Horror is a genre where the filmmaker’s ability to evoke a mood and feel are just as important as the basic narrative mechanics of a story. If you can create and sustain the right atmosphere, you can breathe new life into the most elemental story ideas. Suddenly In The Dark offers a fine example of these principles at work, deploying an impressive grasp of atmospherics to create a genuinely potent riff on both supernatural and psychological flavors of horror.
The premise is elemental in its simplicity: Yu-Jin (Yun Il-bong), a professor, lives in a lovely home with his daughter and his wife Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae). Seon-hee is fretting about strength of her marriage and feels threatened when Yu-Jin brings home Mi-Ok (Lee Ki-seon), an orphaned peasant girl, to be their maid. The young girl is not only attractive but has a mysterious doll with a dark, magical backstory. Seon-hee progressively slips into paranoia over the idea that her husband is having an affair with Mi-Ok. She is driven to desperate measures to deal with the perceived threat but discovers that her rival will not be easily vanquished.
Suddenly In The Dark was made by veteran Korean filmmakers who didn’t normally work in the horror genre but you’d never guess it from the results. Sam-yuk Yoon’s script draws out a dark atmosphere from its storyline by toying with the audience, presenting the events in a way that keeps the viewer guessing as to whether the supernatural is involved or if it’s all coming from Seon-hee’s fevered imagination. He comes up with enough ambiguous situations to keep the “crazy or not” tension going to the final scene and weaves in an interesting culture-specific theme of old customs vs. modern life to go with the concept of an outside threat invading the home.
Taut direction enhances the narrative’s unsettling effect. Director Young Nam Ko gets a lot out of an obviously tight budget, cleverly using offbeat angles and other visual tricks to enhance the story’s already unsettling mood. Of particular interest are his use of a kaleidoscope and what appears to be the bottom of a drinking glass as lenses to get a surreal visual effect for little money. His efforts are aided nicely by cinematographer Pil-Shi Jeong, who excels at generating intensity via hand-held camerawork, and a musical score that mixes creepy synth textures by Jong-hyeok Choi with pilfered cues from Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack(!).
However, what really seals the deal is the performances. Kim Young-ae creates a convincing portrait of someone whose psyche is splintering before the audience’s eyes, deftly evoking a gradual increase in paranoia that works in tandem with the escalation of cinematic devices to create an effective yin-yang combination that does a number on the viewer. Lee Ki-seon makes a strong contrast, giving a very subtle performance that suggests the character is childlike or deceptive depending on the scene. Yun Il-bong holds down the middle ground as the husband, giving a low-key performance that the viewer interprets in different ways depending on their view of the heroine’s state of mind in a particular scene.
In short, Suddenly In The Dark shows how the ability to evoke a distinctive atmosphere allows horror filmmakers to get a fresh charge from vintage archetypes. It further impresses by working both as a psychological and a supernatural horror film, pulling off this duality in a way that will make viewers want to watch it a second time.
Blu-Ray Notes: this title just made its U.S. debut on home video via a new disc from Mondo Macabro blu-ray. The transfer is excellent, with vibrant colors and crisp remastering, and the Korean mono audio is clear and supplemented with English subtitles.
A few extras have also been assembled for this set. An interview with film critic Kim Bong-seek (21:07) takes the viewer through the history of Korean horror in the latter half of the 20th century, with some interesting material about how social and political currents impacted the genre’s popularity. Another sitdown with producer David Suh (12:26) allows him to discuss his history in the film business and how Suddenly In The Dark pushed the envelope with that era’s censorship standards.
Also included is an animated gallery of VHS video covers from Korean horror films that offers plenty of colorful and salacious sights. The usual Mondo Macabro promo reel wraps out this tidy little package.