“Quarantine” delivers scares as an effective but derivative thriller

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

In this time of worry over the coronavirus, when people either overexaggerate the situation or ignore it entirely, a bit of bluntness and irony can be refreshing. 

If you’re anything like me, you’ve taken that bluntness and irony a tad too far and have found yourself swept up in a vortex of watching pandemic-themed movies. 

If my situation is similar to yours these past couple weeks, you probably ran into the 2008 found-footage icon, “Quarantine.” 

“Quarantine” features a young American journalist, who spends the night in a fire station in Los Angeles to get an easy story on the life of firefighters. Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) interviews the firemen, has some lighthearted conversations and generally enjoys an easy night of reporting at the fire station. 

However, as the night reaches its darkest hour, the firefighters are called out to an old apartment complex to assist an elderly woman in apparent medical distress. Vidal and her cameraman, Scott Percival (Steve Harris), ride along in the big red truck to a call that becomes far more terrifying and dangerous than they could have imagined. 

After arriving at the complex, meeting with the police and entering the apartment of the woman, Vidal and the firefighters are shocked to see this frail old woman viciously attack one of the emergency responders, clawing and biting him with bestial vigor. 

After regaining some control of the situation, the emergency responders, with Vidal and Percival tagging along, discover that the military has barricaded every entry/exit into the apartment complex. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has completely sectioned off the building from the outside world. 

Vidal, Percival, the emergency responders and the residents of the apartment building are all trapped in an involuntary quarantine. Increasing numbers of people succumb to a rabies-like disease that turns normal people into berserk beasts which indiscriminately kill anyone around them. 

Those inside are told to sit and wait, but as more people become infected with the virus, their chances of survival dwindle. 

If you’re a fan of found-footage or Spanish indie horror, you either have an intense love or an intense hate for “Quarantine,” as it is a near shot-for-shot American remake of the 2007 Spanish indie horror film “REC.”

Despite not being an original film and lacking the religious subtext so prevalent in “REC,” for us English speakers who can’t bother to get over the barrier of subtitles in our movies, “Quarantine” remains a taut, tense and well-paced thriller that will frighten and grip most audiences. 

Very few films that choose to use the found-footage shooting style actually employ it properly. However, “Quarantine” is among those  few films that use the shooting style effectively, making an art form of this overly-used and often cheap-feeling technique. Director John Erick Dowdle and cinematographer Ken Seng fantastically use the found-footage format to create a believable and terrifying atmosphere. 

The cameraman character, Percival, goes from straining to get a good shot in the first act of the film, to desperately documenting the group’s involuntary quarantine in the second act, to using the camera only as a light or a blunt weapon against the infected in the third. Though we see Percival on-screen the least, his character comes through in how the style of filming changes, which is the most unique and well-thought-out aspect of this film. 

Carpenter, Harris and the other actors in this film provide performances that are mostly unremarkable but effective in lulling the audience into a false sense of fun and security that  quickly turns to terror, with Carpenter’s performance being the most naturalistic and engaging. 

The other aspect of “Quarantine” that lends to it being one of the better entries in the crowded annals of found-footage horror is its setting. The set design for the film is magnificently claustrophobic and grimy, yet realistic, which leads to an immediately tense experience for the audience. 

However, despite the technical prowess on display in “Quarantine” in its cinematography, production design, and set design, the film’s failings come from a stifling sense of familiarity, even for audience members who have not viewed “REC.”

It is very easy to walk away from “Quarantine” thinking that one has just viewed yet another zombie movie, yet another found-footage movie or yet another horror movie with a predictable villain. In other words, despite the skill that went into making “Quarantine,” it seems to fail to narratively differentiate itself from the hordes of other horror films with similar premises and techniques

Though anyone who has a couple hours to burn and enjoys sardonic reactions to current events should certainly check out “Quarantine,” it would be difficult to blame someone for not watching this well-made film that was too afraid to try something different.

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