In this monthly column, I’ll spotlight a horror movie from a country outside the United States that has flown under the radar. The goal is to showcase the talents of horror filmmakers around the world and make sure their voices don’t go unheard.
WATCH IF YOU LIKE: DAYBREAKERS, VAMPIRE MOVIES, KOREAN HORROR, DARK COMEDY, PARK CHAN-WOOK
Vampires are a pinnacle of rebirth, figures that conquer death and return to the land of the living to seduce victims, nibble on necks, and seductively suck their blood. They’re often sexy, often vicious, and always thirsty. There have been endless interpretations of the vampire, from the seductive Lestat from Interview with a Vampire to the barely-human band of creatures of 30 Days of Night. If you think you’ve exhausted the list of good vampire movies out there, then perhaps you should check out Park Chan-wook’s version of the vampire in Thirst (2009). It is unlike any vampire movie I’ve ever seen, refreshing age-old tropes that make the vampire funny, awkward, but still bloody.
Park Chan-wook is the twisted mind behind films such as Oldboy (2003), Lady Vengeance (2005), and Stoker (2013). He’s known for his twisted, violent, but strangely comedic narratives about the human condition, making him the perfect director for a new kind of vampire movie. Thirst follows Sang-hyun (Kang-ho Song), a Catholic priest who undergoes medical experimentation to help find a cure for a deadly disease. However, after receiving an emergency blood transfusion from an unknown source, Sang-hyun dies and comes back as a vampire.
Here are five reasons why Thirst defies vampiric expectations and creates something wholly original, something only a director like Park can achieve.
1. The vampire is a priest
We all know the priest is the usually mortal enemy of the vampire, throwing up crucifixes and splashing holy water like there’s no tomorrow. But Thirst has different plans. Catholic priest Sang-hyun becomes the film’s vampire, trying to balance his cravings for sex and blood with his desire to preach the word of God and help others. At first, he is thought to be a miracle worker, since he is the only survivor of the medical testing. However, it was merely a bag of vampire-tainted blood that resurrected him, though that part of the plot isn’t really explained. His newly-acquired vampire lifestyle goes against everything he believes as a Catholic priest. He wishes to save people, not kill them, which makes eating a bit more complicated. Luckily, he works in a hospital, so accessing blood in non-lethal ways is a little easier, sneakily sucking on the blood bags of patients in comas. He kicks back, lays down on the floor, and goes to town on a bloody juice box. However, as his cravings for blood and body grow, he begins to question his ability to remain a priest as a member of the undead.
2. This is his sexual awakening
Being a priest means Sang-hyun has never had sex. He even confesses that he’s never kissed a girl. So he is not the usual lusty, seductive vampire; he has no idea how to have sex. This means Thirst is just as much as about his sexual awakening as his transition to a bloodsucker, which again leads to some hilariously awkward scenarios (such as toe sucking) and some intense self-flagellation. Sang-hyun beats his inner thighs whenever he gets, ahem, aroused, but that undead sexual energy is too strong. As his lust grows, Sang-hyun becomes involved with Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), an unhappily married woman who is searching for an out. They explore each other’s bodies, finding an outlet for desire and release. And to be perfectly straightforward, Thirst has the steamiest sex scene I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.
3. His romantic relationship mimics that of an old married couple.
Unfortunately this steamy romance doesn’t last long. Once Tae-ju turns, her demeanor shifts and she becomes a blood-craving monster. She refuses to be bossed around and will do whatever it takes to get fresh blood, none of that blood bag garbage. Their differing opinions of how to get food (Sang-hyun doesn’t want to kill, Tae-ju could care less) lead to a lot of arguing like an old married couple. In one phenomenal scene, the two fight about being vampires while hopping from roof to roof. Instead of just framing this is a regular argument between a couple, Park has them do something so ridiculous, yet so perfect, that you can’t help but smile.
4. He needs to drink blood to stave off a virus.
Sang-hyun doesn’t just drink blood because he’s thirsty; he drinks blood to keep a virus at bay. When Sang-hyun was undergoing medical experimentation, he was intentionally infected with the Emmanuel Virus, an incurable disease infecting African missionaries. It manifests as pus-filled boils all over the body, then puking blood, then death. Sang-hyun was the only patient who lived, surviving due to his blood transfusion. But it did not cure him of the virus; being vampire only delays its effects. The longer he waits to eat, the more boils appear on his face, forcing him to consistently seek out new food sources. As long as he has a constant flow of blood, he’s totally fine! But it isn’t always easy or convenient to steal blood from hospitals. Sometimes, you have to get creative. Or murderous.
5. This is no gothic horror.
Yes, we love a good candle-lit hallway, way-too-moist castle, and a ruffled collar. But Thirst utilizes many of the gothic horror tropes, such as vampires avoiding sunlight and sharing blood to turn a human, but it modernizes them for a contemporary Korean setting. Sang-hyun and Tae-ju create their own house of horrors, but instead of a castle, it is their apartment, painted bright white to try to mimic the brightness of the sun. However, the starkness of the walls just means the blood will stand out even more as it becomes a body-filled torture dungeon
Parts of this film feel more like a dark comedy. When Sang-hyun first drinks human blood, he nods, then suddenly jumps out of a window in an attempt to kill himself. But since he’s a vampire, he survives the fall and must peel himself off a car. It doesn’t seem like a funny scenario, but something about how suddenly he makes this decision and how woefully he groans as he tries to get back up is darkly hilarious. It’s a type of dark comedy that runs through Korean horror films and if you’re a fan, then this film will definitely quench your thirst.