[16 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s a film criticism cliché - remakes suck. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part, taking an already established film and “updating”/“reimagining” it, for whatever reason, routinely turns up junk. In recent years, it was Asian horror films that received some unnecessary Westernization. One Missed Call my Eye! Now, Tinsel Town is casting an even wider international net. With the announcement that Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves is taking on the English version of the Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In, perhaps we should go back to last October and see how successful Sony’s remake of [REC] was. Wait, you never heard of [REC] ? Really? Well, that’s not surprising. For some reason (read: clear commercial competition), the studio sat on the brilliant Spanish production, giving it a lukewarm festival like release schedule before hiding it away. Clearly they were waiting until Quarantine, their take on the material, had its day in the cinematic sun.
With the release this week of [REC] on Region 1 DVD - again, held up for some unknown ($$$) reason - we can do a little compare and contrast. But first, a couple of caveats. To be on the up and up, this critic liked both films. Actually, that’s not right. He ADORED [REC] , finding it one of the creepiest films of the last few years. Oddly enough, he appreciated what Quarantine tried to do with the material. While not always successful, it definitely stands on its own. Secondly, this discussion will be inundated with spoilers. Spoilers, Spoilers, SPOILERS!!! So if you want to experience one or either of these films without knowing the many plot contrivances and twists, go check out [REC] and Quarantine first and then come back to this piece. Only then will you fully appreciate the specifics we will be dissecting, beginning with:The Story
First, both [REC] and Quarantine make the wise decision to not “pretty up” their storylines with unnecessary subtext or pointless subplots. Each movie gives us the same set up (reporter tagging along on a routine fire call) and takes it to its logical, logistical ends. Certainly, the effectiveness of how it manages this straightforward narrative device is one of the crucial differences between the two. While it plays like a virtual shot-for-shot recreation of [REC] , Quarantine does contain elements that try (some successfully, some not so) to expand on the original idea. One of the Spanish spook shows many delights were its menacing inferences, from the standard zombie machinations to the horrific demonic possession material at the end. Quarantine goes for (SPOILER ALERT), “mutant rabies strain”. Similarly, the remake discharges all of the original’s religious overtones to expand on the whole “animal” angle. Quarantine also adds a couple of unique kills - one featuring a video camera, another involving an infected dog. All in all, however, it’s the same basic movie.The Characters
The biggest difference between [REC] and Quarantine is how each film handles its cast. For directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, there was a drive toward anonymity. There was a real desire on their part to use the (mostly) unknown quality of their performers to sell the reality of what was going on. As a result, they picked individuals like Manuela Velasco - some notoriety, but not enough to stick out in her native land. Naturally, when Hollywood cranks up its remake machine, they have to pepper the personalities with recognizable (or at least quasi-recognizable) actors. That’s why our lead is played by Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter, or why the fireman she follows are Jay Hernandez (of Hostel fame) and Johnathon Schaech (perhaps best known for That Thing You Do). While they attempt to override their celebrity with some halfway decent turns, the production clearly mandates more screen time for all of them. That’s why we get elongated sequences inside the firehouse, and the budding (if quickly tossed aside) sexual advances. [REC] views its characters as fright fodder. Quarantine is looking to pad some up and comers slight resumes.The Actors
Oddly enough, the application of real thespians into this found footage conceit does Quarantine a grand disservice. While Hernandez actually helps in the heroics department (giving us a viable victim to root for), Ms. Carpenter is so over the top and fake that we wonder how anyone would ever take her seriously. As with most horror heroines, her character substitutes fear for common sense, leading to actions that would probably get her killed within the first five minutes. Unlike Angela Vidal, her Hispanic counterpart, she falls apart almost immediately, forgetting the story and her position as a member of the press. Similarly, the residents of the American apartment complex are all vying for screen time, preening and preparing when they should just be reacting. The best part of [REC] is how authentic the obviously fake situation feels. This is because the Spanish cast was kept in the dark, limited in how much they were told about what was going to happen. Such an approach makes the original play as real, something Quarantine has to work hard at - and that’s never a good thing.The Direction
For John Erick Dowdle, who along with his brother Drew came up with the so-so found footage film The Poughkeepsie Tapes a few years back, Quarantine represented a substantial step up. They were helming a Hollywood film for the first time, and recreating a favored foreign fright film at that. One would expect a few novice jitters, but for the most part, Dowdle does a great job. He doesn’t abuse the hand held element, going gonzo with shaky cam chaos. He even gives his shooter some onscreen time, making the “manual” aspect to the filming that much more important. For Balagueró and Plaza, there is no such need for added affectations. Instead, they want to treat this material as up front and formal as possible. When Angela screams about securing the camera, it’s because it is there to record the truth, not add some kind of cinematic “style” to the experience. As a result, [REC] feels like a newscast gone horribly wrong. While equally effective, Quarantine does have just the slightest twinge of cinematic self-indulgence.The Gimmick
This is where [REC] runs roughshod over its Tinsel Town twin. Even though it’s obvious that both films are trying to copy real life, only the original succeeds as a shocker. The set-ups work better, the over the shoulder reveals and diminished peripheral vision functioning better than say, random shocks and sudden looks in the lens. In fact, almost every set-piece sequence (the falling fireman, the textile factory attack, the little girl transformation, the last ditch escape to the penthouse, the discovery of what’s inside) is handled better by [REC] than in Quarantine. Most would chalk this up to the work of cinematographer Pablo Rosso who really did handle the duties as Angela Vidal’s cameraman. He understands both the overall big picture of what Balagueró and Plaza want to accomplish while seamlessly fusing into the film’s premise. Never once do we see “Pablo”, nor is he a player in this particular drama. He is merely a member of the media, doing his job and hoping not to get killed in the process. His efforts make the found footage of [REC] look flawless. Quarantine, on the other hand, suffers from being too fussy and flashy.