Fearflix 7

The Host

South Korea 2013


The American actor Scott Wilson played the wise veterinarian in The Walking Dead. He was cast against type. The film In The Heat Of The Night had him debut as a not too bright suspected murderer. Wilson became famous as one of the two troubled killers in the movie adaptation of In Cold Blood. After that, Scott Wilson, who could act but lacked star appeal, worked and survived.

Wilson appears in the opening scene of The Host. He is an American military mortician who orders toxic poison to be dumped in the Han River. Because he is old, Wilson is now able to play men who have power. But a face is a face, and Wilson is still useful for the vacant stares of those without pity and understanding. As a powerless angry nutcase from the South, he kills an innocent family. His powerful equivalent destroys the environment and creates a catastrophe. The objective of the mortician is to sweep away bottles that have been covered by offensive dust. There is a thin line between black comedy and grim irony. The Host crosses that line often. The Wilson character in the film is based on an American mortician called McFarland who dumped eighty litres of formaldehyde into the sewage system that drains into the Han River. McFarland was suspended for thirty days by the American military and fined $4000 by the South Korean Government. Political protest followed.


The Host was a box office success. The monster is a versatile giant fish that can invade the land. The film is a reminder that Jaws was first conceived by Spielberg as a horror movie containing political comment. Jaws echoes Enemy Of The People by Ibsen but, as always with Spielberg, his politics surrender to a bleeding ’70s liberal heart that wants nothing more than for people to be nicer. The grievances in The Host are specific. The film protests against the presence of United States masters and the subservience of the South Korean Government and business, the elite that values the American dollar more than the welfare of its population.

In the first scene the dangerous American treats the environment with contempt, and in the second a suicidal businessman throws himself into the Han River. Just before he jumps, the businessman notices something dark, not just the shadow of the monster but the threat from the rotten deep at the heart of South Korean society.

These two scenes reference American imperialism and the IMF 1997 imposition of neoliberalism when some South Korean businessmen really did throw themselves in the Han River. Since the IMF imposition, over 15% of the population now live in poverty, most of them are old. Before 1997 the figure was 3.1%. Suicides have increased but the rich are very rich, and Western consumers can buy cheap TVs. So it goes.


The plot of The Host is often wayward, happy not to worry about something as tedious as credibility. There is a willingness to mix genres, as if the director will not be restricted by American genre traditions. We have monster invasions and Hitchcock chase scenes. Much is unexplained. The hero leaves his yellow body bag, and no one interferes.

This in the film, though, is clear.

An American creates the monster through dumping toxic waste and the American Government and a tame UN shift blame on to South Korea,  The United States military helps to subdue the monster through the use of Agent Yellow, a poison that cannot be used in the American homeland because of its risk to life and vegetation. Concern for what has happened to the American victim causes the South Korean Government to overreact and view its population as an enemy equal to the monster.  Spokesmen issue orders without debate and wear head to toe protective clothing that make them look sinister. Media announcements are propaganda messages. The hospital is an institution designed to control people rather than cure. The creepy but self-righteous American doctor is content to perform a brain operation without an effective anaesthetic for the patient.   Park Gang-du, whose daughter has been kidnapped by the host, is suspected of being infected by a virus from the monster.


Like the shark in Jaws, the host creates panic and scatters crowds. When the host leaves the water looking for food, its legs allow it to race across land. Most of the time the fish has a human victim half-hanging from its mouth. Although everyone runs away, Park Gang-du and his family escape from the hospital to chase the monster and to find Park Hyun-seo, the granddaughter who they realise is still alive.

The family of Park Gang-du is dysfunctional. Park Gang-du has a mental disorder that prevents him from staying awake for long periods. The grim irony for Gang-du is that the anaesthetic fails to send him to sleep. His brother is an unemployed graduate, and his sister a talented but flawed archer. She wins the national bronze medal but, despite her ability, misses the gold. Grandfather works hard but does not understand why his family fails to succeed. His sympathy drains him. Granddaughter Park Hyun-seo appears to have potential. She is alert and sensible and wears a smart school uniform. But the unemployed brother wears a business suit. We are not convinced about the future of anyone in this family.

The members of the family are distinct but the film is not a drama about character. The grandfather ensures economic survival for his children but he cannot nurture independence. Parents, like imperial masters, are obliged to overestimate themselves, their capabilities and their achievements. The grandfather is no different. He fails when he thinks he can imitate an American hero. Unlike tough cowboys the grandfather miscounts the bullets in his gun. This is his grim irony. The unemployed brother envies his friend who has a job with a telecommunications firm. But the friend has debt of 70,000, and all of his friends are keen to help him betray the unemployed brother. The family of Park Gang-du succeed against the monster when they confront it without the paternal grandfather but with the help of a homeless father and the American military. How they succeed is their grim irony, and their exceptional success contains another bitter surprise.


Bong Joon-ho directed The Host. His earlier film Memories of Murder is supposedly one of the twenty favourites of Quentin Tarantino. The taste of Tarantino is no recommendation but Memories of Murder is a classic movie about a serial killer. It dwells on failure, compromise and how the past haunts the present. All of it is shaped by life under an authoritarian government. But for Tarantino form rather than content is important. The Host has plenty of style. The suicide of the businessman is a fine moment and an example of superior realism created by special effects. We see arms and legs flail as the man heads to the water. The fish is a splendid monster and also a tribute to CGI. In quiet moments this lonely brute can be sympathetic but mainly it repels and terrifies. The monster moves with real pace, and this adds to the impressive crowd scenes. The soundtrack is as aggressive as the monster and it explodes when the monster appears. There is plenty of rain in the film but when there is sunshine it is realised in deliberately bright colour. The corrupted environment is both poisonous and oppressive. Images range from the ramshackle to the dazzling and they reflect how Park Gang-du and his family combine the pathetic and the heroic.

The crowds on the banks of the Han River may echo the people in a painting by Georges Seurat but the wharf hides sinister concrete and deep sewers that are soon revealed. Like the dark under the river, this is the reality that has to be acknowledged.  The bridge, that today still attracts suicides and the victims of neoliberalism, is seen from dramatic angles. The style of The Host provides satisfaction but the film works best when it takes itself seriously.

When the monster first appears, the day-trippers throw food and junk into a river that is already damaged. These are over-fed innocents unaware of the effects of their consumerism on the environment and other creatures. Doom will follow disaster. The faith of Americans that they can improve and save the world through market economics is undermined by the first victim of the monster. He is a courageous, naive and idealistic American who loses a limb and, subsequently, his life.  Even the meaning of the title is complex. It refers to South Korea and its accommodation of American masters, to the people, who permit exploitation by self-interested businessmen and the damage to the environment, and also the lonely monster, obliged to separate children from its adult human food and keep them for company. Grim irony, black humour, special effects, visual style, violence and drama can clash but, if they did, none of it prevented The Host from breaking box office records in a less than perfect South Korea. Here is hoping that some of the 15% living in poverty managed to see the film.

Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.





Fearflix 5


United States 2013


The debut novel of the great and troubled noir writer John Franklin Bardin was called The Deadly Percheron. At the beginning the hero discusses his mental health with his doctor.

‘I think I am losing my mind,’ says the hero.

From the first paragraph we realise that The Deadly Percheron is about mystery and paranoia. Something similar happens in Oculus. Tim the patient is young, handsome, sensitive, damaged and vulnerable. With his psychiatrist he discusses his future outside of the hospital and his less than reliable mental health. Ghosts and the supernatural defy credibility, and the number of encounters between spirits and neurotic vulnerable humans challenges mathematical probability.

The movie Oculus is not a household name but it was a success. It is popular in horror film festivals. The reviews from mainstream film critics were guarded but positive. The producers made a healthy 800% profit, and the film did no harm to the CVs of the director and actors. Kaylie, the sister of Tim, is played by ex Doctor Who assistant Karen Gillan. It is a different kind of role for the actress, and she does extend her range, but the American accent does not enhance her quirky charm.


Despite the success few think Oculus a classic. The film lacks cinematic style, and this limits its impact. There are ghosts but they are passive, and the film, because of its structure and restraint, does not qualify as modern gothic

Oculus was based on a short film called Oculus: Chapter Three – The Man With A Plan. The director and co-screenwriter Mike Flanagan had wanted the story to be made as a collection of shorts but he was unable to secure financing for the episodic format. His other film Absentia was made in his apartment and was intended as direct to video. It became a surprise hit on Netflix. Flanagan made a movie in his living room and uses titles about men with plans. He sounds like a nerd, and Oculus, might be described as a horror movie for nerds. This is another reason why it does not qualify as gothic.

The structure of the film, which is original and different, is its great strength but, for the past to dominate the film and to merge with the present, exposition is required. Presumably, Kaylie, the sister of the neurotic male, was once ‘the man with a plan’. She is the nerd. Kaylie is prepared to confront and destroy the monster within the mirror. The sister reveals her research and discoveries while setting up the technology that will capture and record the monster. She appears on the various screens around the room as she explains the connection of the mirror to previous murders and suicides. This mitigates the effect of the exposition but there is a lot to mitigate. Like the best male nerds, the sister believes that technology, data collection, planning and her own intellectual acumen will defeat the horror. The secrets of mystery threaten danger but to do this mystery has to exist which it cannot when superseded by knowledge. This is not mere tautology. This is the faith of the nerd.

Kaylie has a ponytail and red hair. The film begins with her ponytail swinging in an exaggerated fashion. The ponytail is important because it is the common characteristic between three women. These are Kaylie as a child, Kaylie as an adult and her mother. We will not escape our childhood or our parents.


Despite monsters and ghosts,the film is dominated by the limitations of the family and the mistakes of the past . Tim has been convinced by his psychiatrist that there is no hidden monster. The explanation offered by the psychiatrist is that Kaylie and Tim had lousy parents. Oculus unites the never-ending presence of the past to the impact of a less than perfect family. These themes and unity make Oculus worthwhile.

Philip Larkin was clear about the damage parents do to children, and his expletive helped his remarks become famous. The monster inside the mirror destroys the family but it also nourishes narcissism and exposes the damage parents cause children when they cease to be reliable and feel obliged to dwell on their own issues. Child psychologists eschew fashion and insist that children need discipline and certainty rather than moral debate. Oculus is gloomy and conservative and reinforces that warning. Its independent perspective is impressive.

All families that move house are cursed with naive optimism and overestimate themselves. The family that moves into the strange house is inevitably confused and disorganised. We soon see the family sharing dinner in their new home. They are perhaps too informal. Mother has an awful lot of wine in her glass, and father is preoccupied with work. The informal use of names between the family members implies that personalities will prevail over social identity and responsibility. We expect trouble for these trendies and are not disappointed. Kaylie and Tim, like all children, want their parents to be reliable and provide security, to offer something like a future. But mother and father collapse and change. Kaylie and Tim, instead of being dependent and protected, become protagonists and take action against their inadequate parents. Faced with the existence of evil the liberal household collapses. These parents snarl at their children, show their irritation and reveal that they are self-destructive, vindictive and egotistic, that they are human. Liberal faith consists of the belief that these limitations require tolerance and are compatible with a functioning society. The conservative argues that such limitations if not checked can facilitate evil. Adults who are parents have to pretend to be something other than flawed humans. Conservatives value flawed humans pretending. Liberals call it hypocrisy.


As an audience we are both liberal and conservative. We can understand why these human adults stop being parents but are also shocked by their transformation into monsters. We watch horror movies because we have a conservatism that is rooted in apprehension and pessimism but our liberal optimism allows us to hope that these fears can be massaged and defeated. Oculus is conservative rather than liberal, and that is only one of the reasons we do not anticipate a happy ending.

Critics of the film feel it lacks shock value and impact. The final slaying is contrived and modest but this is inevitable. The present is not as important as what happened in the past. The ending, though, is consistent with the preoccupations and character of the victim and it does encourage thought in the viewer. We are curious as to how these victims have contrived in their demise. There is also another murder that occurs in the present and before the end of the film. This event is too sudden and under-cooked, both the attack and the relationship between victim and assassin. Because the monster is hidden, the ghosts we do see are victims. They invoke sympathy and do not terrify. But the messages within the film are important, and Oculus stays inside the brain long after the typical gore movie or parade of vicious monsters.


The final merging of the past and present is impressive and it makes the film essential viewing for both horror and cinema fans. It is, though, why the film has to rely on an unusual structure. The inability of the horror in the present to compare with the past ensures a muted impact on thrill seekers. Indeed, we worry more about the horror that we will not see. The horror that will happen to Tim after our involvement with the movie has finished. In most horror movies the terror exists in the present, and the past becomes revealed in glimpses during the struggle. Excitement exists because terror either prevails or is defeated in the final denouement. Here the horror from the past defines the present and it will not go away.

Kaylie almost teases Tim with the word redeem. She understands that redemption is rooted in how we relate to the past. The brother who has left the psychiatric prison wants to move on, as his sensible pragmatic psychiatrist has insisted he should. Kaylie, now ‘the man with the plan’, believes redemption is only possible if she exposes and conquers the past with fresh evidence. She will redefine the past.  These are the alternative options for redemption and the concepts compare neatly in the characters of Kaylie and Tim.

Kaylie looks assured and optimistic when she finds and purchases the mirror. The swinging ponytail suggests confidence and aggression, possibly violence.   She is also the obvious descendant of her red haired mother. The desire to make her mother and herself perfect as the images of each other is why the mirror is important to Kaylie. But neither narcissists nor anyone should have confidence in a mirror. It reveals all but confuses because we can see only what is within our understanding and competence. Extreme faith in her ability to deal with the mirror, which is what Kaylie possesses, is dangerous. It affects not only what we might believe about ourselves but also determines how we affect the lives of others.

Oculus is not Henry James but he would have approved of a female hero that is deluded, obsessional and symbolic. Oscar Wilde would have agreed with the warnings about the mirror and flawed human nature. Not bad for a film that looks as if it might have been made for TV and could, at a push, be watched with the kids. Actually, letting the kids watch Oculus might not be such a good idea.



Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.

If you want to read more about his travels click here.