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Thursday, April 23, 2020

‘[REC]’ (2007) vs. ‘Quarantine’ (2008) [Revenge of the Remakes]

Welcome to ‘Revenge of the Remakes, where columnist Matt Donato takes us on a journey through the world of horror remakes. We all complain about Hollywood’s lack of originality whenever studios announce new remakes, reboots, and reimaginings, but the reality? Far more positive examples of refurbished classics and updated legacies exist than you’re willing to remember (or admit). The good, the bad, the unnecessary – Matt’s recounting them all.

Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s [REC] played an instrumental role in morphing “Matt Donato, Horror Dabbler” into “Matt Donato, Forever Horror Enthusiast.” Around the film’s release, I’d spend my collegiate downtime nurturing a newfound love of cinema that’d subsequently recalibrate my post-graduation career trajectory. The funny part is, horror wasn’t my forefront focus or dedicated passion until university – until I discovered [REC]. One fateful Netflix DVD rental on an internet blog’s recommendation showed me how profoundly introspective, deceptively versatile, and scarily unforgiving the horror genre could reach. [REC] is bulletproof found-footage artistry that’ll forever rank in my class of horror “untouchables,” as I shy not from the foundational context of this month’s “Revenge of the Remakes” analysis.

In 2008, in the thick of Hollywood’s horror remake craze (either golden oldies or ineffable imports), Screen Gems looked to capitalize on the Spanish-language [REC] after heaps of overseas praise. If memory and IMDb release dates serve me correctly, their remake Quarantine beat [REC] to stateside markets with an October 10th, 2008 premiere versus [REC]’s long-last limited US drop on October 17th, 2008. Producers wasted no time enlisting brothers John and Drew Dowdle, hot off The Poughkeepsie Tapes, to Americanize [REC] for those who refuse to read subtitles. Why promote international cinema when you can spend millions of dollars to recreate, mimick, and swipe the credit for yourself, right?

The Approach

Jennifer Carpenter in Screen Gems’ thriller Quarantine.

The Dowdles’ screenplay mixes a 70%-30% blend of original scripting from [REC] and “unique” diversions that are infrequent, yet thematically drastic. While dialogue remains word-for-word mainly, the two most significant changes are cameraman Scott (Steve Harris) existing as much on-screen as he does behind his rig and a rabies explanation for the residential contagion outbreak. Quarantine adds a few new characters but remains slavishly dedicated to copy-pasting [REC]‘s narrative, sequential composition, and spouted lines to the point where you can easily ignore alterations.

Jennifer Carpenter steps in as late-night television personality Angela Vidal (familiar), host of a local program dedicated to spotlighting overnight professionals who work while we all slumber. Tonight’s episode devotes screentime to those brave men and women who combat blazing fires, as Angela quietly wishes for some “action” to shoot. When the station’s alarm goes off, she’s whisked away to shadow an apartment building alarm investigation. Angela tails firemen Jake (Jay Hernandez) and “Fletcher” (Johnathon Schaech) as they locate an unwell woman, only to find minutes later that the government has sealed every exit under contagious disease protocol. Tenants panic, tensions rise, and Angela informs Scott to record everything. Right until the proverbial – and physical – hammer drops.

It’s par-for-the-course duplication with the addition of verbatim conversation snatching. Scripted blueprints lay a repetitive groundwork, throwaway tweaks introduce “new material,” and you get a product that’s desperately familiar yet hopefully not mirrored enough to instigate objections from [REC] obsessors who’ve seen this movie before.

New name, same concept, more animal cruelty.

Does It Work?

Doug Jones in Quarantine

The difference between [REC] and Quarantine highlights the inefficiencies of modern American horror throughout the later 2000s. The brothers Dowdle inflate [REC]‘s body count and shift focus from ravenous tension to squeamish gore (Fletcher’s broken shinbone), but not as a method of expanded storytelling. [REC] is leaner, meaner, and develops characters where Quarantine throws civilians or crisis responders, whoever’s closest, into infected feeding frenzies. Balagueró and Plaza strive to elevate outbreak paranoia by introducing theological terror through Niña Medeiros (Javier Botet), creating this consummate horror arc that evolves throughout prototypical zombie ideologies. Quarantine is a more generic renovation, jettisoning mythological intrigue as Act III reveals barely touch upon a fleeting doomsday cult motive as Doug Jones’ “Thin Infected Man” suggests the sickly will transform even sicker.

Quarantine’s bolstered cast adds nothing outside of gratifying kill-count gnarliness, given how a moot pawn like Denis O’Hare’s “Randy” comes and goes with inconsequential impact. He’s introduced as an alcoholic dissenter, pushing back against Jake or Officer Wilensky (Columbus Short), only to be mauled by a Cerberus-lookin’ canine who’s in full rage-mode. Randy gets called into the lobby, makes a big deal about this being ‘Merica (in a matter of words), and after drunkenly stumbling out the building’s elevator, retreats only to have said doggo lunge past the closing doors as Angela watches in horror. We don’t witness the brutality, mind you. We merely glimpse Randy’s chewed-up corpse scenes later when Jake, Scott, and Angela use the same elevator. Utterly pointless, where random violence remains random and meaningless to the overall scenario.

In terms of atmosphere, I’d love to compare production design measurements between Quarantine’s entire four-story set – a fully functioning apartment complex – to [REC]’s shooting location. Quarantine increases the square footage, adds the aforementioned elevators, and lessens the pandemic claustrophobia that defines [REC]. Balagueró and Plaza work their asses off to emphasize the close-quarters intimacy of [REC], where the Dowdles favor spatial comforts. [REC] feels filmed on-location (read: natural) within some low-rent stack of rental units while Quarantine, architecturally, gives the impression of being a Hollywood rebuild.

Quarantine does more than other remakes to honor its source material. Still, those intentions are sometimes in question as Carpenter, Hernandez, Short, and damn-near every actor playing a legacy character reuses hijacked dialogue. Not as noticeable with time wedged between original vs. remake watches, but back to back? Try ignoring the carbon-copy nature, when what’s considered a “fresh take” instead steps back into a more seen-it-before realm — light on all-cylinders substantiality, heavy on grotesque effects and kill-em-all mentalities.

The Result

Javier Botet in [REC]

The differences between Quarantine and [REC] speak volumes to a definable period in horror history. In translation, Quarantine loses what makes [REC] a still buzzed-about anomaly. [REC] locks into a persistent fervor that champions first-person filmmaking for all it’s viciously worth. Quarantine might attempt the same route, and while faring better than other remakes and found-footage duds, it doesn’t deliver enough to separate itself from far superior influences. Even cleaner video feed visuals in Quarantine subtract from the primal severity captured in [REC]. Justification is paramount to a remake’s success, and there’s not enough customization to singularly appreciate another fast-tracked appropriation of ideas.

One single [REC] and Quarantine back-to-back viewing calls to attention just how little US-based horror films, at the time, believed in audiences. Take an example as simple as Scott, our tour guide. In [REC], we never see videographer Pablo (cinematographer Pablo Rosso). A sneaker gaze at most. In Quarantine, it’s seconds into shooting when Scott leaves his post and interacts with Ángela (Manuela Velasco) in-frame. The Dowdles don’t trust that viewers can connect with a character who’s inescapably present, just maybe not shown, so Scott is forced into usage even when not required. He’s practically waving at the screen as a reminder that yes, Scott is real. It’s a pinhead-sized illustration of a massive problem, one that drove horror fans like myself towards courageous foreign titles that didn’t spoon-feed to the point of obliterating obviousness.

Quarantine will, in most cases, better appeal to someone who’s never seen [REC]. That’s the film’s purpose, and it’s hard to argue against the Dowdles’ attentiveness in restructuring those most frightening moments. An infected woman with bloodshot eyes lunges into Scott’s camera, foam frothing out her mouth (remember, rabies). Pipsqueak Briana (a toddler Joey King), dead-staring Wilensky as the policeman cautiously approaches a zombified child (not cautious enough). The attic scare – THE ATTIC SCARE. Again, if you’ve never seen [REC], your appreciation for horror elements alone should be rewarded – but I’ve seen [REC]. Therefore, I’ve seen all these scares executed on a higher level.

Are the sins of remakes past committed? Yes, but on a lesser scale. My argument is always surrounding the “Why?” of remake filmmaking, and Quarantine doesn’t deceive. Screen Gems’ [REC] Version .5 exists for a general public who either possess no viable option to watch [REC] or were never going to bother with words on their screen. Nothing makes this “John And Drew’s Signature [REC].” Quarantine is A Very [REC] Remake for better and worse, only distancing itself through Americanized pitfalls that plagued horror releases through much of the 2000s.

The Lesson

Manuela Velasco as Angela in [REC]

Allow me to share Jaume Balagueró’s reaction to a finished Quarantine:

“It’s impossible for me to like, because it’s a copy. It’s the same, except for the finale. It’s impossible to enjoy Quarantine after [REC]. I don’t understand why they avoided the religious themes; they lost a very important part of the end of the movie.”


Maybe I should have led with Balagueró’s snippet, but then you could have ignored the rest of my thesis (resistance is futile). While Quarantine is classifiable as “different,” it’s not. There’s no fooling those who worship at the altar of Medeiros. You’ve revamped a deeply disturbing, blasphemously inclined, found footage wonder and stripped away advantageous traits in favor of a rat stomped underfoot and protruding bone fragments. Ah, the American way.

So what did we learn?

  • A remake shouldn’t challenge an original in the style of Highlander (“There can only be one!”) – it should reinvent and repurpose in a way that offers some new experience for an audience who maybe has seen the first, maybe hasn’t.
  • Understand *why* fans fell in love with an original. Don’t ignore the very reasons the source has become acclaimed enough for remake treatments.
  • Trust your audience! I promise I knew Scott was a real human being without seeing his face shoved towards the screen!
  • If you’re going to cycle through the same dialogue and sequential scene order, your execution better be bulletproof.

A silver lining, perhaps? Paco Plaza confirmed that our humble U-S-A remake ended up shifting newfound attention unto [REC]. “It moved a spotlight onto our film. You know, the fact that it was going to be remade in Hollywood, it was big news in Europe.” Quibbles and rants aside, there’s a smile on my face knowing an original piece of art gained further momentum thanks to a remake that ain’t down with the same sickness.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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