Thirst, Park Chan-wook, 133 mins, (18)<br/> Pontypool, Bruce McDonald, 96 mins, (15)

Korea&rsquo;s top sensationalist goes a plot too far, while a Canadian zombie film quotes Roland Barthes
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The Independent Culture

Horror films, common wisdom has it, exist so that we can confront taboos, contemplate the horrors that we fear and yet strangely desire.

That’s the common wisdom – but the truth is that horror films are made entirely so that Sunday newspapers can keep turning out think pieces on Our Fascination with Vampire Movies: Fangs and What They Say About Us. I’m not even going to go there: we’ll leave that topic until we’ve all digested our first box set of True Blood.

No, what interests me here is the question of what happens when a horror film is made by someone who isn’t a horror director. Is it still a horror film? Or an art film disguised as horror? And how do you even tell? I can’t resist quoting the genre veteran John Carpenter: “In France I’m an auteur. In England I’m a film-maker. In Germany I’m a horror film-maker, and in America I’m a bum.”

Asian extremist Park Chan-wook is no bum, nor a horror director per se, and while he gets to stroll up the red carpet in Cannes as an auteur, I believe he’s seen in his South Korea homeland as a very commercial sensationalist. His notorious Oldboy certainly nudged into the horror bracket: not merely in its Jacobean-tragedy bloodletting, but also in the distressing feeling you get that you are in the hands of a quite possibly deranged authorial presence.

By comparison, Park’s latest is a gentle proposition. Thirst recycles some classic vampire tropes but, despite numerous passably grisly moments, comes across largely as a contemplative, blackly comic study of a bad relationship. The stocky Korean star, Song Kang-ho, plays a Catholic priest who visits Africa to help to test a vaccine, only to return immortal and with a taste for blood.

A strictly ethical vampire, he at first refuses to kill, but slurps on the plasma bags of hospital patients. Then he meets Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), the perverse young wife of an old schoolmate, and things take a murderous turn, reputedly inspired by Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. Just as the hero finds himself leaping between rooftops with his new night-creature powers, so the film vaults crazily from mode to mode: from torrid priest-shagging drama, to murderous domestic triangle, to black farce in which Tae-ju torments her captive mother-in-law, who has gone catatonic from shock. Perhaps Joe Orton had a bigger influence in Korea than we know.

Park Chan-wook’s films are always overwrought, sometimes mesmerisingly so, their narrative complexity rambling wantonly beyond the initial premise. In this way, he is Korea’s own Pedro Almodovar and, like him, is prone to use plot turns as a pretext for baroque set design. In Thirst, there’s less conviction in the drama than in the installation-style decor of the third act: who knew that vampires had such a thing for hanging neon strips?

A vampire film without really being one, Thirst is also very much like a Park Chan-wook film without being properly Park, so far does it fall short of his fiendish standards. Despite flashes of flamboyant mischief, its 133 minutes feel like a vampire’s lifetime, and it’s appallingly patchy. See it if you ever wondered what it would be like to sink your fangs into a curate’s egg.

If Thirst isn’t really a vampire film, the brazenly (but differently) oddball Canadian miniature Pontypool is even less of a zombie film. The drama is really about what happens when people inexplicably go wild and attack each other: strictly speaking, it’s less like George Romero’s “Living Dead” cycle, more like his unnervingly rooted-in-reality The Crazies.

Director Bruce McDonald is a long-standing specialist in offbeat low-budget features with a rock’n’roll flavour, and Pontypool is beautifully simple – so simple that some viewers might complain that it’s not really cinematic. As pandemonium breaks out in a small Ontario town, Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), a jaded radio host long past his shock-jock glory, monitors the situation from a basement studio. Little by little, the talk turns from local weather and updates on a missing cat to rumours of slaughter in the snowbound environs. We don’t even see the menacing hands at the windows until an hour in; it’s the gathering sense of uncertainty that make Pontypool so genuinely uneasy.

Pontypool is not without its staple shocks and gore, but that’s not what the film is about. As befits a story of a radio host, it’s an essay in enclosure: apart from the intro and a few inserts, we never leave the studio building. But more eccentrically, Pontypool is about language and its effects: the first symptom of the mysterious epidemic is a sort of aphasic babbling. Talk itself proves to be the key to the crisis, and possibly its cure: the very Canadian aspect of all this is that it’s safe to speak French, but English is lethal.

Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel, this arrestingly odd exercise perhaps demanded to be a radio play more than a film: its sense of claustrophobia and use of meagre resources are absolutely gripping. There’s a wonderful playoff between Lisa Houle – the stalwart but laid-back producer doggedly trying to curb Grant’s excesses – and McHattie, imposingly cranky as the burnt-out, Stetsoned radio rebel, looking like a wild-eyed, freshly embalmed Lee Van Cleef.

Zombie film or art film? Scares notwithstanding, the latter for sure: the clue is a glimpse of a plastic rhino, suggesting that what afflicts the town of Pontypool is the same absurdist virus of meaning as in the Ionesco play Rhinoceros. Further evidence: a radio DJ quoting Roland Barthes. You didn’t get that in Shaun of the Dead.

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