The quirky South Korean creature film Monstrum serves up laughs, romance, intrigue, and one disgusting monster.
Shudder has made a habit of seeking out those films that largely get ignored. Those foreign films, genre-benders, and oddballs that don’t fit in mainstream horror libraries. Movies like Hagazussa and Luz were likely not heard of before Shudder. It’s a shame they don’t get more recognition. Shudder’s ever-growing list and focus on diversity, as well as classic movies give Monstrum a chance to be introduced to a Western audience.
A plague has decimated the citizens, and if that isn’t enough, a monster is thought to be hunting humans. The King needs to determine if the citizens are scared by a real Monstrum or encouraged by a scheming Prime Minister. He sends for rebellious ex-General Yun, who has been living an isolated life with his adopted daughter and second in command Sung. The trio begins a quest to find the truth and, if necessary, slay a monster. If the beast and his plague spreading saliva don’t get you, the Machiavellian machinations will.
A period piece set in the 16th century Korea the film feels appropriately dated while still relevant. The real Annuals of Joseon Dynasty offer a jumping-off point for Huh Jong-ho’s highly enjoyable action-adventure film with a horror twist. In the Annuals, King Jungjong fled his quarters in 1527 for three years, mentioning a monster haunting the palace. There is a minimal amount of added description for the beast, just vague and ominous descriptors. From that scant bit of history, Huh creates a world of intrigue and excitement.
This is not a traditional horror movie. There is an enormous, bloody beast, but there is also a lot of laughter, camaraderie, and political intrigue. It’s a little like if Armageddon had a creature instead of an asteroid with a dash of Manchurian Candidate thrown in. To say I enjoyed it is an understatement. It was nothing like I expected, but everything I needed in the middle of a global pandemic.
There is good chemistry between friends Yun Kyum(Kim Myung-min) and Sung-ham(Kim In-kwon) that reads as endearing as it is hysterical. These two men genuinely care for one another and have a long history. Their comedic timing is priceless, especially before the real action begins. This humor keeps the otherwise slow beginning from bogging down. As silly as Sung-ham seems to be, he turns out to be a skilled fighter for Yun Kyum. In the first of several massive fights, his prowess is shown. It is a surprise reveal which provides depth to the previous comic relief character. Like all good buddy-cop dynamics, both men have skills, are fiercely loyal to each other, and have a palpable affinity for the other.
The tenderness between the two men is rivaled only by the relationship between father and adopted daughter Myung(Lee Hye-ri. In her debut role, Lee Hye-ri is believable in a wide variety of emotions and responses. She is a devoted daughter, exasperated friend, curious and accomplished mind, and love interest. She achieves all of these successfully, along with a quality amount of archery. Rounding out the core group is Royal Court officer Hur(Choi Woo-shik). He provides a love interest for Myung as well as additional comic relief.
The fight scenes are well-choreographed ballets of brutality. The long continuous shots keep a sense of epic enormity. Additionally, the lithe moves of the actors sell the grace and power of martial arts and swordplay. They are gorgeous battles between man and eventually the beast which does exist. In a variety of locales with impressive set design, Huh males the most of his creature and his actors. The action-heavy sequences are thrilling to watch and keep the film driving forward once Monstrum makes an appearance.
The Monstrum himself which appears at the end of the first third of the film is a triumph. Introduced in a highly satisfying fashion, he is part lion and part bear. His scaley, sparsely furred body and blood-stained teeth are sufficiently grotesque. There is a bit too much dependence on CGI to bring the puss covered monstrosity to life, but that is forgiven for the maneuverability of the animal in the fight scenes themselves. The Monstrum rages right in the middle of the battle and wreaks all kinds of wet sounding havoc. This is a snarling, growling, drooling creature that won’t be denied. It seems to have a real sense of right and wrong, even if we don’t know exactly why. Spoiler alert, our good guys are on his team. Huh succeeds in inventing a sympathetic and deadly monster.
Soundwork is superb. Everything from the roar of the angry beast to hysterical bodily functions, some from the humans and others from Monstrum, is spectacular. They bring the world to life and immerse the viewer in the setting right along with our heroes. Similar to the great David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly helmed film Labyrinth, the creature is brought to life with noise as well as movement and appearance. One particularly funny scene had me reminding fondly that, “Ludo smell bad.”
If Monstrum has any flaw, it is about fifteen minutes too long. The set up lingers a little, and the whole “is there a monster or isn’t there” mystery gets in the way of the action sequences which develop later. It’s a minor complaint, however, as most of the slower introductory beats have a lightness to them needed to truly appreciate the main players later in their emotional climax. Monstrum truly is the kitchen sink of horror films. It is funny, sweet, action-packed, and suited for the entire family. It premieres on Shudder May 14th, 2020.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.