#ThrowbackThursday – Quarantine

Original US release date: October 10, 2008
Production budget: $12,000,000
Worldwide gross: $41,319,906

Directed and co-written by John Erick Dowdle (Devil), Quarantine was a stylish horror thriller designed to take advantage of the found-footage fad that had hit big at the time.  While in no way originated by the film, the found-footage subgenre was popularized by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (see my review of 2016’s third entry in that series, Blair Witchhere) and then primarily revived by 2007’s Paranormal Activity.  For those who are unfamiliar, found-footage films typically – though not exclusively – fall under the horror umbrella and present themselves as recovered footage recorded by the characters within the film, itself.  Generally, the idea is that the footage is found (hence “found footage”) after the characters in the story are killed and then said footage is pieced together by a survivor to tell the victims’ story.

A remake of the 2007 Spanish film [Rec], Quarantine approaches the found-footage technique from a slightly different perspective.  Jennifer Carpenter portrays television reporter Angela Vidal.  She and her cameraman Scott (Steve Percival) are on a remote assignment shooting a fluff piece on the daily routine of the local fire department.  While there, the firemen get called away to an emergency at a local apartment building.  Upon their arrival, they find no fire nor any immediately apparent emergency, instead discovering a situation with an elderly female resident who is ill and barricaded in her residence.  From there, it is revealed that there is a deadly virus in the building that turns any infected creature – human or otherwise – into a maniacal and near-unstoppable killer and, to make matters worse, the Center for Disease Control has become aware of the situation and quarantined them all inside the building.

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Quarantine benefits from many of the same strengths as other found-footage films and also suffers from several of the most common weaknesses.  On the plus side, the cast, cinematography, and general presentation add an air of authenticity that lends a big assist to the story.  It all looks and feels genuine, like an actual news report gone unimaginably bad.

Jennifer Carpenter, especially, throws herself into her performance and makes sure the viewer buys the whole thing.  She has always been a tremendous talent (most know her as the foul-mouthed train wreck of a sister Deb on “Dexter” but her best performance from my perspective remains her turn as the title character in The Exorcism of Emily Rose – for my money one of the top ten horror films of the last twenty years) and I’m surprised her star never rose higher, though I suppose the door isn’t necessarily closed on that, quite yet.  But Angela goes from anticipating a likely fireman booty call at the outset of the film to fully expecting to die by the end and Carpenter sells the gradual transition with apparent ease.

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On the flip side, found-footage films often struggle to explain why filming would continue in the face of such horrific, life-threatening situations.  The films has no problem justifying the filming at the beginning, cleverly using the news station premise as an excuse.  And Dowdle actually finds a way to warrant filming at the climax, as well.  In the middle, however, it’s never really clear why Scott continues to roll tape.  One could speculate, but even the characters never really question it, which takes away some of the realism.

There are also several instances where Dowdle can’t seem to decide if he places more value on narrative logic or on entertainment.  I have always maintained that films such as Quarantine don’t need to explain away the premise.  If the source of the trouble in the film can be unveiled in a way that’s organic and sensible, that’s fine.  But Dowdle jumps through hoops to offer up an explanation for the origin of the virus and he does so in a way that’s forced and entirely too convenient to be plausible.

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At the same time, there’s an instant where Scott’s camera is involved in an inventive and fresh action sequence.  As cool as that is, if it had actually happened as it plays out on-screen, Scott’s camera would have been broken to the point of being inoperable.  Obviously, that’s not a viable choice because the movie ends without the camera.  So, that’s the dilemma; as a filmmaker, do you abandon the sequence, even though it’s something that hasn’t been seen before?  Or do you go for it and hope that the audience either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that it makes little sense?  Or is there a possible workaround?  For better or for worse – and that’s another discussion, presented here just for consideration – Dowdle goes for option number two.  Maybe that’s fine, but it certainly causes a distraction for anyone watching with a fully engaged brain.

When I first saw the film in 2008, I loved it.  With this revisit, I don’t love it, but I don’t hate it, either.  There’s no subtext, no extra layers, nothing going on to keep the audience thinking once the film ends.  That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a failing.  Dowdle opts to make a film that’s purely focused on entertainment, and that’s perfectly okay.  But if entertainment is the sole focus, everything needs to be perfectly squared away or viewers will pick it apart (as I’ve done here) and there will be nothing left to feast on.  That’s not entirely applicable to Quarantine; there are some legitimate scares, the atmosphere and tension are strong throughout, and the premise is believable within the rules established by the script (though the CDC sure does find out about the situation awfully quickly).  But it’s still entertaining, if the flaws I’ve outlined here don’t seem particularly bothersome to you.  If nothing else, Carpenter gives a powerful and memorable performance, as always.  As far as the rest goes, mileage will vary.

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