Stomach Virus

Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I f there’s one thing to be gleaned from the sensational Korean horror film The Host, it’s that our cinema’s most celebrated auteurs need to make more marauding-giant-monster movies. The genre is so fabulously elastic! The Host packs a lot into its two tumultuous hours: lyrically disgusting special effects, hair-raising chases, outlandish political satire, and best of all, a dysfunctional-family psychodrama—an odyssey that’s like a grisly reworking of Little Miss Sunshine. The movie is built like a formula grade-B creature feature, yet the loony-tunes passions of its characters seem to melt and warp that structure before our eyes. The final product is as weirdly misshapen as … the marauding giant monster itself.

What is that thing? Sort of a mandibled squidlike reptile—but that makes it sound as if you could diagram it. It has many moving parts. It eats people but has to regurgitate the bones. It’s mean, it’s ugly, and it’s American—insofar as it seems to have been born of formaldehyde dumped into the Han River at the command of a military scientist played by Scott Wilson, a specialist in granitic Yankee dementia. The director and co-writer, Bong Joon-ho, does not depict our military presence with too much enthusiasm. Not only does the American-spawned creature wreak havoc on Korean leisure activities but also the virus it apparently hosts triggers a lateral chamber of horrors—an authoritarian roundup (overseen by the U.S.) of people exposed to the beast and the deployment of the noxious chemical “Agent Yellow.”

Worse—for the audience’s purposes—is that the military interferes with the quest of the pudgy, dyed-blond narcoleptic wastrel hero, Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), to rescue his adolescent daughter, Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung), who is carried off by the monster but manages to call her dad on a cell phone from amid the corpses (future meals) splayed around its sewer lair. In the unstable society of The Host, family is the only thing you can rely on, and Hyun-seo’s is barking mad. Her mother decamped shortly after she was born. Her uncle (Park Hae-il) is a perpetual student who has never gotten over the pro- democracy riots of his youth. Her aunt (Bae Doo-na) is the oddest bird: a jittery near-champion archer—brilliant until it’s time to let the last arrow fly.

Korean directors get a charge out of pushing things to extremes. In The Host, there’s a bizarre overhead shot of Hyun-seo’s family (including her grandfather, played by Byun Hee-bong) writhing on the floor in grief over her supposed death: Estranged from one another, they weep and howl in separate spheres yet with equal levels of intensity. They’re pitiable—and laughable. A lot of The Host is on that emotional-circus continuum—scary, funny, and upsetting, like the hero’s brush with neurosurgery courtesy of Paul Lazar as a nut-bird American doctor.

In the end, though, this is a real horror movie. It’s hard to shake off the first sight of the creature in the far distance, hanging from the side of a bridge like some kind of pupa, then dropping into the water and gliding toward shore (to the oohs and ahhhs of the dopes on the bank, who throw food to it). When Hyun-seo becomes the mother she never had to a homeless orphan who’s still alive when he’s dumped into the monster’s bloody pit, The Host leaves the realm of its campy modern counterparts. But then, despite cartoonish flourishes, it has never functioned at the level of movies like Tremors or Eight Legged Freaks or even Jurassic Park. This is a portrait of a country’s deepest anxieties, which just happen to be distilled into a mandibled squidlike reptile. It has the tang of social realism.

Horrific as it is, The Host is a frolic next to James Scurlock’s documentary Maxed Out, which tells the bone-chilling, bloodcurdling, hair-raising story of a country (guess which one?) that’s up to its eyeballs in credit-card debt. The causes are various, among them pipe dreams of affluence (cue Robin Leach) and falling “real” wages. But the insanity is chiefly the upshot of what Scurlock calls “predatory lenders”—banks that shower us all with card offers but target especially the riskiest prospects, the ones with a bad history and “a taste for credit.” See, the less chance you have of paying off your balance at the end of the month, the greater the potential profit. It’s a topsy-turvy—and potentially fatal—way of keeping an economy afloat, but hey, lenders are making out like bandits.

Maxed Out features interviews with mothers of two college kids who took the bait, ran up what must have seemed like insurmountable debts, and hanged themselves. They are long buried, but the mail for one still brings credit-card offers. Then there is the late-middle-aged woman who hid her gambling debts until her husband—following the advice of good-guy radio host (and born-again Christian) Dave Ramsey—ordered a copy of his credit report. The day before it arrived, she bought a few dollars’ worth of gas and disappeared with her car—very likely into a nearby river, which her family scans regularly (as the water level drops) for a radio antenna sticking up.

Oh, the stories Scurlock tells. There are Kafkaesque ones, of people mistakenly declared dead on credit reports who must be dead, damn it. There are ones that start out goofy, like the guy who gets into a wrangle with his credit-card holder, Providian, over the billing for a piece of junk that was supposed to melt his abdomen fat. It becomes less goofy when we hear about Providian’s habit of holding or losing checks to bump up customers’ interest rates, which led to a fine against the company of hundreds of millions of dollars—which led, in a roundabout way, to the nomination of Providian’s former president to be George W. Bush’s business-ethics czar.

I could list more examples, but you get the idea. Given the statistics, you might have gotten the idea already, thanks to a minimum balance you once couldn’t pay and the nice people you met as a result. Scurlock profiles Robert Johnson and Chris Winkler, two prosperous young entrepreneurs in the jolly business of debt buying, men who discover new ways every day to ratchet up the pressure on the folks who owe them money. Thanks to legislation that the movie says was written by MBNA, it’s more difficult than ever to escape them by declaring bankruptcy.

One of the many strange—and delightful—things about Maxed Out is the way it uses an old-fashioned educational short in which a sagacious authority figure counsels a student couple on the wise use of credit. We’re used to rolling our eyes in the face of such stern fifties patriarchal propaganda—but damned if that old white guy doesn’t make good sense. How curious that the patriarchs of the 21st century want to steer us into debt.

Documentaries like Maxed Out make for excellent aversion therapy. Although weaned on Quarter Pounders with Cheese, I haven’t set foot in a McDonald’s since I saw Morgan Spurlock vomit one out a car window in Super Size Me. Is Spurlock related to Scurlock? This is an even scarier movie. After watching Maxed Out, I vowed to pay off all my credit cards at once and buy everything thereafter with cash. Of course, if I carried around that much cash, I’d need a gun, which would bring me smack up against another aversion-therapy documentary, Bowling for Columbine. No wonder people drive into rivers.

Jean-Claude Brisseau’s Exterminating Angels centers on the efforts of a writer-director, François (Frédéric Van Den Driessche), to capture, on film, “the grace of pleasure” on the faces and bodies of women in the throes of sexual ecstasy. The brave fool doesn’t realize what a dangerous game this is, female sexuality being as primal, as Camille Paglia–esque, as it is. That François will be punished for meddling with “the infernal machine” is foreshadowed by the sporadic appearance of two “fallen angels”—black-haired harpies who gaze on him balefully as he privately auditions actresses to gauge their “potential for exhibitionism.” One actress, the lovely and tremulous Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), has plenty of exhibitionistic potential indeed, mainly owing to mental illness and a history of sexual abuse. She has (very explicit) sex with Julie (Lise Bellynck) and then with Julie and Stéphanie (Marie Allan) together—and it all goes like gangbusters until the first day of shooting …

François is apparently the director’s alter ego, which makes it sad he’s such a lox, and that his face conveys nothing as he watches these women (laboriously) getting one another off. Exterminating Angels is meant as an autocritique—and yet the director can’t get past his notion of himself as a fearlessly transgressive artist-hero, a martyr to the limitations of male gaze. With all those lovely naked women helping him act out his own Promethean fall, it’s less autocritique than autoeroticism, an especially pretentious entry in the French cinema du wank.

Scott Glosserman’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon also tells the story of a director’s comeuppance, but the filmmakers have the modesty not to try to pass off their self-consciousness as self-criticism. Written by David J. Stieve and Glosserman, this is a rambunctiously postmodern exploitation flick—a mockumentary in which a film-school hotshot (Angela Goethals) decides to follow around a novice serial killer who’d like to be in the same league as Freddy, Jason, and Michael (all of whom exist in this particular alternate universe). His name is Leslie Vernon (twitchy Nathan Baesel), and he’s such a insightful student of slasherdom—and such a bitter misfit—that he could almost be a film critic.

Working in a mini-genre whose bones would appear to have been picked clean by the likes of Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven, Glosserman and Stieve find a few pints of fresh blood. Glosserman doesn’t get much out of Robert Englund (not as Freddy, but a variation of the Donald Pleasence psycho-hunter in Halloween), but there’s a marvelously creepy-funny scene with Scott Wilson (back from Korea) as a retired slasher who has made a cozy home with his last “Survivor Girl,” and the film crew’s documentary-ethics debates (do they or don’t they warn Leslie’s victims?) seem, in this day and age, amusingly un-farfetched. It’s too bad that in a sop to the slasher audience, Glosserman discards the mockumentary setup about fifteen minutes from the end and delivers a real hack-’em-up climax—suggesting that post-post-modernism might in fact be careerism.

The burgeoning genre of Korean horror (or K-Horror, as it’s sometimes known) follows on the heels of such Japanese films as the much-remade Ringu (there was both an American and South Korean version). Among the country’s notable entries are Phone (in which one evil-ass cell phone causes all sorts of problems), Memento Mori (in which a dead high school lesbian who’d killed herself returns, much to the detriment of her ex-lover), Cinderella (in which a plastic surgeon murders women with their own beauty), and the very-buzzed-about Face (in which a man must reconstruct the face of a murder victim using her haunted skull).

The Host
Directed by Bong Joon-Ho. Magnolia Pictures. R.

Maxed Out
Directed by James Scurlock. Red Envelope Entertainment. Nr.

Exterminating Angels
Directed by Jean-Claude Brisseau. IFC Films. NR.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
Directed by Scott Glosserman. Anchor Bay Entertainment. R.


Stomach Virus