While we’re all familiar with the concept of “based on a true story”, especially within the horror genre, sometimes all it takes to construct a tale is to go back in time and explore one’s history. With just a sliver of a record, one can concoct a story that is both extraordinary and fun while introducing a historical moment in time to an audience. Thanks in part to Shudder’s acquisition of Huh Jong-ho’s MONSTRUM, we are introduced to a climatic time during the reign of King Jungjong with a fantastical, monstrous twist. And, although not a traditional horror story, the film is loosely reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho‘s The Host with its action-related elements and inclusion of a creature that terrorizes a nation.
The year is 1527. Thirteen years prior during a great upset in the Joseon Era, the plague runs rampant. Many are slain to keep it at bay which, as it turns out much later in the film, has disastrous consequences and showcases how human action impacts everything. Now rumors of a vicious beast roaming Mt. Inwangsan have hyped up fears among the masses of the capital, with many turning to panic with each escalation in killings. King Jungjong (Park Hee-soon), struggling to maintain power in a court that is rapidly turning against him, reached out to his former general, Yun-kyum (Kim Myung-min), to figure out what is actually going on.
He needs to know whether or not the MONSTRUM is a figment concocted by his enemies to further weaken his image in the eyes of all or if the creature is actually real. With the aid of his right-hand man Sung-han (Kim In-kwon), his adopted daughter Myung (Lee Hye-ri), and the royal court officer Hur (Choi Woo-shik), he has to get to the bottom of things quickly before the enemies – both human and monster – end the nation once and for all.
Inspired by a record in The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (essentially a giant history journal of sorts if I can make that comparison), there is a note of a strange monster that haunted the official palace of King Jungjong. The king, in hopes to quell growing fear, ordered his men to hunt it down but with no success. Heo-dam and Huh Jong-ho do a great job building upon this record in order to create a relatively fun story. While it’s not exactly adding anything new to the genre outside of the original MONSTRUM creature, it is a fun ride. And, really, a monster that can kill you with its bite instantly or through the plague that its saliva carries is pretty nifty.
The film follows a pretty basic structure. We’re introduced to a bloodbath immediately, which ends up setting up an awful lot. We get a tale of a monster terrorizing the citizens on this mountain and, once it’s discovered that the citizens can contract a plague when in contact with the creature, the stakes are heightened. This prompts the audience to be introduced to its core group of characters that will be sent after the monster and, while you’ll invest in them and worry about them throughout the course of the film, it is one of those stories where you can tell the fate of each character pretty quickly. In short, a pretty straightforward action-fantasy tale where you know who the heroes and villains are and the MONSTRUM is going to do what a MONSTRUM is going to do.
That being said, while nothing new is being introduced or reinvented through the storytelling, there are some pretty cool things we get to chew on along the way. At the heart of the film is really a tale about power struggles and how these power struggles have a massive impact on the most vulnerable. We see this reflected through how those in power within the royal palace easily discard and dispose of its citizens. Heck, this applies to the king as well who was initially put in power as a result of unhappy prime ministers. With someone now threatening to tar his image with these rumors about the MONSTRUM, he is forced into having to defend his position. This makes for a more intriguing story, especially for a Western viewer unfamiliar with these types of court intrigues.
The usage of the MONSTRUM as a fear-stoking plot point to start the ball rolling in the film works well. While we all come to expect a monster, Heo-dam and Huh Jong-ho do a great job in making audiences guess whether or not the creature is real. With evidence of human-related interference and handiwork combined with palace court intrigue, you’ll find yourself going back and forth on whether or not this is all manmade terror. Even when the monster is revealed later, there is so much influence from the actions of human beings – both in the past and in the present – that have a direct impact on why the actions of the MONSTRUM are all taking place. This constant questioning of whether the monster is real or not makes things more interesting for the audience rather than just delivering a straight-up creature flick.
Another item of note that I think needs to be discussed is the design of the MONSTRUM. While the actual creature doesn’t exist in mythology, what Huh Jong-ho has been able to create is still pretty impressive. With its plague covered body, massive claws, and those cloudy eyes, you have both a creature that is terrifying yet has a substantial amount of weaknesses to exploit. However, despite its weaknesses, it can wreak complete and utter havoc across a kingdom. If you managed to survive the initial swiping of its claws, you are still going to get a plague that kills you within hours. As the plot thickens later on, you will be hard-pressed not to root for the creature to win.
Overall, I think it’s great that Shudder has picked up MONSTRUM. While I’m personally no stranger to these types of Korean films, it’s exciting to see something like this being introduced to a wider Western audience. The film is a fun action-filled romp that I think audiences will enjoy. While not necessarily traditional horror, the original design of the creature, its impact on the populace, and the horror of the power struggles reflected in the film will keep audiences interested.
MONSTRUM will premiere exclusively on Shudder on May 14, 2020.