When THE HOST was released in 2006, the traditional monster film had not had a presence in popular cinema for some time. There was a brief blip with ANACONDA in 1997, but the box office failure of GODZILLA in 1998 indicated that monster movies were no longer a draw. After all, films about giant other worldly monsters attacking the small humans below them are associated with the red-scare films of the 1950s and 1960s. These films are now appreciated more for their campy fun, than their ability to draw an audience. With film production costs increasing, along with the demand for realism in our CGI, studios were unwilling to invest in a no longer marketable genre.
This is why THE HOST is an anomaly. While its plot and emotional notes are nothing new to monster cinema, it subtly tweaked the formula for these films and created an engaging monster film that is relevant to today’s audiences.
The first adjustment we see is the reveal of the monster. Often in monster films the monster reveal is delayed as long as possible. We will see the whip of a tail, or the rustling of foliage as the monster flees, but it can take some time in the film to actually see the monster. While we do get teased a bit in the very beginning of THE HOST, the monster reveal happens quite soon, and in a spectacular way.
After some character introductions of the family featured in THE HOST, we see the father in the film, Gang-doo (in a brilliant performance by one of Korea’s more recognizable exports, Kang-ho Song) join a crowd watching a strange shape hanging off a bridge. It is obvious that the giant mass is organic, and the crowd watches in curiosity, rather than fear. As the creature gracefully descends into the water below, and swims toward the crowd, they throw food and cans at the beast, trying to get its attention. Moments after it swims away we see the monster is now on land, pursuing the crowd, and killing them as swiftly as possible.
This first introduction to the creature is executed excellently. The sound in the film switches back and forth between tense orchestrations and terrifying silence. Some of the actions of the beast seem a little cartoonish, however the exaggerated destruction it commits adds to highlighting its nearly supernatural strength. Even with the perfectly executed action sequence, the most original aspect of this monster reveal is that we see the attack in broad daylight! We see this creature swim and run from many different angles. We know exactly what it looks like, down to its multiple rows of teeth, and various appendages coming out of its torso at random intervals. Rather than using fear of the unknown monster to thrill us, THE HOST makes us aware instantly of this monster and it’s capabilities.
Another small tweak THE HOST made to the monster film formula, instead of simply duplicating it, was the monster’s relationship with its victims. Thought this monster does kill randomly, and on a whim, is does capture certain victims. One of these kidnapped victims is Gang-doo’s daughter Hyun-seo. She is taken by the monster, at the end of its waterfront rampage, and brought back to a lair. There, in the lair, there are other victims, most of whom are dead. While Hyun-seo was carried there by the monster’s prehensile tail, the monster can also transport an additional victim inside its mouth. It’s unclear why certain people are brought back to the monster’s space. After all, it can feast of people whenever it pleases, as it does not seem shy about getting out of the house. But this retention of victims allows the monster to also function like a serial killer of sorts. It hunts, and traps, instead of killing at random. Hyun-seo survives the trip, and is trapped at the den. She must either hide from it when it returns, or do her best to convince the beast that she is already dead. Unlike King Kong keeping Fay Wray as a companion, this beast is not a sympathetic character. It treats this home like a pantry.
The creative and financial success of THE HOST was due to the film straddling the old and the new. It used the audience’s preconceived notions of what monster films are, and supplemented that with an unprecedented monster reveal and a new dimension of monster behavior. And thank goodness! The monster film genre is by no means dead. It has been rejuvenated. Without the success of THE HOST, we may never have gotten to see such excellent modern takes on the monster film like CLOVERFIELD (2008), MONSTERS (2010), or TROLL HUNTER (2010).