Hearing a title like KING OF THORN may cause you to draw some quick conclusions about what kind of content you’re about to come in contact with. However, in the case of the recent feature-length film from Sunrise Inc., you’d probably be wrong.
While the “o” in the “Thorn” on the front of KING OF THORN’s packaging is decidedly crown-like in design, the thousands of thorns that find their way into the movie’s plot are actually meant to evoke the forest of brambles surrounding the castle in the classic fairy tale, SLEEPING BEAUTY. And indeed, the best capsule description of KING OF THORN might be "SLEEPING BEAUTY meets LOST meets recent American horror flick THE CABIN IN THE WOODS."
All you secularists out there can rest easy this time around.
Now that I’ve gotten past what this film isn’t, on to what it is...
KING OF THORN is the story of a group of 160 people from around the world who have contracted a strange and deadly new virus known as "Medousa" that's ravaging the population of Earth. Rather than being left to die in the typical Medousa way - - that is, to turn grey, freeze in place and then crumble into dust - - these lucky 160 have been collected at a remote European castle to be cryogenically frozen until there is a cure. However, when they're finally awoken, the castle has become overgrown by a massive web of thorny vines and now teems with frightening monsters with a thirst for blood.
After an initial monster attack, only around a half-dozen survivors are left to escape the castle and see just what is going on out in the real world. Are they the last humans left on the planet? Just how much time has passed since they fell asleep? What happened to the mysterious organization, Venus Gate, that built this castle and brought these infected folks here to be frozen in it?
The mystery is immediately engrossing, and the constant threat of attack ratchets up the tension instantly. While the source material KING OF THORN is adapted from may have taken time to draw out the plot, the film version moves so fast that you’ll be hard-pressed to remember some survivors’ names before they... well... no longer survive.
Among our cast is a smart but quiet young Japanese girl, Kasumi; a muscular and tatted-up ex-con, Marco; an always-on-edge young mother, Katherine; a kick-ass cop, Ron; a little boy with a video game obsession, Tim; a corrupt old politician, Alexandro; and a genius scientist, Peter. If “post-apocalyptic survival thriller” is indeed a genre of its own, KING OF THORN would fit in well on a shelf between LOST and THE WALKING DEAD. All of these deal in similar group dynamics, no matter how cliche they threaten to be. And here, like elsewhere, it works well to help you experience the threatening nature of the premise from a multitude of angles, upping the ante each time a character bites the dust and begging you to place bets on who has it coming next.
By the time the credits roll, you’ll have likely been surprised more than just a couple times, as KING OF THORN manages to toss in a number of decent twists and turns that keep things interesting. Flashbacks pepper the plot with additional info that shed light on the history of the Medousa virus, as well as the hidden agendas of those who managed to survive. The conclusion might feel a bit out-of-line with all of the story beats that lead up to it, but it works hard enough deliver a big, bombastic finish that it’s hard to be mad at it for getting a little confusing with regards to how any of this is even remotely close to logical (which it is most certainly not).
Visually, KING OF THORN didn’t nearly live up to the promise of its story - - though I don’t consider its shortcomings too horrible. Much of the film relies on computer animation, which consistently falls short of the hand-drawn content that surrounds it. While I’ve grown accustomed to seeing vehicles, robots and other inorganic objects rendered by computers in other anime, it’s jarring to see actual characters go from flat 2D drawings to blocky 3D models within a single scene.
While the process of shading these 3D character models has grown sophisticated enough to (maybe) fool the eye in a static screenshot, the look simply doesn’t hold up while in they’re in motion. It often feels like a character has jumped right out of a budget Playstation 2 game. Worst of all, the models look quite different from the characters they’re supposed to be portraying, which adds an amateurish quality to the film that it otherwise doesn’t deserve.
If you like a good survival thriller and can appreciate a twist, though, you’ll probably be able to look past the shoddy CG and have a good time with KING OF THORN. I managed to, at least.
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.