★★★ / ★★★★
In an action-horror movie like “Monstrum,” it is all too easy to make the mistake of relying on parading a giant hairy beast and the carnage that inevitably follows, but director Huh Jong-ho, who co-wrote the screenplay with Heo-dam, understands what makes horror movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” and Ridley Scott’s “Alien” so effective: It is not enough to show the boogeyman and what it can do. In order to build suspense, there must be a convincing enough backstory that the viewers can latch onto. And so when chaos runs rampant, we care and do not get lost in pandemonium. And, boy, does this movie excel in showing havoc.
The story is set in 16th century Korea during King Jungjong’s fragile reign (Park Hee-soon). Not only are citizens destitute and hungry, they are living in constant fear due to rumors that a monster is living in the woods—rumors that Prime Minister Woon (Lee Kyeong-yeong) started because he wishes to take the throne for himself. He hopes that the rumor, combined with the growing unrest, will be enough to usurp the king. But the monster is far from imaginary. There are two types of corpses coming out of the woods: those in pieces and those with boils. Only one of these groups has been in direct contact with the monster. But what of the other?
Here is a movie that clearly wants to be an entertaining action flick. There is silly humor like adult men falling over one another (Kim Myung-min, Kim In-kwon), there is a cute sort of romance between a country girl (Lee Hyeri) and a young warrior (Choi Woo-sik), there is mystery in terms of what really goes on out there in the woods, and there is suspense when we are given answers… because answers are not always black and white. I preferred its darker side, but I appreciated its attempt to entertain everybody. Despite the title, the monster itself is not the most evil creature on screen (a case can be made it isn’t evil at all) but rather the power-hungry folks who scheme, exploit, betray, ending lives for nothing. The creature simply wishes to survive; it just happens to be higher up on the food chain.
Although the creature is made using CGI rather than practical effects, the technique works because it is kept hidden for so long. Once it is revealed, it is appropriately intimidating: its size, the noises it makes, how it eats people whole. Notice we rarely get a glimpse of its eyes. Regardless of its gargantuan stature, it moves swiftly. It is alert, a top hunter. The writers are correct to give the monster a limitation: a poor eyesight. And so it must adapt accordingly. And so do the characters. Surprisingly, even this supposedly terrible being is given a backstory—so efficient is this one flashback that we come to empathize with it.
I could easily rip apart a movie like “Monstrum,” but it offers such a good time that its weaknesses—schizophrenic tone, character relationships not given enough time to blossom (a few not believable at all), occasional lack common sense—end up buried under sheer entertainment value. It knows what it wants to be and proud of it. I wish more action creature-features, especially those from the west, would learn to be as willing to take risks and trust that some will land given the assumption that viewers are smart and receptive to pure escapism.