Color, 2008, 85 mins. 17 secs.
Directed by David Gregory
Starring Josslyn DeCrosta, Erica Rhodes, James Warke, Lindsay Goranson, David Lombard
Severin Films (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Dark Sky (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
In an overstuffed world of horror movies crowding the physical or virtual shelves, it's always a welcome reminder that persistence (or what Stephen King used to refer to as panning for gold) turns up something a little different and refreshing. The macabre Plague Town fits the bill and manages to pull off that delicate balancing act between disturbing brutality and delicate lyricism, a quality that was once common back in the '70s with films like Lemora, Messiah of Evil and Blood on Satan's Claw. You might even see a few glimmers of those films with this offering which takes place entirely in a remote Irish village where the houses seem to be miles apart from each other.
After a quick but brutal prologue in which a priest supervising a birth is murdered by a family after he tries to snuff out the new arrival, we pick up in the present day as an American family sightseeing the local ruins passes by for some afternoon sightseeing, only to find their car dead and night quickly approaching. The dad (Lombard) is the first to go off alone, leaving behind his new girlfriend Annette (Goranson) and two bickering daughters, Molly (DeCrosta) and Jessica (Rhodes), along with the put-upon punching bag of the film, Robin (Warke), a British guy Jessica picked up along the way. As it turns out, the unfortunate births from years earlier have now resulted in a cut-off country community filled with depraved, deformed children who play very nasty games with outsiders, which everyone discovers with varying outcomes of survival before morning arrives.
Anyone who has seen a poster or video cover for Plague Town is no doubt at least vaguely familiar with its undeniable iconic centerpiece, Rosemary (played rather incredibly by a waifish 13-year-old named Kate Aspinwall), a delicate and deeply creepy component of the killer kids who makes a show-stopping appearance at the start of the third act. Fortunately she's hardly the only ace the film has up its sleeve thanks to a number of creepy but oddly beautiful sequences, including a handful of harrowing moments with groups of kids congregating in the woods upon one of the unlucky travelers. Everything from a tire hubcap to tree branches is used to vicious effect, but for once the violence here really stings and creates a sense of mounting unease rather than the numbing brutality found in your average Saw knockoff.
Plague Town also carries a bit more than the usual genre interest as it also marked the debut feature film for David Gregory, a founder of the wonderfully twisted Severin Films and director of such monumental feature-length genre studies as Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau, The Godfathers of Mondo and The Spaghetti West, not to mention a slew of stylish supplementary featurettes. He keeps a firm grip on the film here and channels what must be countless hours of movie watching into a lucid understanding of how to wring poetic chills from the most simple of elements. While hordes of horror quickies pound the viewer over the head right from the beginning with flashy cutting and bombastic sound effects, Plague Town is more like an icy hand gradually sliding along the back of your neck for 90 minutes. The very deliberate pacing of the opening 40 minutes or so (as well as a few iffy line deliveries during the daylight segment) has confounded more than a few reviewers, but anyone with a reasonable attention span should find the effect more than worth it as the payoff kicks in. The upsetting denouement is also worth noting as it offers a distinctly female-oriented twist ending that will cause more than a few viewers to squirm when they contemplate what's going to happen after the end credits.
In a marked departure from most low budget shoots executed digitally, Plague Town was shot on film (Super 16, and it looks great) and works all the better for it. The film was first released on Dark Sky on both DVD and Blu-ray, and the 1.78:1 transfer features excellent resolution with a fine, film-like texture, and the night scenes (which comprise about 85% of the film) look wonderfully deep and inky without losing any detail. The DVD features a solid 5.1 mix, while the Blu-ray boasts an uncompressed and very immersive DTS 5.1 track that takes full advantage of the diverse soundtrack, which includes a terrific score by Mark Raskin (who really offers some inspired moments in the last half hour) as well as new contribution from Claudio Gizzi (the enigmatic composer of Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein) with a cut from electronic dance gods Ladytron thrown in for good measure.
Both editions contain an audio commentary with Gregory and producer Derek Curl, who fill up every second with loads of details about the production. Everything from the location shooting (in very cold Connecticut) to the effects shooting to the casting is covered in great detail, and it also serves as a pretty good primer on how to shoot a low budget horror feature these days. The first featurette, "A Visit to Plague Town" (28m35s), features all of the major cast members, Gregory, Curl, and several crew members offering a more general overview of the production, augmented with some nifty on-location footage. It's especially fun seeing the younger actors in make-up getting ready for their scenes, which look a lot less intense from a different perspective. Next up is "The Sounds of Plague Town" (16m9s) with Raskin and the sound effects artists talking about the effective soundscape of the film, with the music and foley effects often working in tandem during the standout horror sequences. Finally you get the original theatrical trailer, which does an adequate job of conveying the tone but is cut exactly the same as every other cookie-cutter horror trailer around that time. Don't let it put you off; the movie's much better. The Blu-ray also sports an additional bonus, Gregory's 1995 short film, "Scathed" (44m5s). A truly quirky little mood piece, it features Matthew Bell (the narrator of Gregory's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth) as a guy named Joe who stops off for an afternoon beer at a bar where nudists and weirdos prowl around outside. There he strikes up a difficult conversation with a beautiful but not-very-conversant young woman in an eye patch who tells him about how she wound up at this hole in the wall, a perverse saga involving an iron-fisted owner named Miss Antonia Curis (played, believe it or not, by Andy Warhol regular Holly Woodlawn!). From the colorful hand-drawn credits to the Argentoesque, hyper-saturated lighting, it's a peculiar but intriguing calling card with a languorous but disturbing tone that makes it an appropriate companion to the main feature.
In 2020, the rights to the film passed over to Severin Films who decided to outfit it with a new expanded special edition. The film itself looks and sounds identical, which is fine as there was absolutely nothing wrong with it in the first place. That said, it also runs fleetingly longer and restores the original intended title, A Slaughter in Plague Town. All of the extras -- featurettes, commentary, short, and trailer -- are carried over here as well, but some new treats have been added as well. The major one and reason enough to upgrade is "White Lace & Button Eyes" (86m4s), a new documentary by Howard S. Berger with Gregory essentially acting as a guide for this tightly-assembled chronicle featuring archival production footage, confessional video diaries from the shoot, and new interviews (some conducted via Skype due to the pandemic). Pretty much everyone involved is represented here one way or another, and the frank approach here is refreshing as you hear about the issues wrangling money and securing locations, the post-production process, the actors' excitement over their characters and investment in the project, and the ultimate satisfaction with the experience and the end result despite some obvious bumps along the way. You also get a second short, "'Til Death" (7m59s), Gregory's experimental, black-and-white student film with a bickering couple in clown make-up pushing their bond to highly morbid extremes -- a dry run of sorts for his "Sweets" segment from The Theatre Bizarre. In a very welcome touch, a bonus CD soundtrack is included as well featuring what appears to be the entire score, clocking in at 64m25s.
Severin Films (Blu-ray)
Dark Sky (Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 26, 2020