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The Fashionably Late Review: Quarantine

August 30, 2011

(Ed. note: The Fashionably Late Review is a critique of a film released in the last two or so years — potentially with spoilers, so it can be appropriately reviewed in its entirety. So be warned. If you really wanted to see the following film, you’d have seen it by now.)

I went into Quarantine with low expectations, since a good friend of mine whose horror-film tastes tend to mirror my own strongly suggested that I avoid it.  He had watched it after hearing it was a remake of the Spanish film REC, widely regarded as one of the scariest movies of 2000-2009.  I had not and still have not seen REC, so I had no frame of reference.  That’s for the best, however, because while Quarantine wasn’t as poo as my buddy made it out to be, it could not possibly have done its forebear justice.

Rather than dismiss it as entirely derivative, even though it is supposedly a shot-for-shot remake, I decided to try to judge the film on its own merits.  It employs the shaky-cam documentary style, which seemed fresh with 1999’s The Blair Witch Project but was wearing thin by 2008.  (To be fair, REC came out not much earlier, in 2007.)  Predictably, the movie enjoys the benefits and suffers from the flaws of the shaky-cam style.  Narrative and scenic tensions build well, since we can hear things transpiring off-screen but we can only see what crosses in front of the lens.  However, the motion is often jarring and disorienting since small camera movements lead to blurred and indecipherable visuals.  The first part of the movie avoids this, using the camera wisely to focus on “candid” expressions, panning shots, etc.  When the action starts and the characters run up and down the stairs, though, the limitations of this technique are really laid bare.  This cinema-verite feel also has the weird effect of making things feel less, well, verite, since actors must act like they’re not acting, and use contrived dialog desperately trying to seem uncontrived.  Not easy to do, and I’m not convinced Quarantine succeeds.

That said, Jennifer Carpenter initially does well as the high-energy and game reporter Angela Vidal.  She’s supposed to be in front of the camera and so she naturally eats up most of the screen time, which makes her character’s descent into the ever-shrieking and virtually useless Heather Donahue-type (Blair Witch) disappointing and annoying.  Almost all of the other characters are boring stereotypes, nothing more than placeholders who can get munched on and messily dispatched.  That’s not a bad thing for a horror film, but hardly the recipe for a memorable one.

The first-person video style also has a plot-structure drawback: to film everything, the camera must always be on.  From the beginning, the police officers indicate that the camera crew is to stop filming when instructed to do so.  But barely 25 minutes into the film when the shit hits the fan, the police and firemen give only impotent hand gestures and pursed-lip head shakes to show their disapproval of the constant filming—rather than the enraged ass-kicking and camera-breaking and memory card-destroying that would probably ensue.  What is interesting, though, is how the movie sort of reverses the usual virus plot.  Normally a small outbreak spreads to a larger area, terrifying a general public that doesn’t know what the group near “patient zero” knows.  Quarantine, however, is about isolation: the public at large knows something that the people sealed inside the building don’t.  Those trapped inside know only that entire street has been blocked off, with not just police but military personnel.

Though that part of the story works, some other minor thematic elements feel forced.  The film can’t decide whether or not the building should have its own Overlook Hotel-ish, ominous “feel.”  It’s really not necessary, since it doesn’t play into the exposition and the ambience is already creepy due to the washed out, weak lighting, and the fact that there are freaking enraged bloodthirsty mutants running loose in a confined space.  The last half of the movie commits some cardinal sins, not least that it becomes not much more than a run-of-the-mill zombie flick.  Even after seeing the infected tear people to shreds, the policeman and firefighter insist on using soft voices and coaxing to defuse calm down the rabid tenants.  Guess what?  They get chomped. Also, at the very end, Quarantine decides it should explain exactly why this has all happened by shoehorning in a totally random and unnecessary afterthought exposition scene, complete with creepy newspaper clippings and a reel-to-reel that plays too slowly so that it makes low, demonic sounds.  (Oh, and neither the cameraman or news anchor even knows what a frigging reel-to-reel is.)  Then Quarantine decides it will go full Blair Witch and switch to night vision.  From there on out, it’s glowy eyes and things that jump out and go boo.  And from the back of the DVD box, the only way we know that any of this happened is that someone found the footage!

Lest this review seem too down on the movie, there are some genuinely surprising and scary scenes, but not enough to separate it from the pack.  For completeness’s sake I’ll watch almost any zombie or disease-outbreak movie, so I don’t regret watching Quarantine.  I just don’t know that I can ask you to do the same.

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