A truly great film (yes, Virginia – even a horror film) will have you so wrapped up in its mystery, its characters, its beauty, or its message that you won’t want to take the time to breathe until the credits roll. And there are plenty of good movies out there that, while they don’t necessarily grab you by the heart or face, do a better-than-average job of making you forget about your dry cleaning or homework for 90 minutes and leave you with something to chew on afterward. And then there are those films that are so tenuously interesting and that so reek of imminent disappointment that you continually remind yourself “hey – this is good!”, hoping to ward off the crash that you just know is right around the corner.
Such a film is “Infection”, a Japanese hospital horror film that is so much fun for the first 85 minutes that in the back of your mind you just know the last 12 are going to blow it… and they do. So while I can’t wholeheartedly suggest picking up this movie, I can at least recommend watching the first 90% of it, because it’s got some really great stuff in there. Glazed with oozing sliminess and cast in a sickly green glow, the over-the-top drama of this dysfunctional hospital is far crazier than anything you’ll see on “E.R.”, and even more squirm-inducing than the musical episodes of “Chicago Hope”. And before the bottom drops out, the mounting dread and deepening mystery are great fun – think the histrionics of Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom”, with an added layer of Japanese formality (the casual attitude of the staff of “The Kingdom” would never fly in this joint), doused in snot.
I’ll start right off by saying that I looooooove hospital horror movies. There’s something about the juxtaposition of antiseptic healing and bloody murder that is incredibly potent, not to mention the imbedded overtones of cutting, stitching, and generally intrusive activity that the setting brings. How can you not love the near-abandoned hospital of “Halloween II”, or the creepy, quiet terror of “Visiting Hours”? And how about the hospital scenes in classics like “Let Sleeping Corpses Lie” and “An American Werewolf in London”? And of course, let’s not forget the Canadian killer-parasite classic “Blue Monkey”… (crickets….crickets….).
Anyway, the setup of “Infection” is the stuff of great panicky hospital thrillers: an overextended hospital staff (the nurses are working around-the-clock, the doctors are unable to keep up with the workload) makes a fatal mistake while trying to resuscitate a patient, leading to a death by misdose. Rather than risk being shut down or fired, the group decides to cover up the death by essentially cooking the toxins out of the corpse (he was a burn victim anyway – throw him back in the broiler for extra-crispy!) and pretending he died naturally. The patient was a John Doe anyway, so what difference does it make?
Things of course are not nearly so simple: it seems a crazy old mental patient who sees ghosts has overheard the group’s plans, a new emergency room patient has arrived who is literally liquefying from some unknown disease, and the guilt of covering up the malpractice is gnawing away at the weaker (or more upstanding) members of the group. On top of these obvious problems, there are other, smaller issues that are alluded to: why are there no people on any of the streets? Why has the ambulance been carrying this patient for over an hour without finding a hospital who would take him? And what’s with the kid bleeding out of his ears in the waiting room?
So we’ve got hospital intrigue (the staff hasn’t been paid lately – and where’s has the director disappeared to?), junior staff members with serious mental conditions (one nursing sister has problems with the hypodermic – which is mined for all it’s worth later on; another junior doctor compulsively practices his sutures for literally the entire film), a rapidly-spreading and incredibly icky mystery illness (there’s more green slime than in an entire season of “You Can’t Do That on Television!”), and a slowly roasting corpse in Room 1. And it’s wonderful! The drama skips along nicely, with each character pushed to the breaking point, and the “infection” is quite mysterious – is it a virus? A parasite? An alien? The sound effects alone in this film were enough to turn my stomach (imagine the sound of a hundred kittens eating moist cat food at the same time… eeeeeeeeewww), and the gore/gross-out effects are also a lot of fun.
But sadly, much like the head-scratching final episode of “St. Elsewhere” (why stop the indiscriminate reference-dropping?), things fall apart completely in the end. Yes, I think I figured out what’s going on (I think…), but that’s beside the point – there really shouldn’t be anything to figure out in the first place, or it should be at least a little more coherent than it is. Right now it’s a straight thriller that goes all batshit right at the end and leaves everything up in the air – and no one likes investing their time following a set of characters for over an hour just to see the whole thing turned into a giant joke at the end. In the “Elsewhere” finale, we learn that the entire series has taken place inside the mind of a retarded child as he gazes into a snowglobe. At the end of “Infection”, you just may feel the very same way.
I’ll be completely honest and admit that I was seriously confused by the ending, beyond the fact that the “twist” simply doesn’t seem supported. So I went to The Internets to figure out if I was missing something – and indeed, I was: “Infection” is the first part of a series. So I figured that the loose ends must be tied up in the sequel, which is just fine with me. But then I realized that the next film in the “trilogy” is actually “Premonition”, a horror movie about a haunted newspaper that has nothing to do with “Infection” and is actually less coherent than this one. If the J-Horror Theater series continues along this trajectory, the third film must be King Lear enacted entirely by costumed rabbits in an abattoir. Between these two films and Miike’s “One Missed Call”, I’m afraid to say that the golden age of Japanese horror may have given way to the era of big-budget Japanese disappointments. In other words: goodbye “Friday the 13th”, hello “Freddy vs. Jason”.
But still, all this complaining about the ending shouldn’t entirely dissuade anyone from seeing “Infection”, because there is a lot of good stuff in there to enjoy. Just don’t get upset when things fall apart, and don’t let the myriad of misleading red herrings distract you into thinking that there’s more going on then there really is. Oh, and ignore the random elements lifted from “The Shining” (including the score – is that the same music?!) and the rather pretentious use of children in masks and crazy old women who talk to themselves. But otherwise, seriously – lots of fun.
“Infection” is screening as a part of the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 19th to May 1st in New York City. For a full list of screenings, check out the fest’s official website.