Friday, October 17, 2008

QUARANTINE: Not [REC]ommended

What the hell is up with Hollywood, anyway? Take a pretty damned good (but still very basic) horror film, set out to do a shot-by-shot remake... and still choose some schmuck who could fuck up someone else’s wet dream to totally screw the pooch.

Last year’s cult phenom [REC] was that rare bird, a genuinely scary horror flick. Maybe at this point it's hard to live up to the buzz, but I was lucky enough to catch it early enough that I was without seriously elevated expectations. In some regards, [REC] shouldn't have worked for me. I knew all along where it was going and where the jolts were going to be... but damn, they still worked. Mostly I think it was because of the foley work (keep the viewer disoriented enough, someone could just say "Boo!" and it'd get a jump)...

... and the perfectly adorable lead Manuela Velasco. You knew she was screwed, but kept hoping otherwise.

But mostly [REC] worked as a down n' dirty li'l horror film that did exactly what it set out to do, poke the lizard part of the brain until it squirmed. No plot or backstory to get in the way, looking like it was shot over a weekend on a Canon XL2 and some pocket change, it fits my theory of what a contemporary horror film should be to a T.

Of course, since it was a Spanish movie it couldn’t be sold to American audiences because … well, subtitles and all that. So Hollywood remade it. Pretty much shot-for-shot… except for some leaden padding thrown in to bring the flick up from a perfectly efficient 80 minutes to a wearisome 90.


"Say... why don't we use the final shot of the film in our ad campaign?"


Biting-on-tinfoil, sorority girl-cum-TV reporter Angela (Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter) and her cameraman tag along with the crew of a fire station as they go about their typical shift, until the typical goes all FUBAR when a routine call suddenly involves neo-zombies infesting an apartment complex. Well, rabies-crazed gut crunchers shrieking out of dark shadows and the naught, but same thing. And apparently the authorities have a zombie contingency plan, ’cause before you know it, the place is sealed off with everyone inside being picked off one-by-one by the frothing critters and then jumping up to join in on the mayhem.

As a remake, Quarantine misses what made [REC] so effective. Part of the problem is Carpenter, whose character is such a snotty twit that within five minutes you want something really fucking bad to jump out of the shadows and make her STFU already. A bigger part of the FAIL is the director. One has to wonder what was going up the Sony suits noses as they handed over the reins to John Dowdle, whose The Poughkeepsie Tapes (another found footage riff, this time about camera-happy serial killers) had been freshly laughed off the screen at audience previews.

And give the idiot (and his brother) a screenplay credit for... what? Paying someone to translate the original script? Of course, what's to be expected. I mean, there's a reason why The Poughkeepsie Tapes hasn't hit the screens like promised, right? Quarantine shows why. Buggering up the whole video verité approach, this feels about as real as a SNL sketch. And you have to realize we're getting into a interesting set of affairs when Euro actors can act Hollywood cosplayers beneath the table.

I bought the game in [REC]. I didn't buy one second of Quarantine... the actors didn't sell it, and the director didn't pimp it.

But then, I'm of the school that thinks that if you throw too much money at a horror film, the focus shifts to making the money back rather than delivering the goods (that is, aiming for the shallow expectations of a mass market rather than the niche market with higher expectations).

The sad thing is that I was actually sorta looking forward to the remake... in all reality; the original is only accessible to a very narrow market (subs and all). Business-wise (admittedly, countering myself here) it makes perfect sense to do a shot-by-shot remake...

... provided that the director sits down and deconstructs what made the source material work. I didn't get the vibe that Mr. Poughkeepsie was that savvy. Or that maybe his horror headspace is with serial killers, and not zombies.

Too bad, really. [REC] had some minor problems of its own that could have been tweaked for the better in the remake. The third act gets a little silly, what with some Vatican cover-up providing a tenuous source for the outbreak, recounted by a magic reel-to-reel tape deck that manages to work without a power source. But [REC] pulls up to recover nicely in the final stretch with a perfectly ghastly night-vision reveal of Patient Zero.

Admittedly, by alluding to a doomsday cult instead of quasi-demonic possession, Quarantine grounds the Why of the matter a little more satisfactorily. Unfortunately, that’s the only finessing that comes off favorable. And they keep the magic tape deck... although the device gives out absolutely zero information this time.

"Say... what am I doing in this attic, and how'd I get here?"

But I suppose the biggest weakness of [REC] is the ubiquitous Shaky-Cam. Usually, the conceit doesn’t bother me. It goes with the territory of the mis en scene of video verité.

But with Quarantine, Mr. Poughkeepsie takes the Shaky-Cam to a whole 'nother level… or down to, as if his cameraman was taping the proceedings duct-taped to the back of a bucking gimp. Seriously, it’s hard to swallow that the character behind the camera would even qualify to be a volunteer at a public access station, let alone being on a payroll as some supposedly hot-shot camera jockey.

In addition to the epileptic framing, we also get the new-and-improved Blurro-Cam, with a picture that swims in-n-out of focus constantly… except in the flick’s most ludicrous scene, where the cameraman pounds in the face of one of the infected with the business end of his camera, and the equipment suddenly decides that it has a deep focus setting... the blood on the lens as crisp as the mayhem being inflicted. Not to mention that that must be one badass camera to take that kind of abuse.

Actually, that was the deal breaker right there. One really, really stupid moment that sums up the project itself…

… in deep focus.


Kimberly said...

I have to say I disagree with you about the camera zombie bashing scene. That scene got a great response form the theater goers I was in the room with.
I think your review kind of missed the point of the scene.It was to show what people are capable if stretched to the breaking point. The moment after the bashing was a very good displaying the camera mans disbelief of what he just went through.
I understand your perspective on it tho.I'm just a sucker for those virus fast walking zombies.

Old Dark Housekeeper said...

I'll agree, there... I was so distracted by the small details that I wasn't with the big picture.

I probably would have went with the cameraman using the his camera as a piston, if only the director hadn't went with CGI blood on the lens.

I have no problem at all with skittering zombies, but CGI blood is -- again -- a dealbreaker.