Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Plague Town (2008): or, The Kids are Not All Right

Sometimes, as immersed as I get in the wild and wonderful worlds of 70s sexayness and 80s excess, I almost forget that new horror movies are coming out. Oh, I see posters and commercials now and then, and I might even catch a few minutes of one on TV while I'm feverishly searching for the DVD remote to fire up my latest Paul Naschy or Coffin Joe acquisition, but on a conscious level, they barely register. And that's a failing of mine, one I should work to address. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I was shaken out of my complacence recently when I received a screener of Dark Sky Films' latest DVD offering, David Gregory's 2008 effort Plague Town. Knowing next to nothing about the movie before popping it in my player, I'd like to think I came in fresh, without preconceptions or prejudices. So what's the verdict?

It's okay.

The set-up is a tried and true one, full of Mad Movie promise. A dysfunctional American family consisting of father Jerry Monohan (David Lombard), daughters Jessica and Molly (Erica Rhodes and Josslyn DeCrosta), and the girls' stepmother Annete (Lindsay Goranson), are on a vacation to Ireland to dig up Dad's roots. A couple of wrong turns and a missed bus, and they end up in the titular town where Bad Things Happen After Sunset and Not All of Them Will Make It Out Alive.

Pretty standard, but like I say, it has its possibilities. The selling point here is laid out in the prologue, set "14 Years Ago," in which a crusty Catholic priest oversees a very reluctant young mother as she gives birth, hoping that "this will be the one" to break some curse--or PLAGUE, if you will--the rural village has suffered under for who knows how long. We don't get to see the infant, but obviously the priest doesn't think she's the one after all, and pulls out a revolver to perform a Church-approved post-natal abortion. The young husband rebels against the Ecclesiastical father figure, however, to the tune of a fireplace-poker skull impalement and a hatchet head-split! There's lots of good goopy gore here, done with practical effects, which gave me hope.

Father O'Shaunessy gets a little sloppy with the Communion Wine

A tetradecahedron's worth of solar cycles later, the Monahans descend on the Irish countryside, bringing all their Issues with them. Snotty sis Jessica is the stereotypical blonde hell-on-wheels type, complaining nonstop about the weather, the lack of civilization, the company, and particularly the presence of meek stepmom Annete and her attempts to become a part of the family. Tweeny Goth girl Molly is sullen and withdrawn, but seems better disposed toward Annette than her sister. Dad is flustered and clueless, and obviously spends more time grooming his immaculate salt-n-pepper beard than dealing with family problems beyond making travel reservations. To cope with the untenable situation her new hubby has put her in, Annette keeps quiet and chain-smokes every chance she gets.

Half out of rebellion and half out of boredom, Jessica has picked up British bloke Robin (James Warke) at a pub the day before they head out to the country, and he's tagged along with Dad's permission. When he and Jess sneak off to make out, thus making the family late back to the bus stop and forcing them to seek shelter at a nearby village (dun dun DUN!), that's when the horror begins.

Up to this point the movie has a number of good things going for it. While the broad-brush character development seems facile, it serves its purpose and lets you know the types you're dealing with here. Some would call this lazy, but I found it easy to settle into, like a comfortable chair. And the movie looks awfully good--it was shot on film, and cinematographer Brian Hubbard gets some nice ominous shots of the fog-shrouded countryside. The group's early encounters with the requisite Odd-Acting Townspeople are handled well too, particularly with Robin being force to "translate" their Irish brogue to American English and back--a fun touch. Also, obvious protagonist Molly has a nice Addams Family-era Christina Ricci thing going on, which is always approved.

"Are they made with real Girl Scouts?"

Once they get near the Plague Town, the real action commences. Crowds of deformed, plague-riddled children descend on our hapless Americans, forcing them to split up. In a particularly tense scene, stepmom Annette is slowly beaten to death by a hubcap-wielding kid, and Lindsay Goranson does some great, intense acting here, making your feel every blow. Molly is captured and taken back to town by her new playmates. Meanwhile, Robin is shot by a creepy local, but revives later (magically?) and is also taken back to town. Dad fares much worse, finding a pair of creepily masked girls in an abandoned house and meeting an inventive and gory if not exactly buyable fate.

Since this is a movie that just came out as opposed to being 30 or 40 years old, I won't spoil the ins and outs of the ending. Suffice to say the outsiders are menaced by the insiders, the antogonistic sisters must band together to fight the weird foes, all leading to disturbing imagery and a kind-of downer non-ending of the sort some people will really dig.

Still on the positive tip about the movie, the make-up on the deformed kids is pretty good, particularly for the main girl Rosemary (Kate Aspinwall), a blind sibyl-figure with chalk white skin and a graceful, ghostlike air that was pretty effective. There's also quite a bit of gore, all done with practical effects, that will please some viewers--particularly poor Robin's eventual fate at the hands of his childish tormentors.

"Don't look so surprised."

Still, the movie didn't really succeed for me, due to an accumulation of relatively small points that built up over time to become significant. Chief among these is the fact that the nature of the plague under which the townspeople and their offspring suffer is never made clear. The prologue priest says something about the Devil, but of course that's the kind of thing you'd expect him to say. It wouldn't have taken much to drum up some ancient curse or Druidic burial ground or something to give a method to the madness, but it's never done. Even in the wackiest of the Italian gorefests of the 70s, at least SOME backstory was posited to explain why the evil was being visited upon them, nonsensical as it often was. The lack of context not only removes any possibility of our protagonists figuring things out and thus formulating a method of escape, it also strangely robs the proceedings of any weight. To quote a much-quoted Homer Simpson line, "It's just a bunch of stuff that happened."

Once that realization hits, the edges really start to fray. How is it this village is populous enough to produce such a large crowd of demon children in a 14-year span (at least partially through kidnapping of tourists and forced breeding), and yet rural enough that nobody notices? Further, how isolated can a village be that has daily bus service within walking distance, access to electricity, and backhoe rental availability? Given these conveniences, how come nobody in town ever thought to take advantage of the National Health System to see what (the fuck) was up with their tainted gene pool?

Josslyn DeCrosta as Molly does a good job as the de facto heroine in the early going, but once the mayhem starts the movie kind of forgets about her and focuses on the murderous set pieces. While these are good as far as they go, again, the lack of context challenges the viewer to care very much. James Warke is good as the hapless victim of the plague kidz, but without having any clue as to why they're doing what they do to him (on the DVD commentary, Gregory says they're just "playing"), it falls flat for me.

Time to Play

Gregory is a director with nearly a hundred credits on his imdb page, a great many of them short documentary subjects (DVD features?) about cult movies, directors, and actors. After rubbing shoulders with such Mad Movie luminaries as Valerie Leon, Lynn Lowry, Jess Franco and Lloyd Kaufman, you'd hope he'd be able to bring some of their rubbed-off pixie dust to bear on his own feature.

However, in the featurette and DVD commentary, Gregory seems strangely oblivious to the history he's spent so much time documenting. For instance, he seems convinced that the "eeevil kids" genre has not been done in recent years, neglecting the MANY recent movies that have used just this trope. (Ils, Wicked Little Things, etc.). He also seems awfully proud of having come up with the "kids just playing in innocent murderous ways" idea, like it's his own creation--I can only presume he hasn't seen Who Could Kill a Child?, Devil Times Five, Children of the Corn, the famous Twilight Zone episode, or any other examples my readers could name off the tops of their heads.

As for features, the DVD includes the aforementioned commentary with Gregory and producer Derek Curl, and a featurette involving those two, the effects and sound guys, and much of the cast. Everyone seems to think they've made the best, scariest, evilest movie ever, which I guess is the kind of enthusiasm you want from your cast and crew, but to me reflects a rather appalling lack of knowledge of the genre. Curl does seem to be rather jovially drunk throughout both features, though, which is kind of entertaining in its own right.

There's also a featurette with composer Mark Raskin about the musical score, which does have some creepy work on it, though I found it at times to be rather overbearing. Raskin doesn't think so, however--he's totally in love with everything he did here, which again is probably the attitude you want. Gregory is rightly proud of an incidental theme contributed by Claudio Gizzi, who composed the score for Andy Warhol's Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein, but less rightly proud of a completely incongruous techno song by Ladytron, one of his favorite bands, that he throws in when Jess and Robin are making out.

Overall I didn't hate Plague Town, but it didn't leave me feeling like I'd just watched the next great killer kids movie of our generation. Mileage will vary depending on your tastes, of course, but I ended up on a 1.5 thumb rating. It's available now from Dark Sky Films and your favorite rental outlets.


Erin said...

Although I may not watch this movie, because I tend to try to forget that new movies are coming out, I thank you for mentioning the Claudio Grizzi theme and am off to look for it right now to share with blip.fm

Anonymous said...

It seems there's a paragraph missing (just below the first screen capture)?

I felt pretty much the same way about this - it's ok, but hardly special or worth tracking down. One thing I found horribly annoying (and it's something that bothers me in recent horror movies in general) is the "we're not Hollywood" downer-ending. These days having a downer-ending is probably the most mainstream thing to have in your horror movie and more often than not these endings feel like they're unhappy just for the sake of being unhappy, which is in its own way even more annoying than the forced happy-ending.
Don't know why this bothered me so much in this case, but for some reason I thought Plague Twon is one of the worst of the recent offenders.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Erin--glad I could help! Hope you find what you seek. :)

@Anonymous--I don't think any paragraphs are missing...must just be my disjointed writing style. :)

I couldn't agree more about the forced-downer ending being as bad as or worse than the forced-happy ending. The important thing for either type of ending, in my book, is that it's *earned.* That it feels natural, organic--as if that's the way it *should* end, given all that came before, or if not that, at least one of the ways it should end. It's a tough trick to pull off, apparently, which is why you see so many endings that just feel like a cheat, both happy and sad.

Thanks for reding!

Frances said...

This just goes to show that there are also some movies which show the benefits of a backhoe rental service.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Frances, I fully realize your comment is spam, but it made me laugh, so I'll allow it. If only they had rented a backhoe!

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