As far as Hollywood's reliably tepid horror output is concerned, Quarantine works as every bit the disposable jolt dispenser it's assembled to be. It's got a nifty enough concept in its favor and a mildly recognizable cast that needs not fear any characterization coming between them and certain death by the time the credits roll, and it's hard to believe that there's not at least one sequence in here that might get even the most cynical horror fan's heart rate to rise a beat or two -- and I say this as a documented fan of the (still superior) source material.
Young news reporter Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter) and her cameraman (Steve Harris) are covering a Los Angeles fire station during their nightly routines when the two tag along on an emergency call to an apartment building. Not terribly long after their arrival, all hell breaks loose and the building's occupants -- Angela included -- find themselves contained within against their will and left to fend off a dangerous virus that causes the infected to become a rabid zombie variant, one aggressively determined to spread the love around.
Sony reportedly got Quarantine underway from the shooting script and remake rights of [REC] before that film had even completed principal photography, so within a year of the original's Spanish release, we find ourselves greeted with an unsurprisingly faithful remake, down to every major narrative beat and scare tactic, not to mention the very layout of the multi-storied building itself. Director John Erick Dowdle effectively mimics that film's sense of geography -- even if his work on the script (with brother Drew) amounts to only the slightest tweaks here and there: trading one character's non-chalant racism for another's non-chalant sexism, swapping the ethnicity of a minority family, making the vague climax a wee bit more obtuse. This isn't the shot-for-shot trade-in that Funny Games was for the better (or Psycho was, for worse), but it is identical enough that all those moviegoers who would otherwise be frightened off first and foremost by the threat of subtitles can safely trust that they've virtually seen [REC] as well...
...which is a mild shame, because that Angela (Manuela Valesco) never gets as distractingly hysterical as this Angela, and because a climactic shot down a staircase in the remake isn't nearly as chilling or smartly directed as in the first film. The nits are admittedly easier to pick here; having had the good fortune to see [REC] a couple of times by now, I can say it's a thin thriller in terms of story and character that's nonetheless impeccably constructed and designed to freak you out. Now it's like a haunted house with a few too many lights left on: matters don't necessarily drag with an added fifteen minutes padding out the proceedings, but watching a parade of familiar faces (including Jay Hernandez, Columbus Short, Rade Serbedzija, and Denis O'Hare) go peeking around corners and running down halls is ultimately harder to shake than a couple of words on the screen and a couple of unknowns on a screaming streak. Sometimes less is definitely more, and the original is absolutely the finer film for knowing that rule.
And yet, when taken out of the shadow of its predecessor and placed amidst the ranks of studio horror offerings of late (aside from the more ambitious and accomplished likes of Cloverfield), Quarantine gets a lot more points for delivering some genuine toe-tapping tension beyond a flurry of handheld camera work and some gratuitous gore shots -- all the translated pages in the world can't keep that dialogue-free climax from tightening the screws. Maybe we're simply swapping one handicap for another, but let's face it: (much) worse movies have claimed over 2,000 screens nationwide (not to mention dodged press screenings, cough). After a numbing amount of scare-free studio offerings, a jolt or two is all it takes to please a genre fan, and there are defintely some fun jolts to be found scattered throughout the flick -- even if they are second-hand. Quarantine may not be a [REC], but at least it's not a wreck either.
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Nerd buzz indicates that Sony will release [REC] on DVD in early 2009 -- most likely as an ironic piggy-back to their remake. If you can't wait that long, please do check out my recent Cine 7 piece on "first-person" horror movies...