There's a kind of horror movie that combines an unlikely event - a Blair Witch, say, or a Cloverfield-style Godzilla in New York City - with hand-held cinematic evidence to persuade us it really did happen. The result is a combination of fear and seasickness, the hand-held cinematic stuff being hard to watch after a while, especially when the monster gets close and the cameraman has to run for it.
Quarantine is the latest example, a film told through the lens of a TV camera that, in the reality-style fiction, is taping the story. As a bonus, the movie throws in another trend: the deadly virus that makes ordinary people suddenly want to eat each other, thus turning Quarantine into a neat compendium of horror trends. There's even a tagline - "On March 11, 2008, the government sealed off an apartment complex in Los Angeles. The residents were never seen again. No details. No witnesses. No evidence. Until now" - that represents a half-hearted effort to make the story seem real. Perhaps that's the true breakthrough of the film: viral marketing with an actual virus!
It stars Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, TV's Dexter) as Angela, a TV reporter doing a story on a day in the life of firefighters, particularly the adorable Jay Hernandez and Johnathon Schaech. There's about 10 long minutes of this - no offence, firefighters, but watching a Dalmatian's stop-drop-and-roll demonstration has its limits as drama - before an emergency call comes in and Angela and her cameraman Scott (Steve Harris, glimpsed only when he has to wipe blood off the lens) head to an apartment building where there's some kind of unexplained trouble afoot.
After the firefighters and the news reporters get there, police mysteriously lock them inside; go to the window and the marksmen outside shoot you. It's the world's fastest quarantine (the U.S. government can move quickly when it has to). Meanwhile, our heroes have to deal with the strange goings-on that begin in the apartment where old Mrs. Espinoza, wearing a white nightgown that's covered in blood, is wailing inconsolably. Soon a police officer and a firefighter are down; in the worlds of one official, "Apparently Mrs. Espinoza attacked and bit them."
Thus begins the nightmare of Quarantine, which is based on a Spanish movie called REC and has been made (by brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle) with an accomplished if familiar authenticity. That is, we've seen this kind of thing before, but it really does look like what would happen if the rage virus spread through an L.A. apartment while a TV lifestyles reporter was covering the story.
As people continue to attack and bite each other, spreading the disease, we come down to a very small group of survivors running for their lives up and down the antique staircase.
There aren't that many scares in Quarantine, but there is a mood of anxiety, which is underlined with the washed-out, news-camera-style footage. Combine that with the fact that the electricity has been turned off in the building and you have a dark film whose jumbled action sequences (our old friend, the jiggly camera, is at it again) mean we get fleeting glimpses of the terrors.
Much of the fear comes from the ambient noises of, say, Centers for Disease Control investigators breathing loudly inside their anti-viral masks, or of Jennifer Carpenter screaming hysterically for the final half-hour of the movie in a performance that belongs in some kind of horror film Hall of Fame: heroine most in need of being eaten, perhaps.