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.