**½/**** Image B Sound B Extras B-
starring Jennifer Carpenter, Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Jonathon Schaech
screenplay by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle, based on the motion picture [REC] by Jamie Balageuro & Luis A. Berdejo & Paco Plaza
directed by John Erick Dowdle
by Bryant Frazer Blood and saliva flow freely in this faux-documentary mash-up of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead and The Blair Witch Project as a group of humans--residents, cops, firefighters, and TV journalists--are locked inside a quarantined L.A. apartment building where a strange, virulent infection is passing from person to person, turning them into powerful, frothing killing machines who'd just as soon take a bite out of your neck as look at you. The film begins as spunky soft-news reporter Angela (Jennifer Carpenter, best-known from Showtime's "Dexter") is shadowing a group of firefighters on the overnight shift. The first fifteen minutes or so comprise a getting-to-know-you collection of playful firehouse moments between Angela and two of the more handsome devils on duty (Jay Hernandez and Johnathon Schaech) before the movie segues smoothly into an extended, single-location horror show characterized by very long takes and an elaborate, almost theatrical blocking that makes Quarantine feel somewhat akin to a filmed stage play. It's the sort of premise John Carpenter could have nailed in the 1980s.
Many of Quarantine's strengths are, simultaneously, weaknesses. The first-person narrative gimmick is successful as long as it isn't drawing undue attention to itself, which happens too often. (Quite aside from the shaky camerawork, the constant recourse to swift, jittery zooms in and out becomes almost comical.) The closed-in space works to its advantage when unexpected jolts are dropped into the mise-en-scène, but the location--same lobby, same stairwell, same apartments--quickly becomes tiring. The relatively small group of survivors keeps things lean and manageable, but it harbingers a familiar slasher-style approach as the characters are knocked off one-by-one. Eventually you get the feeling of a film that's equally worried about peaking too soon and overstaying its welcome. Scrambling to stay one step ahead of audience fatigue, Quarantine has nothing else to do but ratchet up the chaos one notch at a time. It does the job efficiently enough, though there's a hokey, over-rehearsed feel to the vérité shooting style that keeps too many of the film's chills at bay. (By the way, if you haven't seen Quarantine's trailer yet, steer well clear. It's one of the crudest, most disrespectful sales pitches I've seen since the heyday of '70s exploitation--a step-by-step reveal of every plot point in the film, from the first scenes to the very last shot!)I suppose you can add a half-star or more to the rating atop this column if you have not seen and/or are unlikely to track down the awkwardly-titled but scary-as-hell Spanish movie [REC], on which Quarantine is based. Both films consist solely of allegedly found footage from Angela's cameraman, much of it nearly identical on a shot-for-shot basis, although [REC] is superior and more unsettling in just about every regard, from its creepier script and more visceral performances to the lower-budget art direction and slightly-less-polite special-effects design. The biggest problem with Quarantine is that, in a cinematic universe that already includes [REC], it has no reason to exist--except that the U.S. rights holder has declined to release [REC], presumably to protect the marketability of this very faithful remake. However, [REC] is currently available on DVD in Canada, and I recommend it highly.
If you can't get hold of [REC], Quarantine may do in a pinch. After all, it shamelessly apes the first film. Quarantine's creators--the main team consists of John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote and directed, and brother Drew Dowdle, who co-wrote and executive-produced--expand the story by writing in more characters, and thus more gooey situations, extending the film's running time to a still-slender 89 minutes. They've also opted to dispel some of the old-school eeriness of the earlier film, developing a quasi-scientific background for the carnage that's explained when one of the new characters, a veterinarian, takes the audience to Expositiontown. A couple of vicious set-pieces--the first involving an elevator and the second employing the camera itself as a lethal weapon--are entertaining distractions, yet the characters are cut from awfully thin sheets of cardboard and the final reel is somewhat less hair-raising than it ought to be.
In some ways, the difference between the two films feels political. While [REC] briefly explored racism and paranoia among the apartment-dwellers, Quarantine demonstrates next to no interest in those dynamics. And while [REC] subtly implicates the Vatican in the goings-on, Quarantine substitutes a vague bio-terror conspiracy. In other words, where the American version plays like a Bush Administration talking point, the Spanish film feels a little more subversive, a little messier, from the get-go. And when it comes to horror movies, grit beats establishment gloss almost every time.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Quarantine was shot with the Sony F23, the same next-generation HD video camera that was used on Speed Racer, and it produces appropriately silky imagery. The transfer on this Blu-ray Disc, encoded using the VC-1 codec and letterboxed to 1.85:1, is all but completely free of noise--I detected just a hint of some, more a subtle twinkling than anything resembling film grain. That makes sense, because the F23 is said to excel in low-light situations, but I wonder if the image hasn't been processed a tad too aggressively. Stepping through a couple of scenes with limited lighting and fast pans, I could see a number of frames with the kind of ghosting that is often a sign of overzealous noise reduction. Overall, the picture seems a bit soft but still pleasing, with high-contrast highlights standing out sharply against somewhat crushed blacks. Certainly the look is appropriate for a feature made up of supposedly TV-broadcast-quality footage. In keeping with the POV, the soundtrack (Dolby TrueHD 5.1 in English and Portuguese; Dolby Digital 5.1 in French and Spanish) is mainly built from front-and-centre dialogue-and-effects tracks--though there are nice ambient effects (the din of sirens and helicopters hovering outside) in the surround channels, as well as more than a few inexplicable multi-channel bumps and whooshes during the action scenes that enhance the film's manic, haunted-house milieu.
Special features (all standard-definition) aren't plentiful, though they're in line with the film's aspirations and achievements. "Locked In: The Making of Quarantine" (10 mins.) is your typical B-roll doc, except in this case the B-roll is something special. The camera was tethered to a data recorder, meaning the cameraman had to be wary of a whole mess of cables hanging out the back of the unit. Footage here shows the kind of coordination required on set as the camera operator spins around and the rest of the crew dances behind him, keeping the wiring out of his way and out of view. There's also a brief visual illustration demonstrating how invisible edits and fake zooms were worked into the footage. It's worth a viewing. "Dressing the Infected: Robert Hall's Makeup Design" (7 mins.) is the SFX featurette that's de rigueur for this type of film; based on the evidence, Hall really knows his stuff. The bite-size "Anatomy of a Stunt" (3 mins.) offers a brief look at the shooting of one of the film's more impressive moments, alas stopping short of revealing how the greenscreen effect was finished in post-production.
Finally, there's a feature-length audio commentary with the Dowdles. They seem like nice enough guys, but I was blown away by their apparent refusal to throw so much as a nodding glance in the direction of their source material. The Dowdles name-drop their debut feature, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, at least half a dozen times but offer not a single mention of [REC]. (They even discuss their execution of what's probably Quarantine's single biggest, most reliable scare without acknowledging that it was copied verbatim from the previous film!) It's possible a decision was made by studio bigwigs to elide all references to [REC] from the commentary and featurettes. If so, it's not only misguided but also has the knock-on effect of making the filmmakers look like they're trying to hornswoggle unwitting viewers. Although a few tidbits of info--such as the news that the film was shot in chronological order, or the brothers' definition of a "Texas switch"--are mildly enlightening, unless you're a big fan it would be tough to justify the outlay of time. Trailers are included for The Passengers, Resident Evil: Degeneration, Vacancy 2: The First Cut, Lakeview Terrace, Pineapple Express, and Hancock. It's a middling package of extras for a middling horror movie--albeit one that might rate a little better than middling if a clearly superior version didn't exist. Originally published: February 16, 2009. Updated: February 18, 2009.