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.SudDark-blu

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.