Shudder is emerging as a solid streaming service for cult horror, thriller and suspense cinema to make its home, and Monstrum is a welcome addition to its catalogue. Settle in for a familiar narrative, but with an engaging group of rag-tag heroes running around some lavish sets and locations. Having won the Audience Award at Sitges Film Festival, this historical monster mystery from director Huh Jong-Ho is good fun from beginning to end.
16th Century Korea. Rumours are circulating about a monstrous creature roaming Mount Inwangsan, attacking the people and threatening the reign of King Jung Jong. A task force of elite hunters and conscripted peasants is put together to find it or prove it is only hysteria. An ex-Commander, Yoon Gyeom (Kim Myung-Min), living a peaceful life with his brother (Kim In-Kwon) and a girl he rescued from a slaughter twenty years before (Lee Hyeri), is dragged back into service to lead them. But the woods hide more secrets than a plagued monster, and threats to the King might be skulking elsewhere – does the beast even exist at all?
If there’s something that the British and Korean film industries share, it’s a love of period dramas (though it has to be said, they choreograph group combat better than we do). It feels like Huh really goes back to the traditions of monster movies with Monstrum, blending the horror genre with a political thriller. You get the scares and the beast, but there’s this rather metaphorical backstory and a very literal look at the historical power struggle that led to it (yep, it’s government conspiracy: Joseon period edition). It’s a genre trait tried and tested all the way back to the original Godzilla, but often falls flat these days due to the distraction of special effects.
Viewers might recognise Choi Woo Sik, from breakout Korean films like Parasite and Train to Busan, in the role of the young soldier who seeks Yoon Gyeom out. He’s a glowing actor but sadly somewhat underused here, though charming nonetheless. Instead, the limelight falls on Kim Myung-Min, as the heroic Commander, and Lee Hyeri, K-pop singer of girl group Girl’s Day, in her lead acting debut as Myung. It’s really this performance that anchors the film at its heart; she has the most affecting relationships with the rest of the leads and possesses the witty attitude her adoptive father lacks.
What really keeps the film in the realms of fun rather than fantastic is its fairly predictable plot and tendency to lean into the melodramatic. Western audiences might find the adventurous camerawork a bit jarring, but anyone who’s watched a K-Drama before won’t be caught off guard by the occasional silly joke (monster fart gags, anyone?) or reasonably graphic levels of gore in a film targeted —at least in part, at young adults. But there’s a lot here that Korean dramas can teach us: gore isn’t necessarily involved in straight-up violence, most of the time the dead bodies play bigger roles as exposition than action. And behind every monster is an equally human villain who gets just as much attention as the VFX.
If you want to break it down, Huh Jong-Ho’s monster movie has all the chronicled period traits you could want, he just throws a cool, potentially-non-existent tiger-monkey-beast into the mix with some cool sequences that feel closer to a video game than a film. He plays with the elements of different genre films to keep things fresh. You can binge watch historical K-dramas about the politics of the Joseon period, about brave warriors and mutated monsters, or maybe just a cute romance. What Monstrum offers is the culmination of all of them, in a cinematic bubble fit for the big screen.
Monstrum is available to stream on Shudder from May 14th
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.