The most terrifying thing in a horror film, for me, isn't a jump scare or a gory disemboweling; it is the realistic break down of society. The extended newsroom opening under the credits of Romero's Dawn of the Dead gets me more worked up than the sequence in the mall parking lot. While the onscreen brain surgery in Contagion is gross, that moment of indecision followed by fear and bloodless violence near the empty food trucks is the one that haunts me.
To that end I was quite taken with Deranged, a deadly plague thriller from South Korean filmmaker Park Jung-Woo. The movie has more than its share of dull patches and a wholly unsurprising twist (an evil drug corporation? You don't say!) but the moments of panic in the streets are riveting and the odd specifics (the “rules,” if you will) of this particular apocalypse are original enough to keep you engrossed and grossed out.
Our characters: a beat-down family man, once a scientist, now condemned to work in sales (a true horror story) for a drug company that's been bought out by a multinational conglomerate. He even takes on extra hours as a valet to the boss' family, taking the wealthy kids to theme parks instead of his own. His sad state is due, in a larger sense, to falling for the allure of the stock market, in which he's lost his shirt. In a more specific sense, it's because he trusted his brother on an investment tip. The brother, a cop, is stricken with guilt and will do anything to get his niece and nephew to that idyllic theme park if it's the last thing he does.
The cop's well meaning girlfriend works in the public health sector, and it's a good thing, too. All these class struggle issues soon don't add up to a hill of beans when the KILLER INTESTINAL PARASITES come to town.
The parasites in question are mutations of horsehair worms, which (in much more benign form) I'm sad to say are real. In the film, they begin life as waterborne, microscopic little guys, then they attach themselves to the lining of your digestive system and suck you dry of all your water. During the first stage, the victims just find themselves thirsty all the time. (So much product placement for Korean bottled water brands!) Then comes trouble.
As the parasites grow, they begin to affect the mind, so when they demand even more hydration the victim becomes something of a zombie – but not hungry for brains, thirsty for water! The host bodies die by intentionally drowning themselves – plunging themselves into lakes and rivers (or golf ponds) headfirst and slurping themselves silly. When trapped indoors, a tub, sink or fish tank will do. These scenes of water-driven madness are all highly entertaining.
As Korean society begins drinking itself to death (note – every apartment building is apparently a block or two from a river) our sibling heroes find themselves at the heart of the story. The cop brother is able to locate the source of the disease and the scientist brother the cure. Wouldn't you know that they are related and they are both Big Pharma. Furthermore, the cure to this disease is suddenly unavailable, and the entire population is now in survival-of-the-fittest mode to find these golden ticket pills, the only thing that will cure their family members that were unlucky enough to take a river vacation last spring!
Of course the wife and two moppety kids have the bug, and if you recall the scenes from Bong Joon-Ho's The Host of families wailing in a gymnasium-turned-memorial, try multiplying it by ten. I can't exactly tell just where the line between actual melodrama and intentional overkill is, but eventually I had to laugh. Especially during the dreadful scene where killer worms exploded out of a woman's butt. (Oh, yeah, don't think that if you just cut yourself off from water you aren't in some sort of danger.)
Deranged was a huge success in Korea (it beat The Amazing Spider-Man at the box office, so says Wikipedia) and despite its predictable ending and very drawn out third act, it still has a lot going for it. The scenes of desperate fathers racing around a city turned to waste, looking in vain for pills that have mysteriously gone missing is an easy enough analogy for capitalism's brutal stranglehold on health care, and translates well. As ridiculous as the set-up was, I was at the edge of my seat, hoping the cute little boy and girl got to ride a merry-go-round with their Dad before their anuses were ripped apart by villainous, genetically-altered worms.
Deranged recently screened at the New York Korean Film Festival, and had a mini theatrical run last summer. Plans for a DVD or VOD release are not yet clear.