Review : The Host / 괴물 (2006)

The Host was directed by the talented Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2006. Bong Joong-Ho wrote the script of The Host during the filming of Memories of Murder.

The Host is about a monster living in the Han river in Seoul (created by the disposal of dangerous chemicals into the river). Our main character is Park Gang-du, a simple-minded man who runs a snack-bar near the river, with his father. Park Gang-du also has a daughter, Hyun-seo, and two siblings who he is not very close with. The monster emerges from the river, destroys everything in its path while killing people and abducting others. When Hyun-seo is taken by the creature, her family does everything in their power to find her and bring her home.

The Host is not a simple creature feature. Instead, it is both a family drama and a social commentary on governments (not specifically about Korea as I fear this applies anywhere). This is what I enjoyed the most about The Host : it is more than meets the eyes. The creature has an elaborate design but unfortunately, the CGI doesn’t look good. Surprisingly, the creature is not the focus of the film (and with the low CGI quality, it is indeed a good thing).

The family we follow throughout the film is dysfunctional : they are poor, the older son is unemployed, the sister is a failed athlete and the main character, Park Gang-du is described as having a mental disability due to childhood events. Watching the members of this family become a true unit in the midst of tragedy is moving. It is when they lose what is the most important thing in the world (Park Gang-du’s young daughter) that they all realize that they must come together and fight. It is also a bit sad whenever people have to go through tragic events to realize that nothing is more important than family. Their journey to this realization is not done in a typical drama fashion. As expected from such a great director, the emotion is well balanced and feels real.

However, I had an issue with the tone which lasted for the majority of the film : the humor is grotesque and feels forced. We have characters falling down for the sake of looking stupid, some lines meant to be funny but seem forced and actors who are often overreacting. I think the humor was not necessary and actually hurt the story a bit.

The Host is not about a family fighting a monster. Instead, they are fighting the government who is more threatening and dangerous than the creature itself. First off, it is incredible (but not far fetched) that the government, via the military with heavy weaponry, is unable to kill a creature who isn’t bigger than a whale. Rather than being unable to, the authorities seem unwilling to. Also, while trying to save Hyun-seo, her father, uncle and aunt find themselves having to run from government scientists and the military. Bong Joong-Ho succeeds in showcasing governments’ inaction and willingness to put citizens in danger to serve their own needs in times of crisis.

While the survival of Hyun-seo was a bit unbelievable, The Host is an enjoyable (and most of all, smart) creature feature who focuses on its characters. I didn’t like The Host nearly as much as Memories of Murder, though it is well-directed. While it is a good film, it belongs in the “mainstream entertainment” category, as far as I’m concerned. 

 

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Review : Memories of Murder / 살인의 추억 (2003)

Memories of Murder was directed by Bong Joong-Ho and released in 2003. The film is based on a true story that occurred between 1986 and 1991 in the Gyeonggi province. Ten women were raped and murdered in a 2km radius. The culprit has never been found. Memories of Murder is often considered to be the film which started a new wave in Korean cinema.

The film begins in 1986, the body of a young woman is found. She has been raped and murders. A couple of months later, similar crimes occurr and a pattern emerges : the killer strikes on rainy nights and is at first targeting women wearing red clothing. Two local detectives, Park Doo-Man and Jo Young-Go, are in charge of the investigation. Their violent and questionable methods, coupled with a good degree of incompetence, prevents them from finding concrete evidence that could help getting closer to the killer. They are joined by Seo Tae-Yoon, a police officer from Seoul who recently transferred. The film follows the trio during their investigations from 1986 to 1991.

I am new into the world of Korean cinema and so far, with each film I have watched, I am mesmerized by the beautiful cinematography that only Korean directors seem to be able to capture. Bong Joong-Ho uses a lot of long shots, the camera switching from character to character in one unique shot. The film is extremely well directed and shot.  Though the film takes place in one village, Bong Joong-Ho offers a wide variety of locations, which are clearly chosen carefully.

The performances are excellent, from the main characters to the extras. The casting director did an excellent job choosing people with memorable faces or features, even for small roles. Every single person you see on screen stays on your mind. The three main characters are all great and interesting in their own way. I especially loved to witness how their relations evolved during the course of the investigation.

Another thing Bong Joong-Ho did beautifully : mixing the tones. The film has humor, especially in the first act. The two local cops and some of the suspects are funny and some scenes are really comedic. But the tone gets darker and darker as the story unfolds. Yet, neither the humor nor the tragedy feel out of place or forced. I usually complain when films switch tones too drastically or too frequently but here, it reaches perfection.

The film is also a time capsule, depicting life in rural Korea in the 1980’s. I don’t know Korean history enough to properly analyze the context of the film, so I will not do it injustice by attempting it. Memories of Murder is perfectly directed, the acting is superb, the visuals are beautiful and the ending is both beautiful and tragic. I cannot recommend it enough. Please watch this masterpiece !

 

Review : Ju-On (The Grudge) / 呪怨 (2002)

Ju-On : The Grudge was directed by Takashi Shimizu and released in 2002. The film is part of the Ju-On franchise which consists in 12 feature films (9 japanese productions and 3 american ones). Ju-On is based on Japanese folklore and more specifically on the Kayako urban legend about a woman murdered by her husband who comes back as a vengeful ghost.

Volunteer social worker Rika stumbles across the curse when she finds an almost catatonic old woman in a shambles of a home, a spooky little boy with a froggy voice and a veritable black hole of a phantom that seems to be sucking the life from the old lady. The story then jumps back and forth along the timeline in a series of chapters named for the characters haunted and hunted by the unsettled souls. (source : Wiki Asia)

Ju-On takes the concept of a haunted house to a whole new level. As in many Japanese horror films, what stands out the most is the creepy and unsettling atmosphere. It is well-directed and every ghost apparition is shot in the most frightening way possible. The pacing is slow but it works much better than Ringu, in my opinion. The slow rhythm of the film only increases the fear in anticipation of what’s coming next. I thought it never disappointed. The scenes which were meant to scare…frightened me beyond belief ! You won’t look at staircases or beds the same way after watching Ju-On.

The story is told in chapters, each one focusing on different characters. This is a minor flaw as I found it sometimes difficult to sympathize with characters you know you’re not going to spend too much time with. The storytelling is overall a bit chaotic.

The most important part of Ju-On is, of course, the ghosts. Their “design” is so simple that it is genius. They are just people with white make-up on. But Shimizu focuses on one element, which alone constitutes the scariest feature of the ghosts : the eyes. Oh, those eyes ! Oh, the horror ! I still get chills just thinking about them. Every single scare is accompanied by effective sounds which will make your skin crawl.

Though the structure of the film is all over the place, Ju-On is a fantastic film. It is, along with Ringu, a great entry to discover J-Horror. I highly recommend it.

 

Review : Pet Sematary (1989)

Pet Sematary was written by Stephen King in 1983 and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 1986. The film adaptation was directed by Mary Lambert based on a script written by King himself and was released in 1989.

The Creed Family (Louis, Rachel and their two children) move from Chicago to a small town in Maine. They become friends with their neighbor, Judd, who lives across the road from the new Creed’s house. One day, Judd shows them the nearby pet cemetery (misspelled sematary by the children who created it). The legend says that beyond the pet cemetery, remains an old indian burial ground. When the deceased are buried there, they come back to life. When the daughter’s beloved cat is killed, Louis decides to bury the pet on the burial ground…soon after, the cat comes back to life but does not seem to be himself. Not long after, the Creed face the greatest tragedy of them all : their young boy, Gage, is hit by a truck and dies. Devastated, the father decides to perform the same ritual. But just like Church the cat, Gage isn’t himself anymore…and the horror ensues !

Pet Sematary deals with a heavy subject and is the saddest King adaptation I have watched thus far. Mary Lambert did an especially good job at mixing a sense of realism with fantastical elements, which blend perfectly and emphasize the story. 

Dealing with the loss of a loved one is always a difficult time. Losing a child might just be the greatest tragedy anyone could face. Wouldn’t you try bringing a loved one back if there was a slight chance it might work ? Even knowing the person wouldn’t be the same, wouldn’t you still hope and try anyway ? Those are some of the questions raised by Pet Sematary. 

Though the film has great characterization and a story revolving around grief, it also gives us all that is needed to be a great horror film. For example, there is a story about the mother’s past which offers frightening scenes and haunting imagery. And let’s not forget the disfigured ghost who is haunting Louis.

Pet Sematary is well directed, the locations are great, the performances are stellar and the story is both tragic and scary. It is not only one of the best Stephen King adaptations, it is also one of the best horror film of the 80’s.

Review : Graveyard Shift (1990)

Graveyard Shift is a short story written by Stephen King and first published in a 1970’s issue of the Cavalier magazine. In 1978, it was included in King’s collection of short stories, Night Shift. The film adaptation, directed by Ralph S. Singleton, was released in 1990.

In an old textile mill infested by rats, a worker dies during his night shift, attacked by an unknown assailant. A drifter passing through town and looking for a job is hired to replace him. The sadistic mill owner gathers a crew of workers to clean the rat-infested basement to avoid permanent closure. While there, they find a tunnel which they believe will lead them to the rats’ nest. When they go down there, they find something entirely different and far scarier than rats.

The premise of the film would let you expect an entertaining creature feature but unfortunately, the result is a disappointing and frustrating experience. Let’s get the obvious out of the way : Graveyard Shift is among the bad films based on Stephen King’s work. Its main problem resides in its characters. While the main character, his love interest and most of all the exterminator played by Brad Dourif are interesting enough to keep you watching, the rest of the characters range from stupid to incoherent.

The one (and only) memorable aspect of Graveyard Shift is its setting. Once the characters go down inside the tunnels, you are greeted by a great set. This labyrinth of tunnels with rooms filled with skeletons creates a creepy atmosphere.

The creature captures the essence of the film : disappointing and poorly made. The giant rat/bat hybrid works in earlier scenes when we only get a glimpse at the creature and I actually really liked the scene where the shape of a victim is visible through the monster’s transparent wing. However, once the creature is fully revealed, it loses its appeal and the climax falls short.

I could write more about Graveyard Shift and list all its flaws such as the worker screaming every time he uses a hose (I genuinely wanted to kill him myself) or the mill boss’s actions which made no sense. But I think you already have a general idea of the quality of this film : while not the worst movie I have seen, it is still pretty bad.

Review : Needful Things (1993)

Needful Things is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, published in 1991. It is the first novel Stephen King wrote after his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addictions. The adaptation was directed by Fraser C. Heston (the son of Charlton Heston) and stars Max Von Sydow and Ed Harris.

Leland Gaunt, having recently moved to the small town of Castle Rock, is the owner of the “Needful Things” shop. The peculiar shopkeeper seems to have anything your heart desires but the price to pay is as strange as the man selling the items : a small amount of money and a deed (more specifically, a prank to be played on other town folks). It doesn’t take long for the simple pranks to take a deadly turn as everyone in town is slowly destroying each other.

Needful Things is mostly receiving negative reviews, which I completely disagree with. While not being in the top Stephen King adaptations such as Misery or Stand By Me, it is still a very good film. Some critics disliked the film because they found it not funny, not scary and depressing. Well, I would argue that the film doesn’t try to be funny, doesn’t pretend to be scary and is intended to be a bit depressing. 

The highlight of the film is evidently Max Von Sydow as The Devil (no spoilers, it is pretty clear from the beginning who the character truly is). I especially enjoyed his performance because of his mystical aura. There is also a heavy Vincent Price vibe in his portrayal of the strange shopkeeper. Ed Harris also gives a great performance as the reluctant hero and the supporting cast helps create a good ensemble to carry the story.

Stephen King readers are familiar with the writer’s tendency to set his stories in small town. And this one takes place in the most famous one of them all, featured in numerous of King’s work : Castle Rock. Heston did a very good job at creating the small town look and feel.

One might assume that a story involving the devil should have a grand scale but the strength of the film is taking the opposite route and depicting the influence of evil on the lives of normal people. After all, Leland Gaunt never does anything directly to hurt people, he simply gives them a nudge and human nature does the rest. It truly shows how everyone has violent tendencies buried inside and sometimes, it doesn’t take much for them to come out.

Critics have argued that it seemed rather pointless for the devil to waste time in a small town when it is made clear that he was no stranger to catastrophes such as WW2. Personally, I viewed his stay in Castle Rock as a recreation for him : between two major disasters, he attempts to destroy small towns to entertain himself.

Needful Things may pale in comparison to films like The Shining or The Shawshank Redemption but it is indeed one of the better Stephen King adaptations. It is a well-crafted film with great performances and an interesting story. The two-hour runtime flies by so do yourself a favor and watch Needful Things !

 

Review : Misery (1990)

Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Misery was released in 1990 and stars Kathy Bathes and James Caan as the main characters. The novel, written by Stephen King, was published in  1987. Stephen King intended to release the novel under the Richard Bachman name but his secret identity was discovered before publication.

Paul Sheldon is the successful writer of the best-selling series, Misery. Having completed his new novel, he drives to meet with his editor. However, on the way, he gets into a severe accident. He is rescued by his self-proclaimed “number one fan”, Annie Wilkes, who nurses him back to health. Paul, unable to leave the house because of his injuries (and more injuries inflicted by the number one fan herself), is forced to write a new story while the local authorities try and find him after discovering his body is not at the scene of the car accident.

Good adaptations of Stephen King’s work are unfortunately a rare occurrence. Rob Reiner’s Misery is not among the good ones : it is among the few great ones. The film is simple and straightforward but it works impeccably. The tension is palpable and keeps increasing until the final confrontation. There are no twists or unexpected turns of events because the story doesn’t need them. 

Kathy Bathes really shines as Annie Wilkes and her Academy Award was well-deserved. Watching her go from a caring nurse to a psychopathic fanatic is scary and unsettling. It takes only one second for her to become enraged. James Can, however, is more passive and while he gives a good performance, he is no match for Kathy Bathes.

Stephen King explained that his novel is an allegory for drug addiction, which he struggled with for many years. The film definitely demonstrates the inability to escape someone (or something) who has a firm grip on an individual. But more than the underlying theme, the most interesting and compelling aspect of Misery is its characters.

Annie Wilkes is terrifying, especially when she has psychotic fits of rage. Paul Sheldon, who is trapped in his own success, must now fight to escape (literally). There are two minor characters who I absolutely love : the town sheriff and his wife. I loved their cute relationship and was surprised that the sheriff is not a simpleton (as small town authorities are often depicted). He is the only one who gets very close to finding the missing writer. 

Misery is a character-driven story which will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is an absolute classic which everyone should watch.