second film in a series to look like the first film, even though they liked the first film specifically because it didn't look like anything else.
Which brings us back to "[REC] 3." Some critics like it and some don't -- but everyone agrees it is different than the previous films. What we're talking about here, although we haven't used the word yet, are expectations. If we expect found footage horror and don't get it, we might be disappointed. Conversely, if we hate found footage horror, we might be happy with the surprising results.
There is no right or wrong way to make a sequel -- and we shouldn't discount the idea that some critics who don't like "[REC] 3" are more frustrated by the execution than the concept. Still, it's odd that so many original movies take chances and then inspire sequels that are expected not to take chances.