The Host, the 2006 Korean creature-feature from director Joon-ho Bong, came with some out-sized expectations. There was the collective cooing of the blogging classes, with folks throwing about term of praise like "brilliant" and "best of the year" and "the greatest thing out of Korea since pickled squid in a can." You can expect a certain level of hyperventilation out of the bloggers. Horror bloggers, unlike many all-pro film reviewer types, see loads of horror films. This rarely makes us highly discerning critics of the genre. Instead, it means we're often up to our nips in crappy films. We spend an inordinate amount of time doggedly plodding after absurdly half-assed storylines, suffering abysmal acting, and forgiving lame direction and effects. The cumulative result of this collective cinematic masochism is that, when we find a movie with even a passable amount of talent, skill, and polish, we tend to hail it as something like the second coming. But The Host was actually getting good notices from the slumming mainstream types. The NY Times and other respectable rags were giving the pic high marks for the stylishly retro monster approach and the smart integration of current environmental and political themes.
What's the official ANTSS position: The Host doesn't completely live up to the hype, but what it can deliver is worth checking out.
The central story of The Host is wonderfully simple. One sunny day, for no particular reason, a big monster slumps out of Seoul's Han River and goes ape in a nearby park. After the monster's apatite for destruction is sated, it snags a young girl and returns to the river, specifically a series of sewer tunnels our beastie calls home. As the authorities do not believe the girl is still alive and wish to quarantine all those who came in contact with the monster, it is up to the mildly dysfunctional members of the girl's family to come and save her.
The monster is wonderfully designed, looking something like an angry black train engine constructed out of random fish parts. It's confusion of fins and tentacles, claws and gills makes for a delightfully freakish beast. The nasty's mouth is made of many distinct toothy, grindy, sucky parts that it alone ranks as one of the most wonderfully bizarre bits of creature design in recent memory. Whenever this nameless monster is trashing its way through the picture, the film is firing on all cylinders. The filmmaker has a real feel for beast-driven mayhem and the joy with which he uses his monstrous star comes across.
What prevents the film being the out and out classic it is occasionally billed as is a long, dreary middle in which the monster fades into the background (making only a few fan pleasing cameos) and a somewhat nonsensical subplot about a supposed disease spread by the beast takes center stage. Here, the actors, who were sufficient to acting opposite a neato special effect, are pushed beyond their capacities in a failed bid to add gravitas and create a strong sense of backstory. Furthermore the disease subplot, which is what ushers in all the geo-political blah blah, is such a dramatic and narrative dead-end that whatever political points the director and screenwriter wished to make are lost to unnecessary complications and viewer indifference.
In fact, this whole middle act, and the somewhat puzzling fallout from these scenes that flows through the rest of the flick, seems to me to be the unfortunate manifestation of a common wrongheaded conceit of horror film criticism: movies "about something" are smarter and better than movies that aren't overtly "about something." This powerful bit of hogwash has become so entrenched in the critical community that I think filmmakers are actually influenced by it. They go out of their way to load their films with overt political and ethical commentary because they erroneously assume that such content guards them from making crap. Sadly, only talent, skill, and taste can safeguard against making crap. Shoving your political opinion into a garbage flick doesn't save it. It only makes your crap more tiresome.
Let's look at a specific and glaring case. George Romero has steadily increased the ideological load each of his flicks must drag along. Would you say that this increased political spin has resulted in better and better films? Was Land of the Dead really better than Night of the Living Dead? If anything, the increasingly overt political content has weakened his films and confused the basic premises of his entire series. For example, using the zombies as some sort of symbol of imperialist backlash in Land confuses the fact that zombies are after humans for reasons more dietary than ideological. It’s a lousy metaphor and a muddled plot point.
For years, horror fans and filmmakers have understood that the most charmingly laughable scenes of the classic horror flicks from the Universal Big Bang to the 1950s revival was the scene where some square-jawed and absurdly earnest scientist stepped forward to explain to the moral and social significance of the plot to the other characters. More often then not it was a fairly standard lecture on keeping science within the bounds of reason. Sometimes, in your less square flicks, it was a bid for sympathy for the creature: "But is it really that different from us? Sure, it feeds off human blood, emits a deadly radiation that melts the skin off our bones, and hunts with a savage and unreasoning thirst for death. But, don't we humans do the same thing? When we fight wars or play hockey or shop for intriguing undergarments, aren't we doing the very same things we condemn this monster for? Who are the real monsters here?"
The "about something" content in most contemporary horror films is as subtle, deep, and meaningful as the "et tu, monstro" speeches of the old flicks.
Possibly worse than the intentional inclusion of political pap is the moralistic whitewashing of flicks otherwise free of this sort of junk in a bid to make interest in them more palatable. No filmmaker reveled more in this post-production accumulation of social significance than Roth with his torture-porn revival flick Hostel. In an effort to make that flick's repellent allure less tawdry, critics happily provided a supposed subtext of a critique of American hubris. Really? Everywhere these jackasses go they encounter a post-EU Europe that can't drop to it knees fast enough to supply people with whatever they want provided the Euros are right. They've walked into a distinctly Euro-flavored free-market nightmare were human slaughter for entertainment needs no more justification than it is profitable and the film is supposedly about American hubris?
This isn't to say that horror can't or shouldn't be "about something." One could argue that simply by virtue of presenting concrete manifestations of our own collective nightmares all good horror films always contain a socially significant subject. What scares us is important by the very fact it scares us. If that's too abstract, there are subtle ways to integrate social themes and messages. A good horror movie riffs on the social anxieties we feel without giving away the game or leaving us with a "and knowing is half the battle" style take home message. There is, I think, a curious anti-media message in The Ring which is all the more interesting for never having some character step forward and say "Do we really want to be the sort of society were a tape people know will kill them would still be a threat?" In fact, it is this oblique approach to the social issues raised by the film that made Rings, the filler short the studios created to bridge the first remake and its sequel, so much better than Ring II, with its overt bits about child abuse.
Enough ranting – see what ranting can do to any endeavor? – back to film at hand. The Host is a brilliant creature feature that gets bogged down in the middle by an unnecessary and self-important "issues" subplot. But never fear. In their infinite benevolence, the consumer electronics industry has given us the ultimate weapon against this sort of thing: the skip chapter button. Use it judiciously and you can keep The Host brilliant.