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Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Charming Apocalyptic Misfire: The Curious Case of Clive Barker’s ‘The Plague’

Clive Barker has always made it clear how grateful he is for Stephen King’s quote about him being “the future of horror”, an unexpected compliment that launched a legendary career. Over the years, the author has repaid that kindness by attempting to do the same for other horror artists, going so far as to start his own independent production company in order to help propagate the work of up-and-coming filmmakers. Back in 2006, this led Barker and Seraphim Pictures to proudly produce Hal Masonberg‘s The Plague, a unique apocalyptic thriller that was ultimately sabotaged by behind-the-scenes drama and meddling distributors.

Taking a cue from films like Village of the Damned and Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, The Plague follows the aftermath of an unexplainable illness that causes every child on earth to fall into an irreversible coma. A decade later, we accompany Tom Russell (James Van Der Beek) as he’s released from prison and returns to his quiet hometown in search of peace. Unfortunately, the infected children begin to wake up with homicidal intentions, compelling Tom and a small group of survivors to attempt to escape town during what appears to be a bizarre version of the biblical end times.

Part zombie movie, part supernatural thriller and part philosophical parable, it’s no surprise that The Plague‘s peculiar setup convinced Barker to add his name to the project. The idea of an entire generation turning against their predecessors makes this a uniquely tragic apocalypse, with parents being forced to confront their own offspring in order to survive. Having the comatose children share a collective hive-mind also ramps up the stakes significantly, with the infected slowly learning how to systematically eliminate all surviving adults with evolving strategies and weapons. This nightmarish scenario leads to a series of gruesome deaths that wouldn’t feel out of place in the Books of Blood collections.

While I have fond memories of watching The Plague on late-night television years ago and having fun with its unorthodox approach to what could have been just another George Romero knockoff, there’s no denying that the film is an absolute mess. Despite a genuinely interesting premise and likable characters, the storytelling here is downright sloppy, with wonky pacing, bad editing and the baffling absence of a proper final act. The movie simply “stops” instead of actually “ending”, leaving viewers with a vague collection of loose ends and never really bothering to explain its central mysteries.

Night of the living coma patients.

Unsurprisingly, most of these blunders appear to be the fault of Screen Gems, who were dissatisfied with the picture’s unconventional tone. After a series of arguments, the director supposedly exited the project before the movie was even locked, leading the distributor to re-edit the final film without any input from either Barker or Masonberg. Concerned with the movie’s slow pace and overly-somber tone, the distributors removed several important character moments, as well as a few brainy discussions about the nature of the plague itself before dumping the movie directly onto home video.

This haphazard edit led to even more pacing issues, with some segments of the film feeling like a bizarre fever-dream as the characters wander around from set-piece to set-piece, never really understanding what’s going on around them. The audience is also left confused with a series of references to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that don’t really amount to anything. While this dreamlike vibe can be entertaining in a Twin Peaks sort of way, it really doesn’t mesh well with the story’s obvious slow-burn intentions, resulting in the finished film having a near-constant identity crisis.

There are other issues as well, with The Plague‘s low production value sometimes making it look like a made-for-TV project despite excellent photography work by genre veteran Bill Butler. The modest budget also sabotages the large-scale story Masonberg was aiming to tell, as we never really see how the rest of the world is dealing with the situation. To be honest, I would have loved to see more of this alternate history where an entire generation was lost overnight and society had to adjust to the idea that humanity might no longer have a future. The film hints at the larger impact of the titular plague, but not enough time (or money) is spent developing how the world at large deals with this cataclysmic issue, which I think is a wasted opportunity.

Luckily, despite studio-mandated edits and a shoestring budget, The Plague still retains a mysterious Twilight-Zone-like atmosphere that helps to keep things interesting. The small-town setting helps with the eerie mood, and the vague nature of this apocalypse keeps audiences in the dark alongside our confused protagonists. These characters are also generally likable, though Van Der Beek really steals the show as an ex-con trying to make up for past mistakes. Ivana Milicevic is also great as Tom’s reluctant ex-lover Jean Raynor, and the movie even benefits from the always-charming Dee Wallace in a small but memorable appearance.

These kids have no respect for their elders.

Even so, both Masonberg and Barker have been refreshingly open about their distaste for The Plague‘s final cut, with the director even setting up a website asking fans to help convince Screen Gems to release the official writer’s/director’s cut. While I haven’t had the pleasure of watching this alternate version of the film, there are quite a few quotes on the site claiming that it’s a more coherent vision of a story that deserves to see the light of day.

According to interviews with Barker, however, even the unedited footage couldn’t quite live up to Masonberg’s original script, which promised a much grander and more stylized take on the end of the world. At one point during filming, Barker even suggested that producers throw some extra cash into the production so Masonberg could reshoot a few unsatisfactory scenes in order to better match what was on the page. Unfortunately, the producers had already made up their mind, and the rest is history.

While there’s no way of being sure if the fabled Director’s Cut is a significant improvement to the original release, the version of The Plague that we ultimately got is still worth revisiting as a cinematic oddity. It may be more than a little rough around the edges and the story’s attempts at a brainy apocalypse probably won’t be to everyone’s liking, but it’s easy to see that there was a lot of potential here. If you’re willing to overlook a few flaws, I think there’s a lot to love about this charming apocalyptic misfire.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3673701/charming-apocalyptic-misfire-curious-case-clive-barkers-plague/

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