July 23, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Host

Current Status
In Season
Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company
Sci-fi and Fantasy, Fiction
We gave it a B

The best scary movies — Godzilla, Frankenstein, any of George Romero’s zombie flicks — are often about something else, and South Korean director Bong Joon-ho has crammed his endearing horror homage with multiple messages. The Host‘s amphibious monster, a giant Tadpole rex that wreaks havoc on Seoul’s riverfront denizens, is the mutated by-product of U.S. Army chemical pollution, and the controversial American military presence in Bong’s homeland permeates the entire film.

Bong cleverly cloaks his political metaphors in the dark comedy of a dysfunctional family. When the creature snatches young Hyun-seo (Ko A-sung) and stashes her in its sewer lair for seasoning, her dim-witted father (Song Kang-ho) leads her tipsy uncle (Park Hae-il), unnerved aunt (Bae Doo-na), and compliant grandfather (Byun Hee-bong) on a quest to rescue her and slay the leviathan. Violating a citywide virus quarantine — reportedly necessitated by the infected creature — the quarrelsome gang redeems itself despite repeated incompetence (Dad is practically narcoleptic and Grandpa runs out of bullets at the worst possible time). They’re like the gang from Little Miss Sunshine — but instead of a beauty pageant, the family has to retrieve the darling girl from the belly of a horrid beast.

A grotesque hybrid of shrimp, rhino, and the Loch Ness monster, the creature itself is a cinematic marvel, and in the bonus features, Bong can’t contain his genuine affection for his CGI star. Among the four hours of DVD extras is ”Why Did It Do That?” in which Bong justifies his villain’s vicious urges by retelling the story from its point of view. (For the record, the beast grows bored in its solitude.) In ”Conceptual Artwork: The Birth” we learn that Bong modeled the creature on all sorts of odd-looking critters — he even mentioned actor Steve Buscemi — because he wanted a truly rugged creation that reflected the look of his unpolished hero. ”There should be some kind of harmony with our actor Song Kang-ho,” Bong says in his commentary. ”Against this creature, there is no Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise. We have a Song Kang-ho.”

But Bong’s fondness for the brute inadvertently undermines the essential mission of any monster movie: fright. When it rampages through a crowded park and flips under the Han River bridges like some acrobatic hydra, the sight doesn’t inspire spine-tingling dread, but gleeful wonderment. Despite the film’s lofty aims, those craving the chills of recent Asian horror films such as Ringu or Ju-on are bound to feel betrayed by this bittersweet family portrait/political satire/black comedy. In the end, The Host bites off more than it can chew. B

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