October Horrorshow: Quarantine

There’s a subgenre in horror/sci-fi cinema, where a limited number of people are trapped in a contained space and terrorized by some malevolent force. They are picked off, one by one, leading to climax and resolution. There may be a term for this, I don’t know. “Alien-type” maybe. I don’t really want to put the time in researching whether or not there is. After all, most of these films are awful. I did come up with an acronym, however. Arguably, more time was needed to come up with the acronym than researching terms for these dogs, but it was fun. So, from this review forward, films where a small cast is in a reclusive environment where everyone (almost) dies, will be referred to as SCREWED movies. That’s Small Cast, Reclusive Environment, Where Everyone (almost) Dies. How clever.

Quarantine is a SCREWED film. From 2008, Quarantine also follows a well-worn rule in film: beware films not screened for critics. This film was released, head hung in shame, without ever having been seen by the likes of Roger Ebert or A.O. Scott. Thank goodness for me, then. I am not a critic. My motives for writing about film are selfish. I don’t get paid for it, nor am I a true student of the art of film. And, I’ve never met a film I wouldn’t watch. Instead, I write about film because I find it interesting, and the pop culture references increase traffic on this website (barely).

So Quarantine wasn’t screened for critics. That was a decision made by studio suits who felt that inevitably negative reviews would hurt the film’s bottom line. That may have been a good decision. Quarantine made cash, tripling its production budget. Would that have been different, had critics had the chance to drag it over the coals? We’ll never know. Had they had the chance, however, there is little doubt the film would have been lambasted for its derivative nature. Not only is Quarantine a remake of a Spanish film, [•Rec], it is another entry in the modern zombie genre, where the supernatural forces that animated the dead in traditional zombie fare have been supplanted by biological causes, usually malicious, that alter the living. In addition, it was filmed in found footage, the faux documentary/reality style that has been variously popular the last decade.

Found footage is an extremely skittish method of filmmaking that is very hard to present as anything other than a gimmick. When a character is the cameraman, the first question a viewer asks is, “Why?” Why is this better than traditional storytelling, and how do the filmmakers plan on keeping this from being annoying? The camera is supposedly being wielded by a real person, one of us out here in the real world. Apparently, none of us know how to keep a camera still, resulting in cinematography that is charitably described as shaky. However, found footage films are not told just from the perspective of the character wielding the camera. In keeping with the naturalistic nature of the camera movements, the actors are encouraged to give naturalistic performances, which is a euphemism for improvisation, and a lack of rehearsal time and/or scripted lines. In short, every found footage film demands perfection from its cast, while simultaneously forcing them to work with a marginal concept in a low budget environment.

But that assessment is an indictment of the cast, which is unfair. This ensemble, made up mostly of television extras and guest stars, is far from what fails the film. Had Quarantine been filled with the cast of the great hallmark of SCREWED cinema, Alien, the film still would not have worked. Most of the cast was pushed to the periphery, a real achievement in a film like Quarantine, which is very contained. More than an hour in, members of the small cast come and go with such irregularity it’s hard to keep track of them. This may have been intentional, and it does focus attention on the three characters who are central to the plot, but it adds a strange layer of confusion where there should be none. In a less complicated way, I guess I could say there wasn’t enough character development.

The main focus of the story is on Jennifer Carpenter, who plays Angela Vidal, one of those pretty television reporters who is relegated to filing stories about schoolchildren fishing for trout in the Harlem Meer or the running of the brides at Filene’s Basement. It makes one cringe. Carpenter plays her part well, convincingly, to the point I can’t tell if she is vacuous or is just playing it. What I can say is, good job. Her performance could easily turn viewers off, especially towards the end, where her character loses the moorings of her reason, but up until she turns helpless, she deserves the screen time she gets.

The film is creepy, and doesn’t commit the sin of being a horror film with no scares, but it tries so hard to imitate other films like Cloverfield or 28 Days Later that it plays like little more than an attempt at a payday. Had Quarantine been the first to employ the methods of its production, I would be hailing it as an enduring classic. It is not. Its crime is having no originality whatsoever, but pretending that it does.

One last note that I feel is all one needs to know about how Quarantine was filmed, and how misguided such a decision was. The found footage method dictates the tale be told from the perspective of one of the characters. Fine. The shaky camera is meant to represent how a normal person would film. Okay. But, the cameraman in Quarantine is a cameraman by profession. The footage he is supposedly filming is for a television show. The character is a professional cameraman, yet he is about as talented at keeping a shot still as any of the deadeyes from The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. This is yet more evidence that found footage is unnecessary and burdensome.