The best film I’ve this year is a French horror movie from last year called “Inside,” now out on DVD. Before you go running to your Netflix queue, let me stop you. This is a film so grisly, so profoundly upsetting, I can’t even summarize the plot in these pages. Some will argue that the film never should have been made. Watching it takes more than a strong stomach; it’s an act of will.
I bring up “Inside,” as I will several other recent and worthy horror DVDs, by way of contrast to “Quarantine,” now playing in Bloomington. “Inside” is one of the bravest, most honest, most committed, passionately-made films I’ve seen – in any genre. “Quarantine,” on the other hand, is a steaming bowl of dumb, a movie that doesn’t even try hard enough to be called a failure.
Oddly, the opening scenes, setting up the situation, are skillful. Angela (Jennifer Carpenter), a cub reporter for a hip show called “Night Shift,” is doing a story on a local Los Angeles fire department. Entirely through her videographer’s hand-held camera – the view through which we’ll experience the entire movie — we explore how firefighters live in the station (interesting), and observe as two of the men put the moves on TV-pretty Angela (logical, well within the actors’ ranges).
How are we rewarded for investing in these characters, especially the dynamic of two friends, competing for the same girl, one with braggadocio and one with charm? Within minutes of arriving at the fateful apartment complex, one of the men has plummeted four stories to become a human pancake. So much for that.
About that apartment. The fire truck answers a call reporting a domestic disturbance, an old woman who won’t stop screaming. The two firemen, along with a cop already on the scene (the year’s worst performance, by Columbus Short), with Angela and the camera tagging along, meet Mrs. Suarez, she of the blood-stained nightgown, frothing jowls, and animal gruntings. We discover that she, like all raging infected zombie people in cinema, has an uncanny ability to connect her teeth to the neck of anyone nearby.
Whatever the infection is, it’s already spreading beyond control, whether via a loose dog, aggressive rats, or a sick little girl who has so much more than mere bronchitis. Now, let’s assume you’re the mayor of Los Angeles, and you know about this building filled with people infected by a mutant strain of rabies (yes, rabies! There’s a veterinarian on hand, he knows!), some of whom are L.A.’s finest. Do you a) break in, secure the situation, and get everyone to the hospital? Or b) in full view of a watching crowd and at least one live television crew, seal off all exits from the building and blow away anyone trying to get out with sniper fire from the rooftops?
The risible situation is a necessity of the bare-bones budget, which can swing only a basic set and a few sound effects of helicopters outside. But even under those conditions, a better film can keep its characters in a crucible. “Saw II” had equally flimsy, low-budget sets, but its clever, gory puzzles kept you watching. Better still, a brazen Japanese horror film called “Infection” trapped its doomed characters in a hospital reeling from an outbreak; and for $1.98 and some demented imagination and outré imagery, ground the audience, squealing, through the mill.
“28 Weeks Later” did a superior version of a scene shot through a night vision scope (“Silence of the Lambs” did it first); “Cloverfield” and “Diary of the Dead” used hand-held cameras more or less effectively. But the real progenitor of “Quarantine,” and the hand-held aesthetic in horror, is “The Blair Witch Project,” a zero-budget film that became a cultural phenomenon. Panicked breathing right in your ear, coupled with images you can’t quite make out, have an almost magical ability to transmit panic. So that makes half a dozen movies to see instead.
“Quarantine” may be the sign that the hand-held stuff has finally run aground. As we say when we wake up and check the DOW: Let’s pray this is the bottom.