Plague, The (2006)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/05/06 12:34:55

"Dawn of the Teen-Dead."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Let me get this straight: when it comes to horror flicks, bland remakes and PG-13 yawners get the royal theatrical release treatment, while imaginative, intelligent efforts like “The Plague” get tossed in the direct-to-video pile? Once again, the world is just not fair.

The movie’s formal title is “Clive Barker’s The Plague,” but I can’t bring myself to call it that. The horror author’s involvement is pretty much a paycheck and a producer credit, much in the same sense that John Carpenter and Wes Craven have loaned their names out to place above titles needing more attention, which they get (for better or worse) thanks to a “presents” byline. Barker’s possessive, though, is a slap in the face to the film’s creators, who deserve much more than to play second fiddle to the “Hellraiser” guy.

Those creators are Hal Masonberg, who directed, and Teal Minton; both co-wrote the screenplay, and both make their feature debut here. It’s the sort of debut that demands attention, for here we have a couple of storytellers that know how to effectively balance gore, suspense, and genuine emotion. Their film is not just some quickie high concept, but a fully formed tale of terror, the sort of thing that reminds me of Carpenter’s work on “The Fog” and “Prince of Darkness.”

The concept is quite simple: ten years ago, all children under the age of nine just up and went into a vegetative state. All of them, all over the world. Their minds are gone but their bodies kept growing, mysteriously staying strong through it all. And now, without warning, they… well, in the word of one frightened character: “They’re awake and they’re in a bad fucking mood!!”

Before we get to the meat of the movie, let’s look at this concept. Masonberg and Minton take their time setting the whole thing up, allowing the opening scenes to truly unnerve us, letting the scope of the tragedy play out gradually, to terrific effect (the site of a hospital full of twitching, unconscious children and frightened parents sure did a number on this worried dad). And then, as we jump ahead a decade, we get a news report detailing the effect this worldwide ten-year coma has had on society: economic depression, the rise of “care centers” (which serve as hospitals for the children) as the last guaranteed business venture, a U.N.-sanctioned worldwide ban on childbirth and the riots that ensue, the closing of all high schools across the nation following the graduation of the last teenagers the planet may ever see.

The film gives this premise a lived-in feel - watch how the nurses of the care center (formerly a high school gym) treat the horror of a roomful of bed-ridden, non-responsive teens as just another day at the office, even when all the kids (all of them, yikes!) begin convulsing in unison. That’s another twist in the mystery: the teens do these things at precise moments, every day, like clockwork, and darn it all if the nurses could care less, having grown accustomed to this unexplained terror over the years.

At the center of our story is Tom (James van der Beek, in a strong, nuanced performance), who, following a prison stint, has strolled back home, to one of the nation’s many dying small towns, a dog-eared Steinbeck paperback in his back pocket. (Lest we not get the analogy, there’s a later discussion over the novel’s Great Depression setting, and its themes on hope and family through troubled times.) He’s come back to find his ex-wife (Ivana Milicevic), but before he can get there, he stops in to visit a family member (Arne MacPherson) who’s refused to put his own son in a care center, because surely they can still hear and understand and feel the love, right? And so he keeps the boy at home, hoping for a better day.

There’s a quiet dread that presses down hard on all of this, an inescapable sense of loss that haunts every scene. The characters in this world have obviously grown too tired through their pain - everyone is crawling through life, unwilling to make too much an effort, unable to shake off the heartbreak. We meet two teenagers (Joshua Close and Brittany Scobie), the last of humankind, those who sit just on the other side of the comatose age divide. What kind of life must they have led? To grow up knowing that they only barely made it, to grow up knowing that once they’re gone, so is their entire species? These two deal with that hurt by breaking into homes and sitting with the vegetative children, talking to them, hoping to connect somehow.

This is an insane amount of development to put into a horror film, and yet it is also why “The Plague” works so well. We become engrossed in this situation, we fully understand the terror and sadness of it all. The combination of dread and loss is overwhelming. More importantly, the filmmakers never force their hand, allowing the backstory to play out naturally, slowly, elegantly. They let the setting wash over us.

And then they strike. The children wake up - of course they do, otherwise we’d have no movie - and they’re out to kill. The whys and hows of the case are never explained (ideas are tossed out, but it works better this ambiguously), so we only know what the characters do, which is, simply, that things are not looking good. From here on in, “The Plague” is a very pure zombie movie; the children are pale with dark, baggy eyes, and when they strike, you run. Our heroes hole up in a school and then a church, do some fighting, occasionally get killed. The usual.

In zombie flick mode, “The Plague” is still brutally effective. It is tense and scary and disgusting, and about midway through there’s an unusual break from the normal rules of the zombie genre (in terms of what the monsters can do) that works for such a risk. Masonberg understands how to build suspense, allowing scenes to plow ahead with nail-biting glee.

But not, of course, at the expense of the film’s intelligence. During all the chaos, the script still finds time for quieter moments - for example, a zombie-teen is captured, and wouldn’t you know it, the sheriff (John P. Connolly) and his wife (Dee Wallace-Stone, in a nifty bit of casting) realize it’s their daughter. Ouch.

The film gets a bit too ahead of itself in trying to find a reasonable yet still interesting way of wrapping things up; I’m not even sure the writers themselves know exactly what the hell’s going on in the final couple of scenes. But it’s still so very engaging, as it’s trying to do something more than mere cheap thrills. “The Plague” is a bold, ambitious work, which is something you rarely see in horror cinema. It’s brooding and thoughtful instead of exploitive. This is the sort of horror film that hooks you from frame one with both smarts and frights, and you leave wanting more.

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