Monday, March 02, 2020

CoronaVirus CoVidEo Corner: Plague Film Bonanza: Part 2

To Recap:

Weirdo that I am, I'm commemorating the CoVid19 lockdown by watching plague movies, and because I love you, I'm writing them up for you, readers, and I'll end the series with a nice best-of countdown!

To sum up the ground rules:

Qualifying:
It has to be a film. There might be some great plague television out there, but I have a kid: binge watching six TV series that are too scary to share with my kid this week is off the table.

The film has to be about a plague or viral infection. That is, the film has to put significant attention on what the infectious agent is, how it spreads or works, and what can be done about the infection. If the response is "we need to hide from/kill all the zombies" it's not really a plague film: it's a zombie film. If the response is "we can beat this if we discover and exploit a weakness in how the virus spreads" then it's a plague film. (So, World War Z: yes; Dawn of the Dead: no.) There's a little wiggle room here, and I'll be making some calls. Deal with it.

Scoring:
Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish)

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (is it the kind of scary that's moody, builds up, and stays with you afterward?)
Scary (is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch? Surprises and gross-outs get points in this category.)
Plausible (does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger - does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location? You know...the montage where the contaminated water ends up at a bottling factory while ominous music plays? Yah those are cheesy, and I will be docking points for them, depending on the amount of cheesiness.

It's unlikely that any film will get a 20/20 on this scale, because frightening, scary and plausible are usually a trade-off: films that make me jump like a cat usually don't also make me fear door handles, and a film that does both probably asks for a big suspension of disbelief in the plausibility category.

Go Back to Part 1 
Films reviewed:
(Carriers (2009)

Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)


Coming Up in this Post:
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Pontypool
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Skip to Part 3
Films reviewed:
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.


Buckle up!



감기 (Gamgi) or The Flu (2013)

The Skinny: A fast-acting, deadly flu spreads through Bundang, a wealthy satellite city of Seoul. A rescue worker has a meet-cute with a young (pretty, female) doctor, and they end up at the center of the outbreak, brought to Korea by a shipping container of south asian illegal immigrants. We see some officials who care more about economy than health, we see official suppression of news, public panic, quarantine camps, military brass with fingers on a big red button... and more!

The Good: The scene where a bunch of sick people start passing out and vomiting blood all around Bundang is dramatic and fun. A plague film usually needs a bit of mayhem at the beginning. The film really does try to push every button an epidemic film could ever push... and if a busy, frantic film is what you like, this one is busy and frantic.

A lot of this. Like, a lot.
The Bad: Reread the last sentence of the first paragraph. But here's the big one: in most scary films, a disease or monster's origin carries some kind of social message or commentary, and if this film is trying to stealth the message that illegal immigrants are a disease in Korea, well that is racist and shitty. And not subtle at all.

The film really does push every button it can. Bullying police, irrational protest leaders, inhumane government officials, a gutsy hero who goes outside regulations to save the day... there is a lot going on. Among my other quibbles: the first thing the female lead does (refusing to thank the rescue worker who saved her from dying when her car plunges down a mine shaft) made me dislike her; a lot of people in the film make really illogical or bad choices, for example, a lot of people punch a lot of public health workers trying to do their job; the film also does that manipulative thing of putting an adorable little kid in harm's way in order to raise the stakes. For more, see the "plausible" section.

Frightening: To be honest, the film's early frights got hammered out of me by the filmmakers just trying so hard to scare me. It got ridiculous, and that took me out of the story. See the "plausible" section below. 2/5

Scary: Not many jump scares, but there is a bit of blood-vomiting gross-out stuff. Not too much. Some of the imagery in the later part of the movie is horrifying, but more in the "human life is being treated as worthless" way, not in the "don't go in the basement" or "she didn't wash her hands!" way. 2/5

Plausible: This is where the film falls apart. I like a good melodrama, but this was not a good melodrama. The infection goes from 0-100 incredibly fast. A mere TEN HOURS after the first infections appear, a massive quarantine zone has been erected, and within 24 hours they are dumping bodies into a mass grave, with construction equipment.
this happens in month six of the massive epidemic, not day two
Not only that, but to find the little girl who might have the right antibodies, the hero has to climb down in there and dig through dead bodies... and finds her! That is some Mad Max shit, and this hasn't even gotten out of Bundang?

Why the little girl is still alive, when she was among the first infected, and thousands infected after her have died, I don't know. And how she got those antibodies is a little fishy, too -- I thought getting a viable vaccine from an immune person's blood was a very involved, difficult process, but it turns out one frazzled young doctor can do it in a makeshift quarantine hospital lab before the quarantine police show up and grab them by the neck, thanks to the power of motherhood, I guess. This movie was like if they filled a wall with papers holding ideas from other epidemic movies, threw a few darts, and then said "Screw it. Let's just use them all." 0/5

Awesome: Subtract one point for feeding racist stereotypes that illegal immigrants bring diseases. This kind of prejudice has reared its head again in the early stages of Corona Virus, as Asians worldwide, and Chinese across Asia, have been treated like disease vectors for no good reason. People in Korea have refused tests or believed they were safe because they haven't been to China, and this kind of false sense of security is really dangerous when an epidemic is on the move. The acting is fine (though many choices are unmotivated), and the production quality is slick, but in the end the melodrama was turned a bit too high for this film to carry me away. The storyline is a little more focused than the other Korean plague film I reviewed in the previous post, Deranged, and in a pinch I'd pick this one over that one, but it's pretty close. Korea is still waiting for its first really good plague film. 2/5, subtract one for that racism. 1/5

Here's a video clip of part of the film. Note the wild-eyed South-Asian man running through a field into high-rise Bundang (so metaphorical!) (so racist!) and then the scene in the pharmacy, one of the more effective scenes in the film, showing patient zero spreading his disease to others in the pharmacy. It really works! Works better if you don't know it was directly lifted from Outbreak, though.


But Wait, There's More! Stinger? None, surprisingly. That was the only button they didn't push.

Verdict: This film threw ALL the spaghetti against the wall. And even the spaghetti that stuck at first got pulled off later when they turned on the spaghetti firehose.

Score: 5/20. Tied with Deranged. That's about right.


Black Death (2010) (IMDB Page)
This film features Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne and lots of bearded men wearing leather, which is cool if you're into that. It's set during the first outbreak of bubonic plague in England, but it misses the opportunity for lots of body horror and gross-out plague stuff and "learn about sanitation already... stay away from the rats!" cringes, and opts instead for Sean Bean and Eddie Redmayne speaking dramatically about God's will. It might have been the genre -- it takes a lot for medieval dramas to really grab me, and this one didn't -- but it also doesn't seem to be the kind of film I'm looking for when I advertise a plague film bonanza in the title. DNF.

Pontypool (2008) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: This Canadian film centers on a washed-up former shock-jockey now working public radio in a remote Ontarian town. Everything goes squirrely when the citizens of the town start attacking each other and ripping their friends, family and neighbors to pieces. The whole thing is set inside the radio station, so much of the horror is conveyed through call-ins to the station as the radio crew takes increasingly alarming listener calls, tries to figure out what's happening, and then get through the day alive. A doctor with a ghoulish curiosity in the workings of the infection joins them as they piece together what's happening, why the town's people have turned into hunting creatures, and what exactly they're hunting for.

The Good: The nature of the infection in this film is one of the most interesting and thought provoking ones in the entire set of either plague films or zombie films I've seen. The way the radio station crew piece it together is plausible, and uniquely suited to a town in Ontario somewhere near  Quebec (I don't want to say exactly why, though, for spoiler reasons). The acting performance of the DJ, and the community programming he has to do (which is truly cringeworthy- brownface is involved, in a radio program) creates the feeling of claustrophobia even before they're trapped in the studio. The device of keeping the action inside the radio station, and describing the horror through call-ins leaves a lot to the imagination, but in a good way, thanks to the sound design, the writing and the acting. The infection is unexpected, but it delivers a nice horror slow-burn with a satisfying end.

The Bad: The pacing is quite slow through about the first half of the film, and the doctor who explains the infection is weird and off-putting. The infection, and its nature, are quite cerebral, and if you're looking for headshots or bloody boils in your plague films, this one offers very little payoff. However, if you're interested in films that care about puzzling out an infection's workings and toss a few curveballs, this one will keep you guessing.

Scoring:
Frightening: The setup is a slow build, as communications into the radio station get increasingly ominous. When the monsters appear, they're unique, and they have a knack of repeating the words they hear people say, which gets creepier and creepier as the film goes on and as they figure out why. By the end, you know the clue that someone is getting infected, and it is properly dread-inducing. It's unlikely an infection of this nature will happen... but it is adjacent to a phenomenon that happens to many people every day, which makes the film stick in my head and come up any time I hear someone stumble on their words. 4/5

Scary: There are some good gross-out moments when a character we'd cared about gets infected, and we both hear and see what the monsters can do, but a lot is left to the imagination... if you have a vivid imagination, that makes this film scarier than others on the list; if you watch plague films for blood and guts, these scares won't land. 3/5

Plausible: Other than the nature of the infection itself, which is kind of at right angles from the usual virus/bacterium/parasite style, but has to be accepted as part of the initial suspension of disbelief for the story to work at all, the characters' responses to the events, the unfolding of the infection, and the way of beating it, are both congruous and clever. Imagine a zombie film written by a linguist. The least believable bit is the arrival and behavior of the weird doctor, but if we grant that a small-town radio station crew were trapped inside their studio by odd zombies, this is a believable way it could play out. 4/5

Awesome: This is one of the most interesting films on the list, and the infection goes in a direction you wouldn't expect, but thanks to the weird doctor, it's explained well enough to make sense. The monsters follow the film's rules, and the film follows its own rules as well, staying inside the radio station building for the duration. There are lots of little, well-thought-out moments, for example the montage and small-town obituary section was clever. It's clever, well-crafted, ominous, interesting, and gets richer on multiple watchings. One of the most unique horror films I've seen, and different than any other. Not for everyone, but just my style. 5/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? The closing credits deliver a lot of information before a kind of weird closing dialogue, including a hint that things might not be the way the rest of the radio reports have conveyed. It's done interestingly enough that I am not docking points.

Verdict: A very different take on infectious diseases, with a very unexpected vector of infection... yet somehow it works, delivering a nice slow burn and building action, a well-realized tone, good performances, and credible scares and chills. As plague films go, this is the most cerebral film of the set, and only Twelve Monkeys (coming up) even comes close, but if you like films about people puzzling out something HP Lovecraftishly strange, it's about as good as it gets.

Score: 16/20



Extinction: The GMO Chronicles (IMDB Page)
Seems to be a zombie film. Did not hold my attention, unfortunately. Running zombies. Blue filters. Not-very-charismatic protagonist. More about hiding from zombies than about the infection. I tried twice, but DNF 


괴물 (Gwoemul) The Host (2006) (IMDB page)

The Skinny: The Host is Parasite director Bong Joon Ho's 2006 monster movie. It is less directly a plague film than the others listed here, but as the US and Korean military cooperate to suppress the truth about the monster that's been coming out of the Han River and eating people, they concoct a story about an infectious virus in order to scare people into compliance without admitting the pollution the US military dumped in the river created the monster.

The Good: Bong Joon Ho's filmmaking superpower is his ability to effortlessly shift tone and mash together genres in ways that would give other filmmakers whiplash. This film is a monster movie, a family melodrama, a political satire, a chase film, and a Spielbergian spunky-kids adventure at different points. It's also in turns tragic, infuriating, hilarious, terrifying, and thrilling, and it somehow hits every single mark perfectly. The creature is a truly great creation, clumsily flopping around like a trout at times, and gracefully darting in on unsuspecting prey from hiding places at others. Actor Song Kang-ho plays loser-turned-hero Park Gang-du, the film's protagonist, and his performance nimbly navigates all the shifts in tone and plot just as perfectly as the director.

The Bad: The only bad thing about this film is that it didn't attract more attention outside Korea when it came out. It got some -- the monster regularly appears on movie monster best-of lists, but I guess that one-inch barrier was too much in 2006. It's one of my favorite Korean movies.

This is a series about plague films, so here's the plague connection: in order to prevent a mass panic, but also keep the public away from the river front where the monster appeared, the US military and Korean government cook up a story about a mysterious infection. This is the political satire part of the film, and it shows how an untrustworthy and dishonest government ends up running state power full-steam in the wrong direction. When Gang-du and his family stir up trouble by trying to hunt the beast and rescue their daughter/niece Hyun-seo, the authorities claim they are infected to justify a manhunt to capture them, and Gang-du is tortured by misinformed doctors trying to find a sample of a virus that doesn't exist. The main takeaway, as infectious diseases go, is simply that misinformation and lack of transparency from authorities breeds paranoia, fear and panic, and this plays out as the movie progresses into a climax where all the plotlines converge like a French farce.

In the midst of the disease paranoia, this happens, one of the funniest little vignettes from any of the films discussed in this entire series:
 


Scoring: 
Frightening: The film shifts tones too often for that creeping feeling of menace to take over. It works more as a screwball comedy, where complications, surprises and challenges come from every direction, not allowing audiences' minds to dwell long enough on a threat to build up that feeling of coming horror. The monster is remarkable, and when we see it, it's awful, but at different times in the film it seems like the real enemy is the police, incompetent bureaucrats, or the US military. That said, when the creature does appear... you know bad stuff is gonna happen. 3/5

Scary: We see a lot of the creature -- the film doesn't do that Jaws thing where the monster gets scarier because of how rarely we see it. Instead, we see enough of the creature's eating habits, its hunting methods, and its lair to dread what it might do, and where it might turn up next. It's unpredictable, and possibly clever, but it pulls off a few horrific moments, a few moments of agonizing tension, and a few jump-out-of-your-chair shocks... only to follow that with an awkward flop or stumble that adds physical comedy to a frightening monster attack. It's amazing Bong Joon Ho (and his effects department) pulled this off. In 2006, no less. The entire movie is a family trying to rescue the young girl the monster snatched from the river park, so along with all its other features, the monster is putting kids in danger the whole time. The girl, Hyun-seo, is smart, brave and resourceful, so it's not the "baby crying mama" manipulative pap we got from The Flu, however. The infection stuff isn't scary, though, because we know from the start it's a lie. 4/5

Plausible: The government misinformation-for-control-of-the-public element is probably the most believable aspect of authorities' response to the monster's attack: misguided decisions leading to more misguided decisions in a cascading clusterfuck of bad judgment. The emotional beats of Gang-du's family are touching, heroic, and relatable to anyone with a dysfunctional family that somehow still works things out. The action and the events are heightened -- like I said, if this film isn't a monster movie, it might be a farce -- but within the premise of the film, it works. 4/5

Awesome: This film is completely awesome from top to bottom, and everyone should see it. 5/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Nope.

Verdict: The funny parts are hilarious, the scary parts are terrifying, the exciting parts are gripping, the touching parts are heart-breaking. This film hits all its marks. This would be the crowning achievement of most filmmakers' careers, but for Bong Joon Ho, it's top five, but hard to go higher than that. That's crazy.

Score: 16/20 The scoring categories are a poor fit for what this film is, because Bong Joon Ho isn't always trying to scare us, and it isn't specifically an infection film, so the score undersells how good this movie is. It's a 16/20 infection movie, but it's a 20/20 screwed-up-family-vs-mutant-river-monster movie. See it.


Viral (2016) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: A high school girl moves to a new town for a fresh start, only to find a worm parasite is making all her nice new friends sick murderous blood-puking worm zombies. I hate when that happens!

The Good: The two leads, Sophia Black-D'Elia and Annaleigh Tipton, make me believe they are sisters, and this film has some well-observed moments and conversations between characters that surprised me by being funnier or more real than I'd expected to find in this film. By the first third of the film, I cared about the protagonists, and the film is consistently 30-50% better than it needed to be. Sophia Black-D'Elia manages to be likable and interesting in an underwritten role. Watch for her!

The Bad: The sassy black friend is really... sassy and black. She doesn't last long, either. A lot of the film is a dull "don't let them get in the house" standoff, leading to a "but it's (a person I love)!" dilemma. These have both been done and done and done.

Scoring:
Frightening: By about a third of the way through, the girls' suburb is under quarantine. They are in a house, so the situation is pretty static dramatically. The parasites are pretty gross, and there are a few things involving eyeballs that stick in my head. 3/5

Scary: The parasite in this one is inspired by another brain parasite, similar to the mind control parasite we saw in the Korean film Deranged. This one doesn't just force its hosts to seek out a body of water, but another human to host baby worms, which are transmitted by a gross, and nicely surprising, spurt of blood vomit. The best parts of this film are the scenes between the scares: the conversations where someone consoles or reassures someone, or cracks someone up in a way that isn't often seen in a scary movie. 2/5

Plausible: This is where the good scene-writing and attention to characters works. Yeah, I think actual teenagers (as opposed to Hollywood teenagers) in a quarantine would act this way. 4/5

Awesome: Oddly, the scary movie punches were not landing, but the non-scary movie bits were the parts that worked. Where it was two sisters being sisters, or a couple exploring a new relationship, the film and the writing worked well, but where the film was about evil infectious worm parasites, the beats were more predictable and less interesting. 3/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? None.

Verdict:
Good in places scary movies often aren't, but lacking in the spots a scary movie NEEDS to be good.

Score: 12/20 which, given the other scores I've given, is pretty respectable. If you're a fan of the genre, or of any of the lead actors, try to catch it!


The Girl With All The Gifts (2016) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny:
 Colm McCarthy's unique twist on the zombie genre, this film makes the brave move of first making the protagonist one of the zombies, and then, through the beguiling performance of the young actor (Sennia Nanua) and the story itself, getting us to root for her. It's based on a book, also titled "The Girl With All The Gifts," by MR Carey, which I've read. It was good, too. The infection is based on the cordyceps fungus, which invades an insect and takes over the mind of its host in order to reproduce, forcing its host to climb before releasing spores from as high a point as possible, for maximum spread. The version of the cordyceps fungus that invades humans, of course, turns them into ravening zombies. The kid zombies are a different thing entirely, and you learn about that as you follow our young protagonist, Melanie, a sentient, talking child with a zombie's thirst for blood (this is all seen in the trailer and the first twenty minutes of the film so I'm not spoiling anything here) who'd been imprisoned by humans, and the teacher she idolizes, Ms. Justineau, who are both among the last survivors of a compromised zombie fortress/research compound. Along for the journey is Glenn Close's virologist character, who wants to dissect Melanie to find a cure for the zombie plague.



The Good: Starting with Sennia Nanua's portrayal of Melanie, a well-written premise and properly scary zombies, this film has a lot going for it, and gets the details right. The revelations about how the zombie fungus works is well-explained, but introduced in ways that fit the story without clumsy shoehorning - Glenn Close's character's job is to discover the nature of the fungus, so she naturally leads the crew on paths to discover the same things the audience wants to know (which is also why this qualifies as a plague film and not just a zombie film). A bit over halfway through, there's a surprise which completely changes the stakes, but it fits the story and plays out in a credible way.

The Bad: If scary kids are not your thing, this movie is not for you. There is a very important decision made at the end, and I wish we could have seen more of what went into that decision, but I'll let it slide, and the pacing gets a bit slow in the middle third of the film. The ending will either feel right, or really upset you.

Scoring:
Frightening: When the zombies are dormant, you can sneak by them (if you mask your odor); if you make too much noise, you might wake them. The way they move when they wake up is scary, and waiting for them to do it (will they or won't they?) makes for tense watching. I was holding my breath at certain moments, and the character of Melanie gets in your head because she's so sweet...but...also a zombie. 5/5

Scary: These zombies are creepy from transition to dormant state and especially when they wake up. The way the infectious fungus works is well-explained and consistently applied. There are a few "oh shit" moments. The setups and payoffs work, there are some good jumps, and even some nice, haunting lines. "I already had one." 4/5

Plausible: If a zombie fungus based on the cordyceps took over humanity, I can believe this might be how it works. One of the steps of the fungus' reproductive cycle is a bit less believable than the rest, but it makes for a good final scene. 4/5

Awesome: Yes, this movie is awesome. The middle stretch is slow paced, but it hits its marks, lands its punches, and makes you properly fear for the safety of the protagonists, while keeping a few surprises up its sleeve. Glenn Close's character is a little unbelievably cold, and that and the pacing thing account for the point deduction. However, it's probably my favorite zombie movie of the last four years. 4/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Not as such, but the ending gives satisfying closure to the story's themes. Plus one point, because I feel bad for docking a point under "awesome"

Verdict:
If you like apocalyptic films, zombie films, plague films, or creepy kid films and you haven't seen this one, you're missing out. Add it to your list!

Score: 18/20 - this is about as high as a plague film is going to get, and to be clear, I'm not saying this film is better than The Host - just that this film's strengths are better suited to this scoring system than The Host's strengths.

Back to Part 1 
Films reviewed:
(Carriers (2009)

Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)

Next: 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.


Remember to leave a comment nominating films you think I should write-up!

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