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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]