Cinematic Pleasures: Clive Barker's The Plague
by j.d. lafrance
Thereís an old saying about the road paved with the best of intentions. Writer/director Hal Masonberg and his screenwriting partner Teal Minton tried to cross this road only to be run over both ways. You would assume that they were screwed over by a big Hollywood studio, and that does happen, but theyíre first screwed over by a fellow filmmaker. All Masonberg and Minton wanted to do was make a horror film for adults with rich characters and that did not focus on quick scares. Instead, their film The Plague (2006) was taken away from them and tampered with by would-be filmmakers. The result is a sobering cautionary tale that is still awaiting a satisfying conclusion.
All children under the age of nine around the world have unexpectedly lapsed into an eerie comatose state. Ten years later and there is still no change and no answers as to what caused it or a solution. To make matters worse, every child that is born is also in a coma. Fresh out of prison, Tom Russell (James Van Der Beek) returns home to a small town in New Hampshire to reconnect with his brother Dave (Arne MacPherson) and his ex-wife Jean (Ivana Milocevic).
The children are housed in the local high school. There is an effective, unsettling shot of a school gymnasium filled with hospital beds of comatose teenagers. If that wasnít creepy enough, at two specific times a day, they all experience brief violent seizures. One night, all the children wake up and become violent killers Ė a sort of Children of the Damned (1963) if the kids had hit puberty.
Tom teams up with Sam (Brad Hunt), Jeanís brother and they fight to stay alive while trying to figure out how to deal with these homicidal teenagers. The producerís cut of The Plague proceeds to play out in predictable run-and-fight fashion aping, at times, George Romeroís first two zombie films while reducing genre veteran Dee Wallace into a screaming, ineffectual damsel in distress. Notably absent are any attempts at character development and instead we have a clumsily edited horror film with an emphasis on violence and gore.
The Plague originated from Masonberg and Mintonís decision to channel their love of horror films from their youth because they were dissatisfied with the direction the genre had taken in the last 15 to 20 years. They admired horror films that, according to Masonberg, ďdealt with existing social fears.Ē With their screenplay, they wanted to examine the theme of children and violence in society. According to Minton, their intention was to take ďa genre B-movie concept and finding the human story in it, giving it some depth and meaning, while still making something that is scary and exciting.Ē The two men also wanted to subvert expectations and pose questions that the audience would be left to answer. They were not interested in making a predictable slasher film but instead have most of the physical violence happen off-screen. Masonberg and Minton wrote a story about children and fear in society and how we react to it via the horror genre.
Masonberg and Minton spent five years shopping their script around to various studios but after the Columbine massacre and 9/11 happened, the material became too relevant for studio executives who liked it but wanted to play it safe. Finally, Clive Barkerís production company not only liked the script but wanted to make it into a film. Masonberg and Minton decided to go with Barkerís company because they were told that the company wanted to make smart, adult horror films, like the critically acclaimed Gods and Monsters (1998). Masonberg spent three years developing his film with Barkerís company, fine-tuning the script. According to the director, he was upfront and honest with them from the get-go about the kind of film he wanted to make.
Barkerís company hooked up with another production company called Armada Pictures who put together the financing to get it made. Despite being called Clive Barkerís The Plague, the film is not actually based on any of the manís work and he never showed up on the set. Masonberg did meet with him before principal photography and found him always friendly and engaging but they never talked about the script. He got the sense that Barker didnít know what was going on outside of his own personal projects. Masonberg was only given 20 days to shoot his film, ten days less than he was told was needed. He went to Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada to shoot the film and found out that it had been pre-sold to Sony Screen Gems for domestic distribution. No one told him, however, if the studio wanted to make the same film that he wanted to but at that point there was a few scant weeks from shooting and he was in the middle of pre-production.
Before Masonberg started editing his film, one of the producerís confided in him that a high-level executive in the production company wanted a very different film than the one that was shot. From what the director has since put together, the production companyís producers told him one thing and told Sony something else entirely. According to Masonberg, Barkerís producers told him that they werenít going after a domestic distributor until after putting The Plague through the film festival circuit. He was also told that the filmís financing had come from foreign pre-sales which was not true. Sony had financed it from the beginning.
Masonberg was given six weeks to assemble a rough cut of his film, which was a very short period of time. He chose to have one of Barkerís producers with him in order to preserve the artistís interests in the project. Masonberg actually started editing a week early and put together what he felt was the best cut he could with the time available. During this time he also incorporated the notes from 14 producers (?!) attached to the project. It was in Masonbergís contract that after he delivered his cut, the producers would get their turn. According to Masonberg, Barkerís people promised that they would all work together and that The Plague did not have to be completed in six weeks. Halfway through the editing process, Masonberg sensed that something wasnít right. According to the director, one of Barkerís producers became cold and distant. Masonberg conveyed his concern to his agent who told him not to worry.
Masonberg heard through Barkerís people that the artist did not like his cut of The Plague and felt that it was too slow and not gory enough. Masonberg was unable to contact Barker because his producers did their best to keep them apart. According to Masonberg, he was then kicked off his own film in the ďmost abusive and unprofessional way,Ē when Barkerís production company didnít like his cut of the film. They ended up editing it from scratch and he remembers them telling him, ďWeíre cutting down the characters and turning this into a killer-kid film.Ē In addition, they did not want the director present at any screenings of the film. Masonberg was understandably devastated by this betrayal.
Things only got worse. Masonbergís manager talked with an executive at Sony in charge of the film and was told that the studio owned it and did not see the need to have the writer or the director involved any longer. Masonberg was shocked at this reaction considering that he had not talked to anyone at Sony since the production began and had nothing but good relations with them on previous projects.
Getting kicked off his own film, a project that Masonberg had lived with for years, made him deeply depressed, angry, bitter, and sad. Fortunately, he had kept the filmís dailies on DVD and began to put together the version he originally intended before the whole post-production nightmare. He spent the winter up in Canada with his girlfriend editing The Plague on his Macintosh laptop using Final Cut Pro. He then came back to Los Angeles and created his own post-production facility in his living room. Masonberg spent eight more months editing the film and then taught himself sound design, visual effects, and how to create a temporary score.
Masonbergís version sets itself apart from the producerís cut right from the start with a quote from Ezekiel 5:17 that speaks of a plague that will rob people of their children. Masonbergís cut opens the film up and lets it breathe like a fine wine. We spend more time with Tom and his brother Dave early on which gives more dramatic impact to what happens to Dave because weíve become invested in the story and these characters, which was missing from the producerís cut. Masonberg takes his time and lets us get to know the characters and the world they inhabit, slowly building the tension and dread.
One notices that the temporary soundtrack on the directorís cut is much more understated and less shrill and annoying than the producerís cut. In a nod to George Romeroís Night of the Living Dead (1968), Masonbergís version lingers on the television newscasts that appear sporadically throughout the film instead of relegating them to background noise as in the producerís cut. The directorís approach gives us some perspective so that we know the plague is definitely a global phenomenon and as a result there is more at stake.
More problematic are nagging questions like why didnít our heroes just leave town when they had the chance? Another dumb move sees the protagonists leave the only functioning vehicle unattended, after finding out that the killer teens have deactivated all the others, while they go retrieve two other survivors. In the last third of the film, our heroes take total leave of their senses and make a bunch of stupid decisions that is frustrating to watch. This isnít entirely cleared up in the directorís cut.
There is a haunting shot early on of a deserted playground as Tom comes back home. Masonbergís cut lingers longer on Tomís arrival and establishes much more effectively a tragic atmosphere as his hometown has been rendered a ghost town because of the plague. There are also plenty of chilling images, including one of a little boy emotionlessly breaking a clergymanís neck.
After the mainstream success of Dawsonís Creek, James Van Der Beek has been trying to shed his squeaky clean image from that show with edgy fare like the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellisí novel Rules of Attraction (2002). In The Plague, he plays a man wracked with guilt and looking for some kind of redemption. Tom carries around a well-thumbed copy of The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck that the producerís cut clumsily tries to suggest that we should equate Tom with the bookís troubled protagonist Tom Joad. In Masonbergís version, Tom comes across as more thoughtful than simply a stereotypical stoic man of action as he is presented in the producerís cut.
The difference between Masonbergís version and the producerís cut is like night and day. For example, Sam is no longer a one-note sidekick and source of comic relief and Dee Wallace no longer has a shrill, pointless cameo. More of Bill Butlerís atmospheric cinematography is preserved and the transitions between scenes make more sense and are smoother in nature. Itís amazing what a difference editing makes and how Masonberg delivered a much more thoughtful, coherent version when given the opportunity to do so.
The Plague was released straight-to-DVD in September 2006 to generally negative reviews. According to Masonberg, his film was completely restructured and stock footage and new dialogue was added. Eight months later, Masonberg started his campaign to get his version of The Plague released because, legally, he canít show his version of the film. He has created a website (http://www.spreadingtheplague.com/), made a mini-documentary called Spreading The Plague chronicling his ordeal, and gotten the word out on radio show, interviews with movie web sites, and pretty much to anybody who would listen.
It is rather ironic that Masonberg and Minton had no desire to make a mainstream horror film but rather something that would be more personal and character-driven and the one that was officially released was exactly the kind of film they didnít want to make. Hopefully, word will get out about what happened to The Plague and people who care about preserving an artistís original vision will let Sony know that Masonberg and Mintonís version should be given the chance to be seen.