Omnibus horrors seem to be all the rage at this year's PiFan, with the inclusion of the much-ballyhooed V/H/S and the Indonesian ghost offering HI5TERIA (not to be confused with period British vibrator comedy Histeria, which is also in competition). But the one with the highest profile this year was the Korean HORROR STORIES, which served as the event's opening film.
“Each segment brings something different to the table and between them they offer some sumptuous visuals, clever ideas and a few great scares”
A group of talented filmmakers, most of whom are prominent genre filmmakers, were assembled for this production which many hoped would breath some life back into Korean horror cinema. Of late, K-horrors have been increasingly disappointing and the consensus is that there hasn't been a good example since the excellent POSSESSED (2009). Hopes were high for last year's trio of summer Korean horror offerings (the traditional season for the genre) but WHITE: THE MELODY OF THE CURSE, THE CAT and GHASTLY all failed to impress despite their potential.
This year has been even worse with the catastrophic releases of DON'T CLICK, which was initially slated for release last summer, and TWO MOONS, which featured the dullest ad campaign for a horror from recent memory. So with the involvement of some major talent and its prime slot as the opening film of this year's PiFan, there was a lot riding on Horror Stories.
Each segment brings something different to the table and between them they offer some sumptuous visuals, clever ideas and a few great scares. But omnibus films are a very difficult thing to pull off, and while this one uses a clever framing device to wrap its segments together, the result is still a mixed bag.
The narrative that ties the pieces together in Horror Stories follows a young girl who has been kidnapped by a serial killer. He asks her to tell him scary stories: if she has some good ones, she may escape with her life. It's a thin premise but, just like the four chapters that follow, it's very tongue-in-cheek and just about stays afloat.
“The narrative that ties the pieces together in Horror Stories follows a young girl who has been kidnapped by a serial killer.”
The first segment, from Jeong Bum-shik (EPITAPH, 2007), is an impressively staged and genuinely chilling affair, even though most of it is played for laughs. A brother and sister are dropped off at their apartment and await their mother's return. A deliveryman leaves something by the door and goes back down in the elevator, but a series of horrific visions remain in his stead. Jeong's film fondly takes aim at the genre's many overused tropes but even though he pokes fun at what horror has become, his top flight mise-en-scene is so gripping that it added genuine tension and well-earned scares that seem to have been all but erased in recent K-horrors.
The next short comes from Yim Dae-woong (TO SIR WITH LOVE, 2006) and takes place in the claustrophobic cabin of a commercial airliner. A serial killer has been caught and is being transported to another destination but of course he escapes. It mostly works but is far from original and is undercut by the unnecessary inclusion of a ghost (a beautiful woman covered in blood, the only type that seems to exist in Korean cinema), who is haunting the antagonist.
Following that is Hong Ji-young's (NAKED KITCHEN, 2009) dark and macabre tale of the pursuit of eternal youth, with a healthy dollop of cannibalism thrown in for good measure. I say healthy because it is about a plastic surgeon who eats his beautiful young brides to stay young. The production design is strong but a few too many dream sequences and a lack of good scares bring it down a few notches.
“As it stands, Horror Stories is probably the best K-horror since Possessed but in no way, shape or form is this going to revive the horror genre in Korea.”
The last short comes from the Kim Gok and Kim Sun tag team (they are brothers) who were behind the aforementioned White: The Melody of the Curse and the indie horror ANTI GAS SKIN (2010) before that. It's a zombie piece that features a doctor, a nurse, a mother, her potentially-infected child and a driver in an ambulance trying to get to "the safe zone". That pretty much sums it up as it has no surprises up its sleeve. Being younger directors they have opted for the heavily edited shaky-cam style of shooting. It's serviceable but too frenetic and pointless to really hold your attention.
As it stands, HORROR STORIES is probably the best K-horror since POSSESSED but in no way, shape or form is this going to revive the horror genre in Korea. Its fondness for the genre translates into an over-abundance of dream sequences, visions of wet, bloody, dark-haired women and twisty codas that are not as clever as they think they are. For fans of horror (especially k-horror) Horror Stories is definitely worth a look but outside of one very strong segment (the first), offers nothing new and lacks staying power.