King of Thorn Review
It all starts with the body of a young woman plummeting towards the pavements of New York's busy streets, the act of a desperate soul stricken with a new killer disease that has no known cure and is spreading with careless abandon. Dubbed the 'Medusa' virus, for after an incubation period of 30-60 days you succumb to petrifaction, the world is in a panic when a mysterious organisation steps in to offer a stopgap solution to a lucky few. Proposing they put 160 randomly selected individuals into a cold sleep, slowing down the virus for a time period of up to 100 years while a cure is found, we are introduced to the thirteenth group of individuals as they are put on ice in a castle fortress in the Scottish countryside.
Kasumi, a teenage girl from Japan is one of the party. She awakens after an unknown period of time has passed, to find her cold storage capsule ejected and the room overgrown with strange thorny plant life. As the rest of the pods suddenly begin to eject, the group find themselves under attack from horrific flying creatures, monster-like in both appearance and their voracious appetite for death. Quickly whittled down to seven members, this group of strangers must fight their way through a hostile environment in order to discover theirs and the fate of the world, while also racing against the clock imposed upon them by their reawakened disease.
Although not wildly original, King of Thorn boasts a great premise and in anime feature terms is somewhat unique as it certainly counts as the first small group survival thriller that I can think of. Once the survivors awaken the pace of the movie ramps up a notch as it takes on the kind of survival action seen in classic adventure movies such as The Poseidon Adventure, only here it's not just the environment that is a threat, it's the creatures housed within that pose the real danger. The monster designs are very much rooted in horror, with their basis formed upon the thorny plant life which has overrun the facility, giving them a very organic appearance. Mouths split in three like petals opening on a flower, while the larger creatures often take a dragon-like visage constructed from thorns. Deaths in the film are violent and very bloody, but as is quite common in stories of this ilk the threat from within is often more dangerous.
And this group is no different, with certain members rousing both the audience and other character suspicions be it through inadvertent glances or simple mistakes in their behaviour. Early on we're led to believe there is some ulterior motive behind the facility and the cold sleep offer, and as the action progresses and character motives and relationships start to unfold the audience is kept guessing. Some characters and plot developments will be obvious to most, while others get turned on their heads, but the true nature of what is going on is unlikely to be made clear to even the most astute of viewers until the very end, and even then you might have some trouble grasping it. From its initially predictable plot twists and sci-fi horror leanings the story of King of Thorn takes a delightfully demented turn that is almost as hard to penetrate as the plant life protecting the facility. This makes for compelling viewing as there comes a point where you genuinely don't know what is coming next, and due to the character development throughout, drip-fed to us in between the numerous action beats, King of Thorn give us more reason to care than most. And even if you don't find yourself quite as enamoured with the cast of broken individuals as I, then visually the film delivers also, with the organic thorny presence within the castle expanding outside its walls for a quite thrilling finale.
Released by Manga Entertainment on DVD and Blu-ray/DVD Combo, this review covers the Blu-ray presentation. Before getting to the disc, a quick note on the cover-art which I think casts the film in the wrong light, as it's a little suggestive with the placement of the vines and tears on Kasumi's clothing. It is otherwise a fine piece of artwork, but the film never goes down the path it might suggest.
In terms of AV quality, this is a recent digital production presented here in 1080/24 so as you can probably guess it looks superb. Everything is crisp and clear throughout, with the opening third looking particularly good as the detail of New York City and a rural Scottish town really grabbing attention. Audio quality is equally good, with both the original Japanese and English dub tracks presented in 5.1 Dolby True HD. They're not especially active or bombastic tracks, but the effects work and music is spread appropriately with no problems I could detect. As you would expect the Japanese voice-cast does an excellent job and the optional English subtitles provide a literal translation in a clear white font.
Special mention should go to the English dub track which is not only well produced but in many cases a more fitting choice as the locations and characters are on an international scale. Everyone speaks English of course but through (mostly well done) accents there is an added layer of characterisation that - when watching with the Japanese dub - only comes through in the subtitles when we're told a character's nationality. With American, British, Italian and Russian characters amongst others, the English dub track adds an extra layer of authenticity to the proceedings, but more importantly, it's very well acted and a great alternative to the original Japanese.
Full 1080p resolution screengrabs saved at 95% quality: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4
In the extras menu you'll find two fairly substantial interview pieces that delve into the development and themes of the movie. The first, a cinema Q&A held after a public screening in Japan with the film's director and producer, has them answer questions on adapting the manga and certain choices made during the production. The focus here is mostly on changes to the source material, but even if like me you haven't read the original work, there's some interesting comments here particularly regarding the characters. Running for just under 30-minutes the Q&A is a little bloated (mostly due to the extreme politeness of everyone involved) but it's well worth your time if you enjoyed the main feature with some good topics covered. The other interview is a direct piece between an anime critic and the film's director. Running for 11-minutes it focuses specifically on the multiple meanings of various scenes in the film, as well as a look at some of the visual motifs. Although short, it's a great little extra as it gives you a better understanding to some of the themes the director was targeting, and promotes the idea of revisiting the film as it gives you plenty to look out for that second time round.
Closing out the extras menu are three trailers and a TV spot for King of Thorn, plus some previews for other titles.
Throughout the film one of the characters relates the story of 'Sleeping Beauty' to the group, making a very direct link between the classic fairytale and the situation the characters in King of Thorn find themselves. It's an apt correlation and for me, the word 'fairytale' is a good description for King of Thorn. The combination of story, visuals and the evocative main theme that is well placed in key points of the narrative lends the film a fairytale like air and it makes for a great piece of fantasy horror that entertains and invites dissection afterwards.
The Blu-ray from Manga UK is - slightly dubious cover-art aside - top rate.