Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 27

The Host (2006)

The boom of interest in Korean cinema in the mid-naughties was an especially cool movie fandom moment. Because I was there. I jumped on “Oldboy” as soon as I could. I was lucky enough to catch “I Saw the Devil” in the theaters. And “The Host” was something I put my hands on as soon as it hit the internet. All of these directors have broken into the mainstream film scene, to varying degrees of success. Joon-ho Bong’s most recent film, “Snowpiercer,” is one of the most talked about movies of the year. But “The Host” is the movie that brought him to global audiences’ attention. It’s an energetic twist on the kaiju genre that is hilarious and frightening in equal measures.

The impetus of the story is almost a throw-back to ecological horror films of the 1970s. An uncaring American general orders a Korean doctor to pour dangerous chemistry down the sink, which drain into the Han River. Years later, infected fish have morphed into a dangerous creature the size of a tank. The Park family, who own a food stand by the river, are part of a group of witnesses who see the monster surface. The youngest member of the Park family, daughter Hyun-seo, is abducted by the creature, taken back to its sewer lair. The government claims the monster is spreading an untreatable new virus, which throws the country into panic. In this environment, the dysfunctional Park family have to work together, and escape the government’s eye, to save Hyun-seo before the Host eats her.

“The Host” opens with a strong exclamation point of a sequence. The monster is first seen hanging from the bottom of the bridge by his tail, like a bat. The creature moves in a unique manner, swinging by its tail, head over feet, to get around. When it surfaces on the coast, attacking the tourists, “The Host” shifts into high gear. The attack scene is very intense, being shot in an intimate fashion. The monster leaps out of nowhere, a peaceful day being interrupted by pure horror. My favorite shot has a woman, distracted by her headphones, being trampled by the monster, her face grabbed by its foot. This opening scene helps established the way “The Host” mixes genre. The monster is terrifying and the way it attacks is fearsome. However, there’s a wild sense of adventure when the film’s heroes begin to fight back, striking the creature with the concrete foundation of a road sign. Later scenes, especially of the daughter trying to escape the Host’s lair, are more flat-out frightening, focused on the terror of the characters and the threat the monster poses. The Host itself is a memorable creation. Though a few years old, the CGI effects hold up. The monster’s design is asymmetrical, making it seem like a true mutation. The dangling extra tails and tumorous masses growing on their faces distinguish the beast from your usual “cool” movie monster designs.

The monster is impressive and the attack scenes show Bong to be a talented horror filmmaker. What makes “The Host” truly captivating though is its lovable cast of characters. “The Host,” more then anything else, is about the bound of family. The Park clan is not the happiest family. Oldest son Gang-du is considered a nincompoop by the rest of the family and his eccentric behavior doesn’t really challenge that assumption. Nam-joo is a nationally recognized archer who, at the film’s begin, fouls a major competition, settling for a bronze medal. Younger brother Nam-il is an unemployed college grad with a drinking problem. Father Hee-bong tries to keep the peace between the siblings but doesn’t always succeed. Gang-du’s daughter, Hyung-seo, is the jewel of the family and beloved by everyone. When she disappears, the entire group bands together to rescue her, putting aside their many differences. Amusingly, the movie never downplays the family’s dysfunctions. They may be united but that doesn’t mean they’re healthy. The siblings’ bickering gives the characters a sense of history, providing plenty of opportunities for humor and pathos. More importantly, the family feels incredibly real. They’re lovable and fully formed characters.

“The Host” is very much a horror/comedy and Ji-hoon Bong, as a director, has a perfect grasp on tone. After the titular monster abducts Hyun-seo, the family gathers at an in-door shrine for victims of the attack, Hyun-seo assumed to be among them. Nam-joo brings the girl her bronze metal, which causes the entire family to collapse into weeping. At first, it’s deeply sad. And then, as it goes on, it becomes sort of funny. As they continue, the brothers begin to argue and fight, really ratcheting the humor up. In a minute, the film has bridge the gap between sorrow and humor. A similar balance of tone continues throughout. While Hee-bong attempts to buy some fake uniforms, to help sneak out of the quarantined area, brother and sisters snipe at a TV broadcast. While the three kids drift into sleep, the father tells the other siblings not to be so hard on their oldest brother, a moment that swiftly combines both comedy and drama. After the Parks are marked as federal fugitives, Nam-il attempts to track down the cell phone Hyung-seo called them on earlier. The people he thinks are there to help him are actually plotting to turn him in and split the reward. It’s a funny realization, equally thrilling – because you want Nam-il to escape – and funny because the situation is so grimly realistic and humorously deployed.

There’s also a strong layer of social commentary in “The Host.” The film was made in the aftermath of the SARS outbreak that affected China in 2003. As a deliberate reference to that event, people on the street wear surgical masks, worried that the Host’s virus could be anywhere. One moment, both biting and satirical, has a group of people standing on a sidewalk, waiting for a bus. On a near-by TV, a news report mentions that symptoms of the disease are similar to that of the common cold. Right on cue, an old man coughs and hacks into the street. A bus speeds by, tossing the water onto everyone standing there. The references to real life panics become commentary when its revealed the the entire thing was made up. The monster never carried any sort of disease. There was never an outbreak. The quarantine and martial laws were enacted for nothing. In the final scene, the government is prepared to spray a deadly chemical into the river, in hopes of killing the monster. Keep in mind, strange chemicals being dumped into the water is what created the creature in the first place. Right now, many people in the US are freaking out about Ebola, making “The Host” even more prescient and relevant.

“The Host,” like a lot of the hot Korean import at the time, was one of the rare films that lived up to the hype. The movie is hysterically funny, touching, and scary in equal measures. The monster is a unique creation, the characters are immediately lovable, and the performances all fantastic. A sequel has been planned for a while, as well as a North American remake, but neither have surfaced thus far. I’m not sure I’d like to see either, as ‘The Host” stand fantastically on its own. [9/10]

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

I’ve talk before about this interesting time period in horror history. During the mid-nineties, thanks to the unprecedented success of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” studios started making horror movies for grown-ups, with R-ratings, big budgets, serious talent behind and in front of the camera, and usually adapted from literary source material. It was a short-lived movement and one I honestly wished could have lasted longer. After Dracula, what’s the next classic monster story? Frankenstein, of course. Though not quite on the level of Francis Ford Coppola, Kenneth Branagh had already made a name for himself with his Shakespearean adaptations

Like “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Branagh’s Frankenstein declares its fidelity to the source material by plopping the original author’s name above the title. Unlike Coppola’s Dracula, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” actually hews fairly closely to the source material. Victor Frankenstein is found on the ice by an Arctic exploration team, hysterical and near death. In his final hours, he relates his life story. He talks about his childhood in Bavaria, of his life long relationship with his love Elizabeth. Of how he became fascinated with conquering death after his mother’s unexpected passing. While in college, he refines his theory of creating life from dead material, of stitching together a new human. The movie includes Victor rejecting the monster after its birth and the creature coming to live secretly with a blind man and his family. As in Shelley’s text, the creation comes to hate his father, plots revenge, talks to him in an icy cave, demands he makes him a mate, and, when he doesn’t, seriously puts a damper on Victor’s honeymoon celebration.

This monster kid was really disappointed in this “Frankenstein” when it hit video in 1995. I was well acquainted with the classic Universal Frankenstein and excited for an updated, big budget version of the story. Branagh’s “Frankenstein,” however, is more of a costume drama then a horror film. The film focuses heavily on Victor’s formative years. There are sweeping, picturesque shots of Victor, Elizabeth, and his little brother running through the Alps, preparing an experiment. Long sequences are devoted to Frankenstein’s college years, to him butting heads with his professors, to him finally deciding to create his monster. The romance between Victor and Elizabeth is elaborated on as well. There are a number of tedious scenes focusing on their relationship. One especially groan-worthy scene is when she threatens to leave him because he’s just too devoted to science, maaaaan. The subplot accumulate in an absolutely ridiculous wedding night love scene that is practically a bodice-ripper novel brought to screen. There’s even a ballroom dancing sequence! None of this surprises me today, now that I know who Kennith Branagh is. Naturally, a horror movie from a director best known for costume dramas would resemble a costume drama more then it would a horror movie.

Fine. I can accept that. This is the fancy, prestige picture version of Frankenstein. What I can’t accept is Robert DeNiro as Frankenstein’s Monster. On paper, it probably seemed fine. DeNiro has played many intimidating figures throughout his career. He’s the Greatest Actor of Our Generation, right? Why can’t that guy play Frankenstein? A pretty big reason is that his traditional tough guy Italian-American accent seems woefully out of place in 1700s Bavaria. It seems especially ridiculous coming out of the mouth of Frankenstein’s Monster. The scenes were the creation has to deliver long monologues about his inner thoughts draw attention to this weakness. I’m not a fan of the make-up design. The curving sutures emphasizes the natural shape of DeNiro’s face, making sure the monster looks less like Frankenstein and more like Robert DeNiro.

The rest of the cast is similarly uneven. Ian Holm could play this kind of role in his sleep. The veteran actor is underserved as Frankenstein’s dad. It’s fun to see John Cleese in a more dramatic role, even if the part is just a variation on the snooty professor type he’s played plenty of times before. Helena Bonham Carter’s role exacerbates everything that’s irritating about her as a performer. She’s simpering, irritating, and demanding. You really can’t wait for her to get her heart ripped out. Kennith Branagh’s performance is rather overwrought at times, though more serviceable at others. He seems a little stuck on the idea of playing Frankenstein like a rock star. Branagh’s direction is more solid. The camera moves excitedly, frantically, throughout, providing this stale costume drama some decent energy. The dude sure as hell also knows how to pace a movie. Despite being over two hours long, “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” flies by. I wish Branagh had worked to invoke classic horror atmosphere a little more though. The only really cool set in the movie is a big, ivory staircase in the Frankenstein estate. That’s cool.

Something else I do like about “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstien” is it acknowledges Victor’s biggest character flaw. Many previous readings and adaptations have emphasize Frankenstein’s hubris, that he would dare create life when that is the sole domain of God. This version recognizes that Frankenstein’s crime is not his hubris but the fact that he’s a massive cock. Literally minutes after creating the monster, he abandons it. If he had just taken responsibility for his actions like a grown-up, instead of running away because his baby was kind of ugly, none of this would have happened to him. The monster tells Victor that, if he doesn’t make him a mate, he’s going to kill his girlfriend. Victor doesn’t do that, ditching his responsibilities once again. So the monster kills his girlfriend. Like he said he was going to. Duh. Only then does Victor attempt to create a female monster and its strictly for his own selfish needs. He resurrects Elizabeth, right in front of his monster, and teaches the newly made femme-creature to love him. This really pisses the monster off. By sticking so closely to the source material, Branagh’s film makes it clear the monster is the story’s (anti-)hero while Victor is the villain, a simpering jackass who brings all his trouble on himself.

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is far from a satisfying film. There are certain positive attributes to it. It looks nice, if nothing else. However, most of the actors is miscasted and it’s not the “Frankenstein” most horror fans are going to reach for. We’ve got plenty of other options in that department. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” ranks distantly from a number of superior adaptations. [6/10]

The Hook of Woodland Heights (1990)

I’ve been fascinated by urban legends all my life. My love of horror is definitely linked to this interest. If I ever get a hair up my butt and want to pursue a college degree with zero real world application, folklorist is what I’d pick. Anyway, my interest in urban legends, especially that perennial tale “The Hook,” has led me to check out a number of crappy horror movies. Sitting atop that pile of crap is “The Hook of Woodland Heights,” a micro-budget, shot-on-video short made in the late eighties and released in the early nineties. To give you an idea of the movie’s quality, it is usually paired on VHS with another short called “Attack of the Killer Refrigerator.”

The plot is adapts the legend of the Hook closely, to a degree. Two teenage lovers drive off to a cabin, isolated in the woods, with plans to get laid. Meanwhile, a one-armed maniac escapes a mental hospital, killing two interns in the process. Since you can’t fill even forty minutes with that story, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” adds other stuff. The madman kills a dog and steals a barbecue fork from a porch, bending it into a hook and stabbing it into his stump. The teens continue to neck, the girl asking the boy to stop repeatedly. The Hook murders some kids playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard. The teens make out some more. A friend shows up, startles them, wanders off, and gets killed by the Hook. The boyfriend leaves the car, karate fights the Hook and then gets stabbed in the dick. Finally, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” becomes a chase scene in its final minute, the hook-handed killer chasing the girl into a neighborhood.

To enjoy “The Hook of Woodland Heights,” you’re going to need a high tolerance for shot-on-video tomfoolery. The movie is super cheap, obviously. Even though the Hook story is always told at night, the filmmakers realized they didn’t have the budget for lighting rigs, so the whole movie takes place during the day. The killer has white paint spread on his face for some reason. The movie is padded out with long scenes of the teens necking, driving somewhere, or the Hook wandering the forest. The soundtrack is composed solely of hyper-cheesy hair metal. The gore is composed entirely of fake intestines tossed on shirts and some coughed up blood pellets. The acting is cartoony. From any critical perspective, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is not a good movie. That’s not why we watch films like this. Instead, we watch for the weird, home-made quality of the short. We watch for friends having a goofy good time on-camera. We watch for silly, low-budget takes on popular horror troupes. In this regard, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is a rousing success. The short attempts some intentionally funny splatstick gore. The Hook kills someone with a clipboard, for example. However, the film’s unintentional humor is far funnier. If you’ve got a stomach for Bleeding Skull-style, video-horror-trash, “The Hook of Woodland Heights” is an easy recommendation. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

This is an okay departure from most monster movies. The beast was certainly a different creation and I thought the opening scene with the monster running through the crowded harbor-side shoreline was interesting. However, I could never really grasp the scale of the monster's impact. I also thought the characters were too quirky and their reactions to situations sometimes seemed very odd. (5/10)