Sony // 2008 // 89 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // February 17th, 2009
Film everything...in HD!
In 2007, a horror film out of Spain brilliantly evoked a claustrophobic terror inside an ancient, tiny apartment building. That film, [REC], was met with critical and commercial success on the international scene, but never came to the States in any substantial way. Instead, in a proactive attempt to cash in on the success, Sony started production on Quarantine. Second only to Hostel in my list of best horror films of the decade, [REC] should go down as a modern classic of the genre. Quarantine, however, will not. While the Americanized remake executes some of what makes the original great, it doesn't measure up to its predecessor on any level. But hey, at least it looks nice in HD, right?
Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter) and her cameraman are recording a story for their news program, While You Were Sleeping. In tonight's episode, they will follow a crew of firefighters on a normal night of work. At first, it's the dullest night in firefighting history, but they finally get what appears to be a routine call. When they arrive at the old apartment building, camera in hand, they quickly see something is wrong. Residents have become strangely infected and, once they enter the building, the government seals off the doors and windows, barring anyone from escape. This routine call becomes a fight for their lives from which there is no escape.
In remaking a film, there are only two ways people can go with it. One can either re-imagine the original, such as Rob Zombie's Halloween, or make essentially the same film, updating it for modern or domestic audiences. In Quarantine, the Dowdle brothers (writer/director John Erick and writer/producer Drew, The Poughkeepsie Tapes) opt for the latter, the correct decision, simply translating the original [REC] from the Spanish to produce a near shot-for-shot remake. Had they gone further and made their film exactly the same (except for in English), the brothers would have had a lot more success. While there is a slight shift in the explanation, everything from the original exists in the remake. Quarantine fails with what they add into the film. Going from the efficient, tense 75 minute tight rope act of the original to a bloated 89 minutes means the filmmakers had to add elements of their own devising, but to little success. Their main tactic for filling the film out to an American-style running time is to add juvenile sex jokes and, instead of going from the utterly mundane to the absolute horrific within a couple of minutes, we find ourselves waiting impatiently for the action to start and hoping that, soon, these characters will start to die. Ha! the firefighters slide down the "pole hole." That one firefighter has an oversized "hose"...classic! Things like this give American horror a bad name. There's no need for this kind of comedy, or any kind of comedy at all; the crowd is there for the horror, not a bunch of off-handed genitalia jokes.
Beyond the bloat, what really fails Quarantine is a stylistic decision. The current trend of first-person perspective horror polarizes viewers. The success of these films is due to viewers, used to the idea of amateur filmmaking through Youtube and elsewhere, having an appreciation of an individual in a horrific situation getting it on film and having the footage "found." Many, however (myself included), find the style nauseating and incoherent, creating the horror out of a lack of ability to see what's going on only to stop the shaking of the camera when the important stuff happens.
[REC] solves this problem simply by its premise. This is a news crew with a professional behind the camera, which ensures that the person shooting the film knows how to run the equipment, understanding when to focus, when to hold the camera still, and how to get a clean shot. The situation presupposes a little shakiness, but the film still feels like it was made by someone who knew what to do. In Quarantine, we are back to the way of The Blair Witch Project. No news crew would hire this guy to work a camera. The film comes in and out of focus; any time the horror strikes and he starts running, the camera goes every which way, though somehow managing to capture every last one of the afflicted reaching for him as he runs past. The worst offense of this comes when the cameraman is forced to kill one of the monsters with his camera. Not only must that be one hell of a sturdy camera, the scene is all of a sudden in deep focus, with the blood on the lens to the monster to all the action behind in perfect clarity. It undermines the "reality" of the film by fundamentally changing the look and, moreover, the horror is already there; I do not need it literally thrown in my face.
The Blu-ray format does not suit Quarantine as it does other films. The 1080p transfer is perfectly sharp and good looking at the beginning, but the shaking camerawork, general lack of focus, and grain necessary to simulate this found footage renders Hi-Def a moot point. The image is as clear as it should be, but not overly sharp. A very dark film, there is little color to be discerned most of the time, but the black levels are extremely deep and clear. The TrueHD sound, however, is very fine. The film has no musical accompaniment, so we are left with the sounds inside the apartment and outside in the streets to set the mood, and it is well done in the soundtrack. All speakers are in full use with great definition in every one. Helicopters sound like they are overhead and dialog is not limited to the center channel, giving a fully immersive simulation of the theatrical experience. The extras are unimpressive, though somewhat enlightening about the spirit and technical aspects of the film. Three featurettes, one a general making-of, one on the makeup effects, and one on the stunts, are standard issue, though it does explain how the film was shot in sequence utilizing very few cuts and very long takes. The makeup, gore effects, and stunt work are all well done and these short pieces lend insight into how this all was done. The most substantial feature is a feature length commentary with the Dowdle brothers. They go in depth with all aspects of the film, from casting to lighting to their intentions in making the film. I do take exception, however, to the fact that they never mention the original film at all. The back of the case and the end credits mention that the film is based on [REC], but nothing in the features acknowledges this. They discuss how they came up with this or that sequence, when they clearly did not. It is an informative piece, though, however dishonest it may be. The disc claims to be BD-Live enabled, but I was unable to access any content, though this may change when the disc is actually released.
While the Dowdle brothers arrogantly deny their source material in their commentary, they do rightfully focus on the best aspect of Quarantine: the lighting. When the electricity in the building is cut off, we are left with only two sources of light. The lamp on the camera illuminates the action directly in front, but leaves the rest in darkness. Important points of these areas are lit very sparsely by ambient lights from outdoors through windows. We see only what we need to see, but not all we want to see and it does a very good job in adding to the mood of the entire picture.
For all of its faults and its failure to live up to the level of the original, Quarantine has its charms. It is worth watching once, both on its own merits and as a study on how to Americanize a foreign horror film (or maybe how not to). In the question of which to choose between the Blu-ray and standard definition versions, the image is not markedly improved and the extras are the same so, unless whatever BD Live content is revelatory, the only reason to spend the extra dollars is the improved sound.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R