HORROR STORIES: Sightseeing In South Korean Horror Cinema

With the ever-increasing costs of film production and the challenges of getting films into the international marketplace, it’s not a surprise that the 21st century has seen a slow but growing trend towards horror filmmakers returning to the anthology format. The trend extends all the way to Asia, where filmmakers are gradually picking up on the format as a way of delivering more bang for the buck while also allowing more filmmakers to get their work into theaters. South Korea entered the fray in 2011 with Horror Stories and the result offers an interesting cross-section of horror styles that show off what the genre is capable of today.

The clever wrap-around for Horror Stories offers a riff on The Arabian Nights, depicting a young woman trying to appease her kidnapper/potential killer by telling him creepy bedtime stories in an attempt to lull him to sleep. These interstitial bits are directed by Kyu-dong Min of Memento Mori fame and they have the appropriate tense, claustrophobic feel to set the mood for the film. The rest of the stories are as follows, with director listed after segment title…

Don’t Answer The Door (Bum-shik Jun): this one starts in a slasher vein with two young latchkey siblings being menaced in their apartment by a killer disguised as a delivery man. A ghost story element is woven into it in a way that offsets the survival horror aspect of the story and then it springs a coda on the viewer that deftly shifts into horror of a more realistic, worldly type. It’s all briskly and stylishly directed, with the switcheroo finale really packing a punch.

Endless Flight (Dae-woong Lim): the most straightforward of the stories features a serial killer being transported via airplane getting loose and wreaking havoc on the plane’s skeleton crew. Imagine a short-story version of Turbulence, pared down to pure suspense-flick mechanics and with the violence cranked up. The ending is a bit abrupt but this offers a solid bit of white-knuckle audience manipulation.

Secret Recipe (Ji-young Hong): this segment, inspired by a Korean folk tale, has a twisted “fairy tale” ambiance to it, telling the story of two sisters who get caught up in competing over a wealthy plastic surgeon beau. Neither knows that there is an ugly secret to his trade, leading to a suitably macabre finale. This segment is highly stylized, with excellent set design and quirky performances helping it create its own little bizarre world.

Ambulance On The Death Zone (Gok and Sun Kim): appropriately, the film climaxes with its best segment. It takes place in a future where much of the population is reduced to a zombie-like state via a virus spread by rats. An ambulance crew responds to a call by a little girl and her injured daughter, sparking an argument over whether or not the girl is infected as danger attacks from all sides. This one has a strong claustrophobic vibe that gets as much mileage from the life-and-death arguments in the ambulance as it does the constant threat of zombie attack. It’s essentially one big setpiece that keeps the audience on its toes with frequent shifts of alliance between the characters and plenty of plot twists. Anyone into zombie horror will get a kick out of this tense, tightly-crafted tale.

In short, Horror Stories is one of the best entries in the modern horror anthology vogue, effectively covering a number of genre styles while also delivering the scares and spooky atmosphere with consistency.

DVD Notes: this title recently made its debut on American DVD via a new disc from Artsploitation Films. The results are pretty impressive, offering a slick anamorphic transfer of the film with English subtitles plus a few trailers for other Artsploitation releases. It also includes an excellent liner notes booklet that features an overview of the film in the context of the modern horror anthology wave by Travis Crawford, an essay on modern South Korean horror films by Kyu Hyun Kim and a revealing interview with director Bum-shik Jun. Asian horror fans will like the good transfer and the booklet offers a nice way for neophytes to appreciate the film. Recommended.

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