The contenders: [•Rec], directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007; and Quarantine, directed by John Eric Dowdle, 2008
The story: A film crew, while following on-duty firemen, gets trapped in an apartment building with its residents... one of whom has come down with a mysterious illness. Needless to say, the illness involves face-biting, excessive salivating, and poor posture. As the authorities seal the building to prevent any residents from leaving, the film crew continues intrepidly taping the events. Think The Blair Witch Project meets 28 Days Later.
The battle: Although both films -- given their "found transmission" nature -- purport to be in real time, that sense is more pronounced in [•Rec] than Quarantine. The edits in [•Rec] are accompanied with digital fuzz, hinting at an actual camera being turned off, whereas the edits in Quarantine are much more smooth. Indeed, the sense of reality in [•Rec] feels much stronger. Angela Vidal, our newscaster heroine makes errors in her introduction to the show and whispers to her cameraman, Pablo, to cut if an interview turns out to be dull. Her tour of the fire house suggests real life for late-shift firemen: lots of boredom. Certain people are too shy to appear on camera. In essence, you get the feeling that this is a real event taking place, even to the point when, as the fateful emergency call comes in, the firemen feel no real need to use the siren on their truck. Given this firmly-established sense of the mundane, when the more horrific elements are introduced, the viewer is more inclined to accept these as plausible.
Indeed, the total immersion in the viewing experience allows [•Rec] to get away with jump scares -- say, for instance, a body falling down a stairwell. It's particularly well-done considering that many of the shots are done in long takes to emulate someone turning on a camera and leaving it on. There's no foregrounding of the scare with a ominous strings on the soundtrack or any other emotion-heightening techniques. Everything seems normal... and then boom!, a body falling into the frame. It's an effective moment. The long takes also amp up the gore factor, as the camera witnesses acts of violence that go naturalistically from shaky chaos to juicy face-munching.
[•Rec], being a Spanish production, also introduces two cultural-specific elements, one of which makes an important point, and the other which muddles an otherwise clean storyline. During one moment of respite, Angela interviews different trapped folks, which deepens the audience's sympathy for those caught in an increasingly dire situation. During these scenes, [•Rec] comments upon issues of immigration -- particularly, the Chinese family living upstairs. As the nature of the infection is discovered, blame quickly falls upon them, manifesting the stereotype of immigrants as bearers of exotic disease. (Ask Lou Dobbs on this point.) One vain resident (clearly coded as homosexual) who preens before his interview delivers a xenophobic screed about the smells coming from the apartment and their consumption of raw fish. He even explicitly mistakes Chinese and Japanese, saying that they're interchangeable. His buffoonery suggests a strong sympathy for the immigrants, who are just as doomed as he is.
The second cultural point is more problematic. Towards the end, it's suggested that the source of the outbreak might be demonic possession. For heavily Roman Catholic Spain, this might hold extra sway as a horrific element, but it adds some confusion. Had an exorcism taken place? Why all the scientific equipment? Did the occupant of the room take the Papal Encyclical about religion and science too seriously?
Quarantine, on the other hand, has a much more plausible explanation for the outbreak: a virulent strain of rabies. Given that the film is set in Los Angeles, this offers the opportunity for plenty of dog-related mayhem, and the director Dowdle is happy to oblige. Unfortunately, however, Quarantine also feels much more scripted than [•Rec], and a random, free-form night among the firemen becomes an opportunity for sexually-charged banter and playful harassment (coming primarily from Fletcher, played by a mustachioed Jonathon Schech.) Perhaps it's saying something about American firemen and their cult of masculinity. Come on -- firemen are plenty hot as is. No need to be jerks about it as well.
Interestingly enough, [•Rec] was released on DVD long after Quarantine, bearing the tagline "the movie that inspiried Quarantine." But Quarantine seems to be an almost shot-for-shot replica, with a notable exception: the cameraman in Quarantine, Scott, becomes much more of a presence. Whereas Pablo never even appears on-screen, Scott shows up several times, even using the camera as a weapon at one point. Somehow, his transformation from a witness to an active participant makes the film feel much more contrived. Though I understand the necessity of showing a rat, would he really film himself stomping the rat and then staring at rodent splatter on his shoes?
Quarantine also makes the mistake of introducing too many ancillary characters (also known as victims). The limited cast of [•Rec] keeps the tension lean, maintaining our focus on just a few individuals. Why should we be concerned with the drunk yuppie or the young, nubile opera student? On a positive note, in contrast to [•Rec]'s concern about immigration, Quarantine shows integration as somewhat of a fait accompli. The building's residents run the gamut of ethnicities and ages, including an immigrant Somali family (who only briefly get the blame for the illness) to the South Asian opera teacher (again coded as homosexual). But somehow, all their interactions feel staged, never quite achieving the same degree of naturalism that [•Rec] establishes.
But Quarantine does critique a uniquely American cultural anxiety -- namely, the idea of government as a malignant entity. Whereas the threat from the government in [•Rec] remains distant, the American government actively engages in propaganda (insisting that the building has already been evacuated) and terror (sniping an unlucky individual who tries to escape through a window). And, instead of demonic possession, Quarantine offers another uniquely American institution as the ultimate source of the outbreak: a doomsday cult.
The verdict: [•Rec] wins. Its more improvisational feel and tighter focus make for a more shocking experience.