A few weeks back I was in Austin enjoying the Alamo Drafthouse's fourth annual Fantastic Fest, and I was even selected to participate in a big-time horror geek debate / boxing match that was simply too much fun to describe. So if you know anything about the official rules of debating, you know that you are assigned a TOPIC and a POSITION, and you must then do your research and form a strong argument. (If debaters got to pick their own, the competition would be a lot less interesting.) But since the guys running the debate know me pretty well, they tossed me a cool TOPIC and a difficult POSITION. The topic was "Horror Remakes," and my assigned position was "pro." As in affirmative, positive, and YES in general. I was now being forced to speak out FOR horror remakes ... in front of a crowd of about 300 hardcore horror fans. Like I said, it was a fun evening.
And you know what? I had the better of the two arguments. I mean, if you're ANTI-remake, then sure, you have tons of amazingly lame retreads to choose from. Hell, you could limit your search to just the past ten years and you'll still find more worthless horror remakes than you'll believe. And that's kind of my point: The hardcore horror fans MAY have sat through the remakes of The Hitcher, The Fog, or (dear lord) Prom Night -- but those wretched flicks are forgotten about in less time than it takes to watch 'em. But on the PRO side of the horror remake argument, I was lucky enough to have a heavy arsenal full of The Fly, The Thing, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Blob, Dawn of the Dead, The Hills Have Eyes, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All remakes that, in my mind, are worth digging through some slop to discover.
So I told you all that just so I could tell you this: I can definitely get behind a remake, even one as casually obvious as Quarantine, which is a flick that apes literally everything of quality from its source material (a recent Spanish thriller called [REC]), as long as it forges a little new ground of its own. And while I could (and will) certainly recommend Quarantine on its own merits, the simple truth is that it doesn't possess many of its OWN merits. The story, the plot construction, the scares, the characters ... if you've seen the original film, then the remake comes off like a very slick cover version of an underground hit from a year ago. Only in the music business, you can usually compare the two versions to see which one you like best. Not so in this case, what with Sony purchasing the option on [REC], jamming it onto a shelf, and then (quickly) slapping together a carbon copy edition that (oh thank god) has English-speaking characters instead of Spanish-speaking ones. (It's not like either movie has all that much PLOT in the first place!)
But it's important to see both sides of the equation. While the passionate horror geeks will pump their fists and dismiss Quarantine out of hand, others may choose to see it as a compliment paid to the original film. Basically, someone at Sony caught wind of the flick and enjoyed it enough to "buy" it. An indie-style distributor might have been happy just to roll [REC] out on a limited release, but we're talking about a behemoth of a corporation here. So what's the best way to make American money off of a very cool little Spanish film? Yep, you simply have to remake it, because the original film (be it subtitled or (ugh) dubbed) would be a niche item at best. But then the question arises ... is Quarantine a remake or simply a Xerox copy with American accents?
I noticed only a few cosmetic differences between the films, and while none of them sink the remake, none of 'em exactly elevate the flick above its predecessor either. The story (a young reporter and her cameraman find themselves trapped in a quarantined building as a horrific virus pops up) offers a few off-hand divergences that add little more than extra running time, and the alterations made to the background characters feel pretty darn pointless (as if the changes were made just so SOME changes were made), but I'd be lying if I said that director John Dowdle doesn't know how to frame a freaky scare. Sure, the cynics will remind me that the director is simply aping the same shots made in another film, but at least the guy is copying with style.
For all that is painfully familiar about Quarantine, at least this remake has maintained the "dark funhouse" creepiness of the original. I half-expected the original film's best sequences to be "re-imagined" in stupid or computer-generated fashion, but if Sony just wanted a copy of [REC], then it looks like Dowdle wanted to copy why [REC] was so damn good. And while he does a consistently good job of it, well, I just look forward to the guy's next movie so we can judge his visual skills without adding "compared to the ORIGINAL film..." This was surely a good gig for a young director, but he's in sort of a no-win position here: Either his movie sucks and he RUINED the original, or he did a fine job but it was all a COPY. Hell, even the sound design (one of the first flick's most unsettling assets) is ported over to the American version, and it works really well here too.
To those who've seen and adored [REC], I'll say this: As its own movie, Quarantine is actually pretty good. It's got a cool concept, an effective ("found footage") style of cinematography, and several good sequences that work pretty damn well. The concept hasn't been ruined, dismissed, or "dumbed down" for a PG-13 rating. It's a B+ horror movie. It's simply not as good as the first film. One key difference is in the leading ladies: In the original, Manuela Velasco was pretty but also confident, professional and sympathetic. In the remake, Jennifer Carpenter is pretty but also a bit more childish -- and definitely a lot more hysterical once the horrors kick in.
To those who haven't seen [REC] and simply dig good horror flicks, I'll say this: Quarantine works. The story of how the movie got made (and how the original film has remained annoyingly unavailable here in the States) has no bearing on my reaction to the final product. Yes, you should definitely keep your eyes out for the original film, but considering how worthless most horror remakes are, the fact that this "carbon copy quickie" actually works is fairly impressive.