Tuesday, February 15, 2011

I Interview Myself To Get Through A Scathing Review Of Stupid Quarantine!

The Good: Moments where tense mood pays off.
The Bad: Lack of character, Ridiculously structured and obvious plot, Ineffective mood
The Basics: Because I suffered through Quarantine, I've written a creative review that (I hope) is entertaining, which is more than can be said for Stupid Quarantine!

[This remains, quite simply, one of my favorite reviews I have ever written because I tried something very different for it. It's a retro review, so ignore the tenses!  Enjoy!]

Me: In an effort to coax myself through writing a review of Quarantine, I am endeavoring one of my more creative reviews. For this review, then, I am sitting down with novelist and reviewer W.L. Swarts for commentary on the new horror film Quarantine. We're sitting in the Upstate New York residence of W.L. Swarts, we have Sweet Coconut Thai Chai tea and we have just returned from a screening of Quarantine. Thank you for joining us, W.L., I know you're very busy.

W.L.: I am, though I recently lost eighty-nine minutes of my life that I can never get back.

Me: You're referring, of course, to the film Quarantine, which you just got done screening.

W.L.: I am.

Me: I take it, then, that you did not enjoy it.

W.L.: I did not.

Me: To be fair, you have a generally low opinion of horror movies, do you not? As I recall, a horror film tops your list of the Worst 10 Films Of All Time.

W.L.: That would be Wrong Turn and that was an unspeakably bad film that ought never to have been made. I also credit it with ruining my first marriage, no kidding. But the truth of the matter is, I only have a real problem with bad horror movies. I am not inherently biased against horror films as a genre. That list to which you referred is graced mostly by comedies, which suffer mightily under my pen. But horror as a genre is fine, I have no basic problems with horror movies.

In fact, if we're pointing out that I loathe Wrong Turn, it is worth noting that I proudly gave 28 Days Later an almost perfect score. That was a truly great horror film, despite the problems with the quantities of the blood around people who never contracted the Rage. I'm not biased against horror movies; I'm biased against bad horror films.

Me: But you were probably biased against Quarantine, going in, weren't you? We hear you've pretty constantly referred to it as Stupid Quarantine. Is that not accurate?

W.L.: It is, accurate both as a quote and an assessment of Stupid Quarantine. As you might know, I participated in the Summer Blockbuster Season this year, which means I was subjected to an inordinate number of films and movie previews. I saw the previews for Stupid Quarantine many, many times over the summer and from the very first time I saw it, I knew that the preview was essentially showing the entire movie, down to - literally - the last frames of the film.

Sadly, tonight that assessment was borne out. Anyone who has seen the previews for Stupid Quarantine has seen all of the vital parts. Hell, if you've seen the movie poster, you know how the film ends, so it's pretty much a question of "why bother?!"

Me: Well, people go to horror movies with a certain disconnect; they might know how it is going to end, but they go for the thrill of being scared.

W.L.: Yes, but fright is based largely on surprise. Anyone who watches and enjoys horror films will not be surprised by what is in Stupid Quarantine. What's worse: anyone who saw Cloverfield will not be surprised or frightened by Stupid Quarantine. This movie bears remarkable similarities to Cloverfield.

If Cloverfield was The Blair Witch Project Meets Godzilla, then Stupid Quarantine was The Blair Witch Project Meets [Insert Name Of Any Haunted House Movie Here].

Me: Do you think you could stop referring to it as "Stupid" Quarantine?

W.L.: Not bloody likely.

Me: Do you think you could tell our readers what the movie is about, perhaps in sarcastic and demeaning terms?

W.L.: Sure. If I couldn't do that, I wouldn't be much of an authority. Stupid Quarantine is essentially a handheld camera point of view documentary in the style of The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield wherein a reporter and her cameraman unwittingly begin to document something that was later "recovered" from the scene of the event. Unlike Cloverfield, though, Stupid Quarantine manages to be smart enough to not tell viewers what they are seeing with an opening scrawl that ruins the film for anyone with a brain. Instead, the viewer is given the film company's logo and a voice-over before the camera begins to roll. There is no title sequence, which is meant to put the viewer right into the movie.

Angela Vidal is a news reporter for the show "The Night Shift" when she is given the opportunity to tag along with a team of Los Angeles Fire Department firefighters, who set up everything by admitting that in this day in age they mostly respond to medical emergencies. Angela flirts with Jake and is hit on by Fletcher, while inspecting the firehouse. She and cameraman Scott become bored until there is an undefined emergency.

Angela, Jake, Fletcher and Scott arrive at an apartment building where bossy policeman Danny and his partner have ascertained that the weird neighbor Espinoza was heard screaming an unearthly scream from her apartment. Upon investigating, they find Espinoza is covered in blood, light sensitive and hungry for human flesh as she takes a bite out of Danny's partner. Retreating with the injured police officer to the bottom floor, everyone in the apartment building discovers they are trapped inside by a CDC blockade with people with machine guns. This leads to idiotic infighting that is broken up by Fletcher being thrown - presumably by crazy old Espinoza - from the upper balcony and everyone in the apartment building fearing for their lives.

As the residents are picked off by crazed, infected people, it becomes clear that there is some form of super-virulent rabies or such being transmitted and it's pretty hard to care because none of these characters are terribly empathetic and Stupid Quarantine follows pretty much every conceit in the book up until it finally ends.

Me: It sounds like you truly hated this film.

W.L.: I did.

Me: Come on, there must be something they did right. The night couldn't have been a complete wash for you.

W.L.: Well, I didn't get a speeding ticket going to or leaving this movie, which is more than I can say for Cloverfield. But to put it in perspective, on the way home I let myself listen to a song by Rihanna (“Disturbia”) to cleanse my palate.

Me: But we thought you found her overproduced, obvious beats, predictable lyrics and inane basslines banal.

W.L.: Exactly. And yet, after being subjected to Stupid Quarantine, I let myself listen to one of her songs to try to get into a better frame of mind.

Me: What did the film do right?

W.L.: Well, it ended. I wish that were a joke, but it's not. If I had to say anything good about the movie - and I do feel compelled to if for no other reason than I'm still on the fence as to whether or not this is a one or two out of ten movie - it would have to be that there are moments where the mood works. There are appropriately chaotic bits that work for what they are.

Me: If mood is the big thing in a horror film . . .

W.L.: Don't paraphrase here: I said "bits" of it work. The fundamental problem with Stupid Quarantine is that there is nothing new here. We've seen it all before, mostly from the previews.

Me: That's a bit harsh, don't you think?

W.L.: I wish it WERE being harsh. Instead, Stupid Quarantine follows a pattern so predictable and obvious that it's astonishing this one ever got green-lit. Anyone who has ever seen a horror movie will be able to call exactly when and where a person will jump out and attack one of the people in the apartment.

Me: Come on, it can't be that predictable! There must have been some surprises!

W.L.: There was no romantic subplot developed.

Me: What?

W.L.: The only thing that didn't happen in the movie that I called when the film began was that Angela and Jake never kiss. The way they were flirting in the beginning, I anticipated that they would be caught by Scott making out at one point and that did not happen.

Me: So it did surprise you!

W.L.: That might have been the most pleasant surprise. All of the other surprises were utter disappointments.

Me: Like what?

W.L.: Well, it all goes back to the conceits of a horror movie. And when you see more and more horror films, the only things that make the newer works worth seeing are films that defy those conceits. Stupid Quarantine repeats all of the conceits we've seen before.

This leads to unfortunate disappointments for seasoned movie viewers and horror fans, alike. So, for example, in my notes on the movie, I was stretching to come up with something positive and I happily noted that it made sense that the veterinarian in the building, Lawrence, would be the one to work on the officer's bite. Here's an officer who has had his neck bitten out and the veterinarian is dealing with it. It made perfect sense to me and it worked beautifully.

Me: Well, how is that a disappointment then?

W.L.: Literally twenty seconds after I wrote the note praising the movie, calling it "believable" that the vet would be stitching up the bite wound, Lawrence declares that he has never seen anything like this before. Lawrence is a seasoned veterinarian played by Greg Germann, who is not a young man (I mean that as a compliment). To believe that a veterinarian in a major city like Los Angeles has never seen a neck bitten like that defies suspension of disbelief. Moreover, that he seems utterly unable to believe that an old lady could have done this makes him seem like the least educated medical profession in the city. I'm thinking that he moved to Los Angeles from a small town so he could blend in and his incompetence would go unnoticed. I'm not an expert, to be sure, but from a strictly medical and forensic position, bites like this would seem to look a lot alike. Anyone dealing with animals for ten or twenty years, especially in a major city, would have been bound to have seen bites like this before. Probably not from humans, but . . .

Me: You mentioned conceits before. What do you mean by that?

W.L.: I am glad you asked. Conceits are pretty much the industry standards in a genre or in a specific plot that define the situation the characters are in. Stupid Quarantine is a movie built on conceits from the moment it began. The title defines one of the conceits: that this is a quarantine situation. The point of view defines another conceit: that there is a seldom-seen character who is alive and documenting the movie. That conceit is one that has been done to death lately, like with Cloverfield and it is done remarkably ineffectually here, especially for anyone who has seen the trailer or the movie poster. In accepting the conceit of the single-perspective point of view, the viewer knows from the beginning what the last shots will be.

Also with the point of view conceit, there cannot be a soundtrack. After all, the viewer is meant to believe this is some form of document recovered later on and leaked to all of us now. This conceit is worked around in Stupid Quarantine by - I kid not - having this apartment be special creaky apartment. The moment the characters start up the stairs from the lobby, it is noted that the apartment makes weird noises from time to time . . . and it does, at plot/mood-building convenient times.

As for the Quarantine situation, this is a conceit that both needs to be accepted for the movie to work and challenged for the characters to make sense. I was surprised it took so long for people in the building to discover they were trapped as the movie spends an awful lot of time getting people out of the various apartments as opposed to trying right away to find an exit from the apartment. This is especially problematic with Kathy, who is characterized as an overprotective mother. Overprotective mother hears deathly screaming from a nearby apartment and takes her daughter down to the lobby?! After a few minutes of suffering through the character, she seemed like someone who would want to be sure her slightly ill daughter was safe and staying inside creepy building is a conceit I don't buy. She's the type of neighbor who hears crazy recluse woman shrieking and runs outdoors with her daughter until her husband gets home. It's just how that character was played.

As well, there are pretty obvious horror conceits for this type of movie; there has to be a certain level of gore, like a stomped on rat in this movie, and people who are thought to be dead and gone miraculously reappear all foaming out and lethal still. For the first of those, I found myself especially bothered by the lack of intelligence in Stupid Quarantine. Rats are not known to be particularly social animals. So, when one starts running toward the cameraman, it would have been a great time to consider what the rat was running from.

Similarly, I sat wondering why it took Officer Danny so long to actually shoot Espinoza.

Perhaps the hyperbole of this conceit is the "rule of three" which is adhered to pretty closely in Stupid Quarantine.

Me: "Rule of Three?"

W.L.: Often when we want to set up something scary, it follows a rule of three. There will be two normal circumstances - like apartments investigated - before you run into the one with whatever is designed to make you jump. When turning a corner, the camera will take in three walls before the creature jumps out. In practical terms, this means that the creature is always to the direct left or right of the cameraman and it is just remarkably polite and waits them to turn before attacking.

But to return to the whole idea of a quarantine, this is a conceit that has to be absolute - so it is entirely predictable that cell phone reception and cable will suddenly go out, as it is when the electric is ultimately terminated. This also leads the informed viewer to wonder why Scott, Angela, et al. run around in the dark for half an hour instead of having Scott use the nightvision function on the camera that miraculously appears for the last minutes of the movie.

But for this conceit to work, it has to be tested, too. The viewer has to see what happens when the characters try to break the quarantine and in this case, people trying to escape are shot by snipers from nearby buildings.

Me: Well, that seems pretty smart . . .

W.L.: It is and it isn't. In this case, it brings us to another problem of suspension of disbelief. The conceit works for people who are in a horror movie where all the characters are idiots, not for people who want to survive or are smart.

Me: What do you mean?

W.L.: Take 28 Days Later, for example. The reason the movie works is entirely based upon setting. The reason 28 Days Later would be utterly unbelievable in the United States is that we have a fairly well-armed populace. The Infected would have been picked off by our happy gun nuts (and I say that with utmost respect in this case). Similarly, if it had been set in Siberia, most of Russia could have been evacuated before it became a real threat.

Stupid Quarantine is filled with idiot characters who do not honestly want to survive and this is easily evidenced by how the setting fails in this premise.

Me: It seems like being stuck in a house filled with rabid people unable to leave would be pretty frightening . . .

W.L.: It is, unless you're trapped there by snipers who are picking you off from a distance. I mean, there's a scene where there are a good number of the residents barricaded in a room when they come to realize they can't leave the apartment building without being shot. All they had to do was stay there.

Me: I don't follow.

W.L.: The problem with Stupid Quarantine is that all the residents of spooky infected apartment have to do is stay in front of the window that has been blown out and keep tossing the infected in front of it.

Me: That's cold.

W.L.: That's survival. In this case, you have a bunch of people who say they want to survive and rather than actually do what they need to to survive, they fight among themselves and put themselves in unnecessary danger. I'm one of those people who would survive a man-made apocalypse.

Me: Why don't you simply accept that as a conceit of the genre?

W.L.: Because if I'm going to be invested in characters, I want them to be smart. Who care if a bunch of idiots get killed off for being stupid? It doesn't make for great film. It's far more compelling when smart people try and are outwitted by an even smarter villain or situation. I want to watch characters who are at least as smart and resourceful as me if I'm going to try to care about them.

And the other problem is that Stupid Quarantine is almost exclusively about conceits. I didn't keep a stopwatch with me or anything, but I'm almost positive the bloody window in this movie came at about the same point in time as the behind-the-curtain bloody explosion in Cloverfield. If you're going to rip-off another film, at least wait a year to do it!

Me: What about the acting? St . . . Quarantine has a pretty amazing cast.

W.L.: Yeah. I'm a fan of Steve Harris, Columbus Short, Greg Germann, and Marin Hinkle. In fact, when this comes out on DVD, I'll probably put links below to other, vastly superior works those four have been in.

Me: We can't load this up with too many of those references to other reviews that everybody hates.

W.L.: Exactly.

Me: Well, what about the acting? How did director John Erick Dowdle get such a decent cast to do this piece of crap?

W.L.: Incriminating photos is my prevailing theory. None of them lives up to their potential. Not one.

Me: And you hadn't seen lead Jennifer Carpenter in anything before this?

W.L.: No and this is probably not the best advertisement for her alleged talents. This is not a decent showing by any of the actors. Greg Germann, for example, is stiff and seems to have trouble getting the idiotic dialogue his character is forced to say out.

Me: Perhaps they were drawn in by the script . . . ?

W.L.: I fail to believe there was an actual script for this.

Me: There was. The screenplay was written by Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. There were three people who wrote the movie this film was based upon.

W.L.: There are five people who ought to reconsider where their talent lays.

Me: That's harsh, even for you.

W.L.: I call it as I see it; this movie was obvious, boring and will no doubt make it onto my list of the worst ten films of 2008.

Me: Any other closing thoughts?

W.L.: J.J. Abrams must be spinning in his grave.

Me: Er, J.J. Abrams is not dead.

W.L.: Right. Well, then, if he says anything favorable about this, I'm going to have to doubt the quality of the forthcoming Star Trek more than I already am . . . Seriously, this ripped off Cloverfield in virtually every way and then managed to do it worse.

Me: At least they didn't have an opening scrawl on Quarantine.

W.L.: Small miracle.

Me: Thank you for your time.

W.L.: I want my eighty-nine minutes back!

For other horror film reviews, please check out my takes on:
The Alien Quadrilogy
The Silence Of The Lambs
Shutter Island


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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