John Erick Dowdle’s Quarantine—an apparently almost exact copy of Jaume Balagueró‘s Spanish film [Rec] (2007)—is the latest entry in the “shaky cam of horror” sweepstakes. And it’s probably the second most effective of the artistically dubious lot (George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead from earlier this year is easily the best). That’s not saying all that much, but it’s something. What that “something” translates into is that Mr. Dowdle is capable of generating a few sequences that flirt with intensity, and may on a very few occasions—depending on the tenderness of your sensibilities—achieve it. On the other hand, there’s a very large cheese quotient, a solid 20 minutes of “who cares?” setup, and the whole tired and tiresome single-take approach.
The basics of what you get are as follows. TV newswoman Angela Vidal (Jennifer Carpenter, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and her rarely seen (because he’s recording all this) cameraman Scott Percival (Steve Harris, Diary of a Mad Black Woman) are doing what must be the world’s longest puff piece on the lives of firefighters, seeing as how they’re shooting hours and hours of footage. (Does the piece go all the way back to the dawn of film and the 1903 Edwin S. Porter opus Life of an American Fireman? No, probably not.) After much ho-hum firehouse humor (cruder than that found in Fireproof, but not appreciably funnier), we finally get to accompany the firefighters on what turns out to be a fateful call.
Arriving at a rundown apartment building, the TV duo, the main firemen and a cop or two quickly find themselves locked in the building by the Centers for Disease Control in order to prevent the spread of whatever unknown disease has turned an old lady (stuntwoman Jeannie Epper) into a raving lunatic, with the extremely antisocial tendency to bite large chunks out of people’s necks. Not surprisingly, this quickly degenerates into all manner of wholesale zombiosity as the hopelessness of the situation becomes ever more apparent. In other words, carnage ensues.
That’s really about all there is to the movie. There are some quasi-explanations about what’s causing all this, which come down to nothing more than a variation on the rage virus from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later … (2002) with a hint of the lunatic machinations of end-of-days fans. Cages of plague-infected rats as a conspiracy tool offers perhaps an interesting ripple, but the idea in film dates back at least to 1940 and Norman Foster’s Charlie Chan in Panama, making it a few decades shy of cutting edge. But then again, Quarantine is nothing if not derivative. Its style is copped from earlier point-of-view movies, its plague is dated, and even most of its thrill pieces are borrowed.
The overall approach involves having things jump out of the darkness in basic haunted-house “Boogey! Boogey! Boogey!” fashion. What’s surprising is that as much of it works as it does—within its narrow confines. It helps—at least for the first two-thirds of the film—that the cameraman supposedly shooting all this is a pro, meaning he does his damnedest to keep the image framed and steady. As a result, the movie doesn’t go full-on with the shakes until its final third, at which time the action becomes frequently incomprehensible.
The worst of the film’s problems, though, is due to its trailer. It’s impossible not to realize what the ending shot is going to be a solid five minutes before it happens owing to the shot’s bizarre inclusion in the trailer. Whatever debatable power the climax might have had is killed in its tracks if you’ve seen the trailer and are sitting there waiting for it. Taken all together, Quarantine is rarely more than competent and never inspired. But it more or less passes for a few cheap thrills if you’re not too demanding. Rated R for bloody violent and disturbing content, terror and language.