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The horror genre has been in a pretty dismal state lately, with the direct-to-video field crowded with forgettable titles. Yet every so often a show comes along that warrants special attention. Three years ago producer-director David Gregory got the green light to make a film originally called Slaughter in Plague Town. Gregory filmed in Super-16 film to avoid a generic video look. Because so many contemporary horrors have chosen desert locales of late, he set his story in the green backwoods of Ireland.
Plague Town is first and foremost a graphic horror film. Its gory scenes are reminiscent of the transgressive 1970s, when Americans like Wes Craven and Italians like Lucio Fulci were discovering new ways to violate the human body. What distinguishes David Gregory's film from other recent horror efforts is its informed direction. The generic surface narrative traces the grisly fates of an unlucky group of tourists, but Gregory's camera is busy building a nightmare out of the traditional building-blocks of horror: creepy atmospherics, subjective camera work and poetic allusions. Gregory induces a goodly number of chills above and beyond his shock gore effects. A couple of his set pieces are artistic gems: as original as a fairy tale.
Gregory and co-screenwriter/editor John Cregan begin on too-familiar ground: a bickering family becomes marooned in the Irish countryside as night falls. Grown daughters Molly and Jessica Monahan (Josslyn DeCrosta and Erica Rhodes) aren't getting along and have spoiled the outing with their with spiteful accusations and insults. Jessica's Irish boyfriend Robin (James Warke) has an attitude problem as well. Only murderous attacks by seemingly insane locals force the family to band together as a unit. The shotgun-toting Irishmen behave worse than the inbred killers of Boorman's Deliverance, with the difference that they attempt to capture the young Monahan women unharmed.
Most of the killings are committed by adolescent children that hide in the greenery or strike out of nowhere like a gang of demons. Molly is the first to notice that something isn't right with the kids' faces; one has a horrible too-wide grin. Before Jerry Monahan (David Lombard) can say "Village of the Damned of Arkham" he's cornered, snared, and being split into pieces in an insanely grotesque fashion. The bloody effects in these scenes are so surprising that they overcome considerations of credibility -- more than fulfilling the "did you see that?" factor deemed necessary to attract attention in today's horror market.
The nightmare becomes an ordeal for Molly and Jessica, who must set aside their differences in the interest of self-preservation. The unlucky mother is cornered by a mob of kids brandishing unlikely weapons -- who expects to be battered to death by a mutant child armed with an auto hubcap?
The adult locals apparently abandon the night to the wolf packs of delinquent monsters. Although the movie explains little, its nightmare fears center on the "horror" of human reproduction, which in "Plague Town" has gone completely wrong, both physically and socially. The deformed, murderous children seem a twisted denial of the maternal idea that "life will find a way". Molly and Jessica are confronted with a mad society that doesn't recognize female choice and empowerment. 1
Plague Town interrupts its onslaught for one supremely evocative sequence. The seriously wounded Robin staggers out of the woods into a "gingerbread house" of horrors run by the dotty Sheila (Elizabeth Bove). The woman is ready to turn Robin over to the murderous night creepers ("He's here! I've got one!") but first plays matchmaker for her granddaughter Rosemary (Kate Aspinwall), a pale, blind apparition who waits every night for Prince Charming to rescue her. Already going into shock, Robin's pleas to call the police are ignored. He's instead "set up" to meet Rosemary, who creeps slowly from her room, already wearing a wedding dress. Rosemary is an extremely original, very creepy creation, and her scene evokes a dread that bears comparison with great precedents in the horror field. One comes away convinced that director Gregory has the specialized sensibilities to come up with a real horror classic.
Dark Sky considers Plague Town such a winner that it has augmented its DVD release with a Blu-ray format disc as well. Picture quality and encoding are both excellent. Filmed mostly at night, the images show a care and craft that have largely left today's horror field; it's edited in a contemporary style but takes the time to fashion compelling visuals. Expressive night-for-night filming is something rare even in expensive mainstream horror fare, and cameraman Brian Rigney Hubbard makes every shot count. The gore effects are also more successful than usual, with wholly credible stabbings and slashings punctuated by several tour-de-force gags with an unusually high squeam factor. Director Gregory sustains his gross-out gags by building sequences that get more grisly as they go along.
The making-of featurette has the usual round robin of praise among enthusiastic actors and motivated filmmakers; the cheerful director comes off as completely committed to his horror aims. Producer Derek Curl brags a bit too much about conning Connecticut farmers into filming in their fields and houses, and leaving them in a shambles. But we're also impressed that so many local parents would allow their children to stay up late at night to play little fiends in mutant makeup. One child is outfitted with indescribable fleshy dewlap-jowls, like something from The Elephant Man -- not exactly fit for the family album.
On his commentary Gregory describes many production problems, such as an inoperable car that had to be pushed through scenes or rolled down hills. Gregory drew upon his ten years of horror documentary filmmaking to gather his able crew. He obtained a wide range of music samples by Googling for hot new Irish bands, and approached an Italian film composer who hadn't been heard from since the middle 1970s. Mark Raskin's effective score is augmented by a dense soundscape of strange presences and industrial audio punctuation effects; a second featurette The Sounds of Plague Town goes into the details of their manufacture.
Exclusive to the Blu-ray edition is David Gregory's 40-minute student film Scathed, an ambitious undertaking that begins as a David Lynch wanna-be and ends with a wholly unexpected sick joke. Plague Town is recommended with the caveat that it is still a gore spectacle at heart, with scenes customized for the hardcore flesh 'n' blood crowd. Just the same, the over-the-top mayhem is always accompanied by uncanny little touches, as when the playful pre-teen mutants pierce one victim's face with needles ... as a prelude to hanging him by his eye sockets. 2
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Plague Town Blu-ray rates:
1. Plague Town shares with other horror films a seeming fear of childbirth itself, a prime nightmare of adolescent males. Doctor Savant prescribes for its makers a week's duty taking care of an infant ... they're quite nice, honest.
"Howdy. Saw a screening last Monday night of David Gregory's new horror film Plague Town at the A.F.I. campus up on Western Avenue. I was very favorably impressed -- it's as violent as the new breed of horror but also develops some genuine chills based on other sources of unease and dread. David filmed the Dark Sky release in Connecticut over a year ago, insisting on Super-16 film instead of digital video. Plague Town is a highly effective variation on the basic story of a troubled family lost in an unfamiliar rural setting -- in this case somewhere in Ireland -- and enduring a bloody onslaught.
David Gregory probably has more familiarity with classic 70s horror than anybody, having produced and directed docus on everything from Tobe Hooper classics to gorefests by Lucio Fulci and Pupi Avati -- he's in touch with more European horror personnel than anyone. That sensibility comes through strongly in Plague Town, which frankly betters many well-known 70s pictures in this particular genre backwater. Comparing the intense & richly photographed visuals to Bava doesn't say enough, for after Gregory has sprung some particularly nasty gore surprises (engineered with superior, imaginative makeup effects), he trots out a sequence in a rustic cabin that relies on strange behavior and expressive design sense. Something enters from the dark back room ... slowly ... and we're not sure we want to see what it is. That kind of original morbid thrill is remarkable in a genre that has been substituting effects for imagination far too long. Plague Town stays true to its nihilistic 70s roots but also to its own interior logic. Gregory's pacing is excellent and his direction knows which buttons to push to extract the maximum in squeamish delirium. I'll be looking for the show on disc sometime soon and hope it will be available in Blu-ray.
Now to go back and advise David that his next movie should be an adorable children's story, to inspire hope and goodwill in gentle hearts everywhere!
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.