It is somewhat ironic that a week before seeing this film, my wife and I found ourselves walking through the “Quarantine” maze at Knott’s Scary Farm (Knotts Berry Farm does an annual October makeover, where all of their rides become insanely intricate haunted houses… quite impressive). I say ironic for two reasons. A) The film “Quarantine” is probably the closest thing I’ve seen on film to the experience of walking through a haunted house attraction. B) The maze is quite a bit scarier on a pure visceral level than the film itself.
Not to say the film is bad. It’s actually surprisingly affective in the opening acts, setting up a frighteningly plausible scenario and plausible slice-of-life characters. Only in the last twenty-minutes or so does the film become an unwieldy fright fest, with incomprehensible action and an almost complete lack of pay off.
Some plot – Angela Vidal (Carpenter) and Scott Percival (Harris) are reporter and camera man from a local news network, sent to do a puff piece on the local fire department. After a quick get-to-know ya interview segment or two, the department gets called on an actual emergency and the reporters tag along. When they get to the apartment building in peril, they quickly discover that the emergency is note fire-related, although they’ll soon wish it was.
The entirety of the film is shot as if it were the running video footage from Percival’s camera. For the record, this remake of a 2005 Spanish horror film (“[REC]”) is much cleaner and less grainy than “Cloverfield” and far less disorienting than “The Blair Witch Project.” But we still have that ‘something horrible happened just off screen’ bit along with the swirling camera that occasionally denies us key plot details or major moments.
There are surprisingly few cheap jolts, so the ones that are there are brutally effective. The biggest advantage that the film has is a cast made up of veteran character actors and television performers. Our favorite grizzled Croatian Rade Serbedzija plays the landlord. Steve Harris, best known as defense attorney Eugene Young on “The Practice,” plays the cameraman (while his face is rarely seen, his voice lends a gravity to the proceedings). Fleshing out the cast is Greg Germann (from “Ally McBeal”), Dana Ramirwz from “Heroes,” film character actor Jay Hernandez, and Dennis O’Hare (longtime “Law And Order” fans will recognize him as guest-starring as four different characters in four of the best episodes of the series’ run). These veterans help flesh out what would otherwise be stock horror film characters. Everyone is intelligent, no one is particularly heroic, and they all just feel like real people trapped in an inexplicable situation (even Steve Harris is allowed to break down a little after committing a violent act of self defense).
Alas, after an hour of solid character interplay and potent shocks, the film turns into a somewhat substandard ‘run from the monster’ cliché. Because of the video-based narrative, much of what unfolds in the last act is difficult to follow and thus hard to appreciate. And, truth be told, there really is no climax as none of the characters have any real arcs.
In the end, the film reveals its true intentions. Regardless of the high caliber of acting and the subtlety of the writing, the film is merely a haunted house ride. That’s no sin, but the film at first appears striving for something greater, so its descent into ordinariness is all the more unfortunate. As far as that lack of pay off, the film basically just ends arbitrarily, with only the barest hint of explanation as to what just occurred. So much of what came before is rendered thematically meaningless and our investment in the characters is rendered moot.
So, in the end, “Quarantine” is worth seeing for its solid first two acts, some terrific acting by some favorite character actors, and a several solid spook-show scares. But it has no real reason for its existence and its final irrelevance renders the experience rather hollow.
NOTE – SPOILER!!!
Shame on Screen Gems for spoiling a major climactic moment of the film, both as a button for the trailer and commercials, and on the poster art. I more or less knew ahead of time, and thus was annoyed. My wife had no idea and was downright furious as she slowly realized how the film was going to end because she hadn’t seen ‘that scene’ yet. Not since the trailer to “Cast Away” have I seen such blatant spoiling, made all the worse because most moviegoers won’t know that a major element has been revealed until they’re already into the movie.