Friday, February 28, 2020

CoronaVirus Special: The CoVidEo Plague Film Bonanza: Part 1

Well I'm a bit weird, I guess. While most people respond to an epidemic scare like CoViD 19 by buying facemasks and hand sanitizer, and adjusting their weekend plans, I went and found every movie about infectious diseases I could and have been watching them one by one. If you're housebound anyway, why not pass the time scaring the crap out of yourself, right?

Now, I'm writing mini-reviews of some classic, less-than-classic, and absolute garbage plague films, and after the summaries, I'll finish off with a big ol' countdown from worst to best... so stay tuned!

Also, if you have a suggestion for a film I should include, please mention it in the comments!

Now not every film I mention will get a score. A few films just couldn't hold my attention all the way through. If a film was so dull, poorly made, or clicheed I ended up skipping to the "good parts" it gets DNF (Did Not Finish). I tried. Also, some films that seem to be plague films actually aren't. I have to use some discretion in the margins here, but sometimes a film that seems to be about a plague actually isn't. For example: if the vial of plague in Mission: Impossible 2 were replaced with a computer chip, or a piece of microfilm, the rest of the film basically wouldn't change. Mission: Impossible 2 is a MacGuffin chase, not really a plague film. A lot of the plot of World War Z is about Brad Pitt trying to figure out how the zombie virus works, and that focus of attention makes it a plague film, while Dawn Of The Dead is more about people hiding from zombies and less about the workings of the virus, so it's off the list.

A good pestilence film is scary, but any connoisseur of scary films can tell you there are two kinds of scare. One is like oatmeal: it sticks to your ribs, and hours later you're still full. Days after a scare like this, you're still checking the closet, adding locks to your doors, and changing your passwords. These scares are often a slow burn, and they spend a long time building that feeling of dread before finally paying off and messing you up. It Follows, Fulci's Zombi, Paranormal Activity and We Need to Talk About Kevin are like this. The other type of scare, the jump scare, is like wasabi: it sure is intense, but five seconds later, its impact has dissipated entirely. For sudden noises and things jumping out of the closet, films like Drag Me To Hell, It 2017, The Grudge, Final Destination and most slasher movies are examples. The best scary movies do both (The Shining, The Thing, The Ring, It FollowsA Quiet Place). Personally, I prefer the first type, but I'm easy.

Scoring: Of course I need a scoring system.
Frightening (how scary is it the first way - the creepy, willies, "I'm never leaving the house without hand sanitizer again" way?) (Scored out of five)
Scary (how scary is it the second way) (Scored out of five)
Plausible (Does the film make me believe this could actually happen? Does it make sense and at least have some modicum of logic?) (Scored out of five)
Awesome (is the movie awesome? Like, is it an actually a good movie? Do the payoffs pay off? Are the scary bits scary and the sad bits sad?) (Scored out of five)

Does it end with a cheesy "but wait, there's more!" stinger? (negative one or two points, depending on the cheesiness)

It's unlikely that any film will get a 20/20 on this scale, because frightening and scary are generally a trade-off: films that make me jump like a cat usually don't also make me fear door handles.

In this review:
Carriers (2009)
Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)

Skip to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Skip to Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:
This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation.

Click to read the reviews!

Carriers (2009) - DNF IMDB page.
Young Chris Pine is so hot, but this film's pacing just didn't hold my attention. I ended up skipping through it to the "good parts" of which there are a few, but I don't feel qualified to write a detailed review based on that. It's in an apocalyptic, after-society-breaks-down setting, to even if I do watch it, it might not qualify for this list.

Deranged - 연가시 - Yeon-ga-si (2012) (IMDB page)

Advertised as the first Korean plague movie.

The Skinny: The Horsehair worm is a parasite that invades a bug's body, takes over its brain, and compels it to dive into water, where the creature leaves the host body and releases eggs into the body of water, where they will continue their life cycle by invading another unlucky creature that visits the pool. In this story, they invade humans, leading to increasing numbers of humans drowning themselves in any body of water every night, and rivers and streams littered with corpses the next morning. The worms are big, and gross. Kim Myung-min is Jae-hyuk, a smart dude in a bad spot. As the disease gets worse, a miracle drug appears to kill the parasites, but then there's a complication, and another complication, and a conspiracy is revealed.

Most plague movies feature lots of CDC-type technocrats or disease researchers talking with clenched jaws and clipped phrases, and this one is no different. This one, too, puts kids in danger to raise the stakes... I think every plague film I've seen so far has.

The Good: To be honest... after setting up the premise and putting the hero's family in peril, the punches started to get predictable. By about 2/3 through the film, I was groaning and checking the run time. But then... the parasite had another phase, and things got interesting again! For a bit.

The Bad: There's a bunch of stuff about a drug formula. It wouldn't be a Korean melodrama without the hero making a couple of really bad decisions. There's a Power Of A Mother's Love moment in all its cheesy glory. There's a conspiracy. Listen, folks: there is a certain kind of Korean film... a kind of film... that pulls out alllllll the stops and pushes alllllll the buttons, and if you like that, you'll like this. If you don't, you won't. The plot the hero discovers has a few holes, and yet another movie doesn't know whether it's a plague movie or a MacGuffin chase. But this one with riot police, instead of a helicopter chase. That other phase the parasite had? It didn't make things interesting enough to get over the fact the film is about 40 minutes longer than it needed to be. A few "Why is SHE there?" fridge logic problems.

Frightening: The worms are gross, and the point each evening when everyone who's infected tries to find a body of water in which to submerge, creates some nice dramatic urgency. This one will have you boiling your water before you drink it. A few close-ups showing the insides of people's digestive tracts crawling with worms are real yucky, but for a waterborne sickness, there are very few "don't go into the water!" moments. They do their best to make you concerned for the well-being of some cute kids, but that's the cheapest trick in the book.

Scary: This film is more of a "guy who knows something" "guy who tracks down the right thing/fact/person to save the day" story than a real plague story, so the scenes follow action/thriller pacing and logic, not horror. No real jump scares to be had here.

Plausible: The sickness is based on an actual organism that exists. So there's that. There's also a consipiracy, but I kind of can't believe those party to that conspiracy would wait SOOOO long before unveiling... the thing, after people start dying. When people start dying, why do the complications who know the thing wait until the protagonist's brother finds one of them before... revealing the thing they know? There are a bunch of scenes where someone does something that "feels" right for the kinds of things you expect to see in movie scenes, but make no actual sense. A couple of "how did THEY know to come HERE?" moments. How many times can the hero aaaaaaalmost get his hands on a wonder-drug, only to have it snatched away? It was like the ending of Lord of The Rings. An entire country of 50 million-plus people in a serious medical crisis... and the protagonist and his brother seem to be the only people in the entire country with either ideas or initiative.

Awesome: I liked the critter they used for inspiration in this one, and the images - especially in the first third - of water bodies littered with dead bodies, and crowds of people walking toward the river - were pretty dang haunting. If they'd tightened all the screws two more turns (ie, edited the film better, shortened a lot of scenes, eliminated one or two subplots, characters, or complications), this could have been one of the better films on this list. But they didn't, so it isn't.

"But wait, there's more!" stinger? Yes. And it's as cheesy as they come, and doesn't seem to understand the difference between fresh water and salt water. -1 points, and I didn't deduct more only because this film got very few in the first place.

Verdict: The haunting image of people drowning themselves sticks with me, though the last half of the film is a silly wild-goose chase loaded with MacGuffin chase film cliches.

Total Score: 5/20 - I am a wrathful reviewer. Cower before me.

look at it. It's a work of art!

Patient Zero (2018) DNF (IMDB page)

As with handsome young Chris Pine, I'm a little surprised this film, featuring Game of Thrones' Natalie Dormer and Stanley Tucci's truly beautiful nose, just didn't hold my attention enough for me to watch it through. It's not right to review a film I didn't fully watch, but I did try. It's about a guy who can talk to zombies... and miiiight.... be a zombie himself... but don't trust me- see it for yourself!

Outbreak (1995) (IMDB page)

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Directed by Wolfgang Petersen.
Based on the Ebola outbreak, this one has a loaded cast, with Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Spacey, Rene Russo, Morgan Freeman, Donald Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr.

The Skinny: This film centers a pretty firmly on a military virologist and a Center for Disease Control scientist, played by Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo, as an ebola-like disease arrives in USA from Zaire. There's a cute monkey that has the antibodies they need, and a town gets quarantined.

The Good: The scenes about the spread of the disease work well - they play the game of "who's gonna put something in their mouth" "who's going to touch an infected door handle" pretty effectively. The two best scenes are watching the contagion spread in a movie theater, and the following scene of bedlam at the small-town medical clinic. It also plays the military angle, with dramatic shots of military vehicles quarantining a small American town. The disease looks horrific, but in a real disease-y way, not in a "white facepaint 1980s zombie makeup" kind of way.

The Bad: The film doesn't seem to think the stakes are high enough with the risk of a nationwide, really gross epidemic, so the plot veers into a whole thing about the general Dustin Hoffman answers to (Morgan Freeman), and a deep secret from the past that complicates the decision-making calculus. Basically, the higher up the chain of command we go, the more people are willing to firebomb a sleepy American town. The music is a bit overdone on a 90s movie kind of way, and there are too many scenes of square-jawed men dressed in military fatigues or Important Person Suits pounding tables and shouting things like "Just order the code red, dammit!"

Frightening: in the first half, and there are some really good "spreading virus" bits, but the second half of the film basically turns into a 90s MacGuffin chase with a helicopter chase scene.  3/5

Scary: The symptoms are pretty icky, and we see a few closeups of some bleeding faces and stuff, but we are spared the worst gore that you might get from something like an autopsy scene. 2/5

Plausible: For the mechanics of the spreading disease and the virus mutation stuff, this one scores high points. Points lost for the government conspiracy stuff. Maybe it's 2019 speaking, but I kept waiting to see more of a full-blown media panic. 3/5

Awesome: Good cast. Good acting, though the story doesn't seem to know whether it's a government conspiracy movie, a MacGuffin chase film, or an epidemic film. 3/5

"But wait, there's more!" stinger? No. +2 points

Verdict: There were a lot of movies like this in the 90s - men with guns and radios making orders and generals losing their moral compasses, and heroes who know the truth and win out in the end.

Total Score: 13/20 We might have to grade this on a curve.

The Bay (2012) (IMDB page)

Directed by Barry Levinson, who also directed The Natural and Wag the Dog.

The Skinny: An aggressive water-borne parasite inspired by the tongue-eating sea louse has evolved in a sleepy small town in Chesapeake Bay. It's a found footage film, splicing together footage from a pair of oceanographers, cellphone cameras, facetime-type video chats between civilians, doctors and authorities, as well as traffic cams, SNS videos, coast guard videos, and a news crew there to document a local festival. It's narrated by the rookie newscaster, who functions as the gatherer and after-the-disaster compiler of the footage into the film we see. The infection is ridiculously contagious, and gross. The film is an environmental warning - the water bug has mutated because of pollution in the bay.

The Good: The gross is very gross -- if you're not OK with body horror (body parts, disfigured people, boils and flesh coming off the bone) this film is not for you. I'm not a fan of found footage for the most part. When it is bad, found footage uses bad lighting, low picture quality, digital glitches or shaky cam as cop-outs to skimp on the visual payoffs that I want horror films to give me. This is an example of the good found footage: video quality varies a lot based on what kind of camera is recording the footage (which makes the found footage conceit work better than many found footage films), but you still get some of the gross-out payoffs and horrifying images an aggressive human-eating parasite film promises, and ought to deliver. There are a handful of cuts that clearly weren't found footage, but they only stick out if you look for them, and the film is gripping enough you might not.

Cymothoa Exigua - tongue-eating louse (Source)
The Bad: The environmental message gets a little heavy-handed toward the end, hammering home the "factory farming is bad" with a big ol' head-beating-club. The mechanics of how the disease works is impossibly fast, which gives some good visuals, but strains credulity.

Frightening: the music, editing and visuals work together really well here. A water-borne threat in a beach town is a scary thing (think Jaws or Piranha), and the film creates a pretty good "don't go in the water" tension. Attaching the creature to factory farming pollution will make the story feel close to home for some, but your mileage will vary here. Some scenes where they played politicians and others assuring citizens that nothing was wrong, or recounting early warnings that were missed, intercut with home video montages of people blithely hanging out near the water, while the audience knew what was coming, were very effective. 4/5

Scary: Of the plague films I've seen, this one is among the very best at balancing the get-under-your-skin feeling of dread with a few really surprising jump-scares or gross-out shots. When a film is all gross-out shots, you get inured to it (looking at you, Saw sequels, Brain Dead, and Tokyo Gore Police), and when a film is all jump-scares, they stop working, because you start to expect it (*ahem* new It and It 2 remakes). This film delivers fewer big jumps and gross-outs than other jump-scary or gross-outy films, but because they hold them in reserve, they hit harder. Not to mention, they manage to avoid the usual trade-off between scary and frightening. 5/5

Plausible: The infection rate is implausibly high: every person who dips in the water or even washes their face with it gets infected by the larvae of this parasite, and it strains credulity that its larvae would be so small yet so plentiful nobody would notice it in the water, yet every single person who went in the water would be infected, and it would grow fast enough to be a true creepy-crawly in a single day. The creepy critter kills in a lot of different ways - they're all gross, and maybe the variety adds unpredictability, but there's not enough explanation of the critter's life cycle for me to quite buy it being so durn versatile and effective. It's also a bit unbelievable that there was so little warning that these critters were coming, and then suddenly in a single day they wipe out an entire town, and almost all the fish in a bay, in the grossest way imaginable. It is, however, plausible that authorities would have either ignored or not noticed the warning that these things were coming. The coverup afterwards is entirely TOO believable.
screenshot: all the red circles are ded peepul
According to the film, people around town who are sick have decided to wait in front of their houses to try and flag down an emergency vehicle, and then die there in the streets. This is kind of unbelievable (don't deathly ill people die on bed and sofas, indoors?), but it creates a great, haunting visual when a police dashcam video shows speeding through the town's streets, swerving around dead bodies in front of almost every house. All in all, the way information is conveyed and the way the critter's covered is very believable, but the details of the critter itself really aren't. 1/5

Awesome: Some of the camera effects -- shaky cameras, low-quality pictures, or video distortion due to varying quality of cameras -- could get to be a bit distracting, especially when intercut with footage from quality cinema cameras from time to time. The film delivers what it promises, and the jumpscares still made me jump on rewatching, and the gross-outs were still gross. No found footage cop-outs, I'm happy to say. It includes one of the hardest kinds of jump scares to deliver - the "Oh GOD he's not dead!" scare (think Se7en). The "message" is a bit heavy handed, but it doesn't overwhelm the storytelling, which deploys its build-ups, pay-offs, chills and gross-outs very effectively. 5/5

"But wait, there's more!" stinger? Not really, though the way they deal with the critters just doubles down on the environmental message. No points added or deducted.

Total Score: 15/20 ... undermined by implausibility, but the low score belies the fact this film hit all its marks, delivered some real good scares, and used found footage as well as I have EVER seen it done. One of the best scary infection films I've watched so far.

Soundtrack time! Click play and keep reading!

In its own category:
Perfect Sense: (2011) (IMDB page)

This is a lovely film, recommended to me by old blog friend Gord Sellar.

It stars Eva Green and Ewan MacGregor, two of the most attractive people working in independent film right now. It's directed by David Mackenzie, and the score features music by one of my favorite modern composers, Max Richter. If you pushed play above, you're listening to it right now.

The Skinny: A mysterious infection sweeps the planet. It causes people to have an outburst of overwhelming emotion, and then to lose one sense, starting with grief and smell, then fear and taste, and so on. Unlike the other films on this list, where the film really is about the infection, how it happens, and what people do to prevent or contain or cure it, this film's premise takes for granted the infection as inevitably reaching everyone on the planet. This makes the plague conditions more the setting of the story than the plot - things like quarantines and government emergency measures figure in here and there, but they aren't the point of the story the way they are in, say, Blindness or Contagion. This means that instead of focusing on the mechanics of research and containment (starring CDC workers trying out vaccines, explaining how the virus works to interns (and us), and shouting into phones, or soldiers setting up quarantine blockades and people trying to find supplies), it focuses on the plague's impact on a few (very attractive and likeable) people. By focusing away from the infrastructure of disease response, it allows the film to be a meditative look into the way the successive loss of senses affects ordinary people.

The Good: As the characters lose their senses one by one, the film does a really good job of contemplating what the characters have lost, and making it count for viewers: smell is connected to memory. At one point a street performer gives a crowd of non-smelling people a guided tour (through spoken word and violin) of a forest, describing its smells to bring back those memories for the audience. The film includes a few photo/narration/music montages that beautifully remind us to appreciate the sensual pleasures our ears, noses, tongues, etc. bring to us, and how humans find joy and pleasure in our senses, but even more in our connections with people we care about. The film is a love story, and Eva Green and Ewan MacGregor's romance is the focus of the plot. There's also a strong theme of human resilience, emphasizing and re-emphasizing that humans find a way to carry on, keep finding reasons for joy and ways to love each other, and refuse to give up when things are hard, which is good to hear sometimes. The end of the film is sad and beautiful, and I won't give it away, but if you don't phone or hug someone you love after it, I don't know why you watch movies.

The editing, narration, music, and acting all work together to make this a lovely film that will make you want to go out and eat something crunchy, smell something familiar, cuddle someone soft, and hold the ones you love.

The Bad: This totally misleading poster.

Seriously... I don't know if it's a true minus, but this film might not quite fit on a list with the other films I'm discussing here. But who cares.

Scores: I'm not going to score this one on the different scales, because this film is of an entirely different nature. By the time you've read what I wrote above, you'll know if this plague film is for you, or you'll know it isn't.

The Verdict:
Basically, if you're here for people vomiting blood, chest-bursting parasites and zombies at the door, this isn't the film recommendation for you, and through that lens it's maybe 7/20 (Scary - 0/5 Frightening - 0/5 Plausible - 3/5 Awesome 4/5) but this scale doesn't work for this film, because it is measuring all the wrong things.

However, if your favorite alien movie is The Arrival, and you are unmoved by stuff like Cloverfield, Edge of Tomorrow, Pacific Rim or The Thing, then this is the plague movie you need to see. As magical/unbelievable premised dramas trying to make you rethink your life and appreciate the ones you love go, on a scale of What Dreams May Come to The Arrival, it gets a 17-18/20.

Skip to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Skip to Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:
This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation.

No comments: