In horror film -- as in so many things, really -- it's the small touches that count. Like while watching The Host, Joon-ho Bong's creature feature that's catapulted to the South Korean box office record books thanks to a mix of social commentary and serious monster action. I noted during a quiet moment with the monster that Bong's tadpole leviathan had a small bouquet of misshapen, deformed paw-lets sprouting from one of his feet. And I thought: Nice. After all, the thing is a mutant. ...

And it's a pretty mean mutant, too: Spawned by the careless disposal of formaldehyde from the U.S. Military base's morgue, leaping from the Han river to flash and slash through screaming crowds, stuffing humans into it's maw, retreating to a sewer-based lair to feast on victims dead and yet-living. It's a pretty unique creation, and all props go to San Francisco's The Orphanage FX house for creating such a nicely slick CGI beastie -- and to Bong for having the courage to set many scenes with the beast in full daylight. But a monster movie is only as good as the people pitted against the beast, and Bong, along with co-writers Chul-hyun Baek and Wong-jun Ha pull off -- at least in part -- the impressive trick of crafting a very different heroic group than you get in most horror movies. Slacker Kang-du (Kang-ho Song) works at the riverside snack cart his dad (Hie-bong Byeon) owns. Brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park) is a stuffy suit, and sister Nam-ju (Du-na Bae) is the family's pride, a world class athlete. ...

... More specifically, Nam-ju is an archer, a fact that made me throw devil horn hand gestures in the air as all its implications for the film's finale hit me like a shot of cheap scotch. Once Kang-du's daughter Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko) is abducted by the creature, we know all we need to: It's kind of like Beowulf, if Grendel were a freaky tadpole, Beowulf were replaced by Jughead and Jughead brought the family along. It's not your regular cast of characters, and that alone is cause for joy.

Unfortunately, The Host's pacing and structure are as misshapen as the beast itself: Bong's pitch, premise and characters have us hooked and hooked hard, but many sequences (all of which are barbs aimed at South Korean culture and politics) in the third act slow the tension in the film to a crawl. (Magnolia Pictures has picked up The Host for release in America, and I'll bet you a jar of Kimchee they cut between fifteen and twenty minutes off the two-hour run time.) It doesn't help that the slow-downs in the film's final third also give you the time to ask pleasure-killing questions like Where is the Army? Or Why is there klezmer/polka music playing over this scene?

Still, any horror fan's going to have a ball with The Host; as it hits all the right bases. It's primal and post-modern, scary and slapstick, gory yet good-hearted. The Host may be lumpy and bumpy, but it's also one of the freshest monster movies we've had in decades -- and, to any creature-feature buff, a rocket-ride blast of the highest order.