Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Quarantine (2008)

American remake of the well-received Spanish film [REC] takes the now-familiar stunt of offering what is purportedly a documentary hewn from found footage, and drives it to hyperbolic extremes. Quarantine recounts a few horrid hours in the experience of a reporter for a flaky late-night current affairs show, Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter), shooting a puff piece on fire-fighters, and, along with her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris), getting trapped along with the crew she’s following in a Los Angeles apartment building within which a mysterious disease infects the inhabitants, driving them to commit explosive acts of insensible, homicidal rage. After a deceptively light-hearted, deftly acted opening describing Angela’s efforts to produce a piece of slick TV filler alternating with vigorous flirtation with her two assigned guides, Jake (Jay Hernandez) and Fletcher (Jonathan Schaech), inflected with a finely realised sense of the everyday, the film plunges straight into a situation that supercharges the basic story of 1986’s Warning Sign.

Surely uppermost in the minds of the makers of [REC], and still viable here, is the ghostly cultural memory of the cruel expedience often employed in dark times of bricking up victims of plague in old European cities: the resurgence of medievalist exigency into contemporary life is a popular flourish in modern horror. That’s blended here with some cynical, very modern anti-establishment paranoia in which goons with guns arrive to keep the building’s inhabitants, and the unlucky rescue workers and TV crew with them, quarantined within the structure, which becomes then a shadowy maze crawling with lunatics. When they manage to get a television working, they find they’ve been condemned to certain death as the police chief (Michael Potter) states the building is empty. A veterinarian (Greg Germann), examining victims of the disease, recognises them as suffering from a mutated version of rabies, and a cleverly enigmatic climax suggests the outbreak is the result of government research hijacked by religious extremists who sought to release an “armageddon virus” on the world.

Whilst implacable authoritarian force is being exerted from outside, inside the clashes between police and firemen and journalists suggest a miniature, adrenalised discourse on social institutions, with outraged and hysterical cops pointing guns to enforce their authority, and Angela and Scott refusing to switch off their camera, asserting the necessity of their making a record of the truth. This in itself makes a different argument to some other works in this little sub-genre of first-person thrill-rides, in which the immediacy of the style is usually intended to imply a curious divorcement from reality on the part of the shooters, and therefore critiquing a media-soaked modern world. Here, on the other hand, Angela and Scott’s dedication to their journalistic job becomes in the end the only possible good to come out of the situation.

Quarantine displays both the unique qualities and pitfalls of the contemporary brand of horror film. The intensity of the on-screen drama, in which everything turns to pure chaos within moments and the horror rolls on with relentless, unscrupulous purpose, is gripping and hypnotic. Whilst gore and grotesquery are plentiful, it’s often only captured in brief, disorientating, indelible snatches, full of curtailed visions of little girls gnawing on men’s faces and what’s left of dog-ravaged corpses. But the breathless pace and unremitting subordination of depth to a spook-house sensibility, with protagonists constantly running and dodging a growing populace of snapping, snarling diseases pseudo-zombies, and the filmmakers more busily engaged in playing with audience expectations then in wringing out a genuine sense of frail humanity, robs it of much potential power. The microcosmic possibilities offered by the building’s multicultural mix of obnoxious yuppies, bourgeois arty types, illegal immigrants, solitary elderly folk and denuded nuclear families don’t develop beyond the merely sketchy.

George Romero once floored filmgoers with having a little girl eat her own father and stab her mother to death, the kind of ruthless twist no-one had ever dared on screen before. But Quarantine confirms that sort of terse amorality as now merely par for the course, and the beats of this merciless variety of film have become just about as predictable as the sort of familiar, formulaic fare they were supposed to replace: you know everyone’s going to end up dead. Modern genre material has become finally divided into offering superhumans (consider Milla Jovovich’s role in the Resident Evil films with their similar plot starting-point) and human lunchmeat, with little room for plucky Spielbergian everymen in between anymore. Not helping is the fact that the first-person genre has become its own spoiler alert, considering every film made in this mode ends inevitably with the camera lying discarded by its now-deceased owner. It’s also an ideal style that gives filmmakers a chance to show off their technical chops and disguise familiar lacks in constructing characters and narrative nuance.

With all that off my chest, Quarantine’s still well above-par, thanks to the slick, virtually seamless execution by director John Erick Dowdle, who adapted the Spanish film’s script with his brother Drew. Utterly vital is the energetic commitment of the cast, all of which are strong enough to make them film at least an acceptable, accessible substitute for [REC]. Carpenter, who confirmed her game physicality in her eye-catching breakthrough performance in the otherwise desultory The Exorcism of Emily Rose, is terrific, shifting from foxy professional coquette, to forceful advocate of the Fifth Estate, to near-paralytic terror, pushing on only in creeping inches through sheer determination to survive. She looks damn good in a singlet, too. Rade Sherbedgia on the other hand is sorely wasted in a minor role as the building’s avuncular superintendent, and Harris has what is officially the thankless role in these movies.


Mike Lippert said...

Excellent review. I never really thought of Quarantine as anything more than an effective horror movie, but your bringing in of some social commentary makes perfect sense.

You know, I've seen both this and the original and think that somewhere between the two there is a really great movie. The first one explains the the nature and creation of the virus better but the remake ups the ante in the finale (that last scene in night vision is terrifying) and also gives a little more context to the nature of the virus through the vet character.

It's unfortunate that this film wasn't really screened for critics when it first came out because there really isn't any reason it shouldn't have been on par with Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity other than that it didn't have the same promotional boost that those films did.

I'm curious now to see what they did with Rec 2, especially with the coming of Paranormal Activity 2. It'll probably just be a rehash but, you never know.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Mike.

I was really quite frustrated in not getting to see the whole of [Rec] before taking in this one(it's a long, stupid story about why I didn't) but I gave in and rented Quarantine. Thanks for explaining why this film seemed to sneak in and out theatres, without much fan or critical fanfare when stupid travesties like the remakes of Halloween and Friday the 13th garnered far too much attention. In spite of my fault-finding, I found it vigorous and highly superior to most of schlock being churned out by the above-ground horror-producing studios of late, and I enjoyed it nearly as much as Cloverfield although that film had a far higher budget and a beautiful look. I know the style turns many people off, but I've enjoyed several of the recent variations by various directors, who usually manage to bring something interesting to the table. By the accounts I've heard Rec 2 is quite good and enlarges upon the original's back-story.

bill r. said...

I liked QUARANTINE quite a bit, but your points about where it falls short are well taken. As you imply, there's a basic lack of ambition in modern horror, and films like QUARANTINE suffer from it the most, because it's pretty damn good anyway, so the potential to be even better is all the more glaring.

Still! As Mike says, the ending is skin-crawling. And one thing I really liked about the way the mayhem was presented here -- assuming I'm correct about what I'm going to say, and not simply a victim of my weakening attention span -- is the way some characters are turned into creatures without the audience knowing exactly when that happened. The survivors will be running for safety, and someone we thought was with them suddenly leaps at them and tries to bite them, and you think "Oh shit! When did THAT guy get bitten!?" It really ramps up the sense of chaos and hopelessness.

I've never seen [REC], incidentally.

Roderick Heath said...

Hi, Bill. I certainly agree that the barrage of the infected in the last twenty minutes is disorientating and the action that cuts loose then is amazingly staged, although I started getting bothered by what seemed to be the highly uneven incubation time of the bug. The little girl takes hours and hours to go nasty (and right at the moment of maximum dramatic impact), but others are totally freaked after a few minutes? Rod no get.

Patrick said...

I was scrolling through the comments at Cinema Styles and Marilyn said something about you not reviewing films anymore. Hope that isn't so, I've enjoyed your writing since discovering this blog and Marilyn's.

Roderick Heath said...

I'm just reviewing my options at the moment, Patrick.