It has to be one of the shortest lived fads in all of fear - perhaps second only to torture porn. When J-Horror first hit, scary movie fans couldn't get enough of its subtle, supernatural eeriness. They loved the dark haired demon, her ghastly white face suggesting something unearthly and unholy. They acknowledged the lack of gore and celebrated the return to simple suspense. It all seemed new and fresh. Of course, Hollywood took notice and did what they do best - beat this newly discovered cash cow to within an inch of its Asian life. Now, less than a slasher film's longevity later, Eastern creepshows are cliché. Black House, a Korean effort new to DVD, may not change the subgenre's fate. But this nasty little gem offers up some examples of how this marginalized macabre can be reinvented.
After leaving his job with a bank, Jun-oh finally finds work as an insurance investigator. His position mandates that he check out all claimants to see if their need - disability, illness, even death - deserves the company's cash. Jun-oh is not a happy man, though he has a nice apartment and a lovely doctor girlfriend. He is haunted by the death of his little brother when they both were young, and this new career constantly brings back bad memories. Things get worse after visiting the rural home of Chung-bae. While discussing policies, Jun-oh sees the suicide of the man's son. Suddenly, he is harassed by the family. Chung-bae threatens and demands his payout. Everyday, he comes to the office and waits. Jun-oh receives dozens of phone calls at home. It's not long before his desk job has turned dangerous - and not just for him, but for anyone he knows or cares about.
In the old days of VCR scavenging, we'd call Black House a 'pure patience tester'. You know the drill - the kind of movie that offers a narrative that slowly builds to its point, that challenges your perception of what a horror movie is, a film that finds numerous ways to keep you engaged while systematically threatening to turn boring and dull. By the end of the first 30 minutes, you wonder if it will ever get better. An hour in and you're convinced the finale will fail or merely fall flat. But leave it to director Shin Terra to turn up the Texas Chainsaw quality of his ending, delivering pools of blood and lots of floating body parts. Granted, there is other great stuff along the way, including lots of dead kids, some nifty self-mutilation, and a sequence straight out of the gorehounds version of the original Fly (it centers around someone's arms, a misguided marriage, and a mechanical metal cutter - ouch!). Not everything works here. We don't care about our lead and his relationship with a comely doctor feels like the set up for a plot point (and it is). And Chung-bae is clearly an unhinged horror hack-enstance. But if you allow your genre film fortitude to be pushed to its limits, you will easily be rewarded.
One of the most affecting parts of the film is Terra's tone. This is one foreign auteur who understands the nature of atmosphere and how it affects suspense. From the clinical corporate setting of Jun-oh's office to the Sawyer Family style estate of Chung-bae, this is a movie where setting, place, and location all play into our sense of dread. Of course, there are times when nothing much happens in these arenas. But since we are immersed in their potential terror, it all works toward successfully sending the shivers up your spine. Again, this is a deliberately paced film, one that works in small considered steps. Since the ending explodes in a morass of splatter and slasher, there may be audience members who don't really mind the wait. But when Terra returns to the clichés of the old school scares (you'll recognize them the minute they arrive) it's hard to completely forgive such formulas. Horror has tried for decades to abandon the 'last girl', the 'returning killer', and the 'consideration confrontation'. Black House embraces them all, and then rediscovers a few more just to guarantee a genial if generic ride.
And then there is our lead. Jun-oh is played by Korean actor Jeong-min Hwang as a combination of Jerry Lewis and jerk. He is not very likeable most of the time, bottle-style glasses giving way to conjecture, accusation, and whining. We follow him because he is our only inroad into the information, but the unnecessary backstory (which doesn't pay off successfully come the finale) and his relationship with a doctor feel mechanical. They appear derived out of a need to make the movie more psychologically plausible than necessary. In fact, there will be many who feel Black House is overloaded with storytelling fat. At 103 minutes, it does feel long, and there are times when we want things to hurry up. Yet because director Terra takes his time, because we can tolerate most of the plot padding, because of the ways in which standard scary movie dicta is diverted in order to aim for more ambitious ends (we learn the killer's ID within the first hour!), Black House kinda-sorta wins us over. It may not be the smoothest or most straightforward journey into fear ever experienced, but there are more than enough scares to satisfy.
Clearly, South Korea is still stuck in Saw/Hostel photography mode. The greenish gray tinge to the otherwise exemplary 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is obvious, if not totally overdone. The rest of the colors are crisp, with an attention to detail that is sharp and satisfying. We get a real sense of backdrop here, a visual cue to the logistical nastiness involved. The transfer does a terrific job of selling the suspense, even if the cinematography is a few years behind the times.
Presented in the original Korean (the English subtitles are excellent), the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is immersive and very creepy. The musical score stands out, and the dialogue is always discernible, never getting lost in the aural heebie jeebies. There is some attempt to create an immersive atmosphere, but the narrative needs frequently subvert any sense of true sonic subtlety.
Genius Entertainment does a wonderful job of fleshing out this digital release. The added content includes A Making-Of featurette (including a discussion of the term "psychopath" and how it applies to the storyline), a Behind the Scenes peek at the production design (including the construction and dressing of the title locale) and a few unnecessary deleted scenes. None of the excised footage is essential to our appreciation of the film. As a matter of fact, if included, it would have extended the already bloated running time to over two hours. We do gain some valuable insight into what Koreans think is horrifying, and director Terra does a good job of defending his stylistic choices. For something like Black House, these DVD extras are superb. They answer many of the questions we have once the credits start to roll.
It's a close call on Black House, especially when faced with having to come up with a final score. For this horror fan, the film really satisfied. It was slow in parts, but such a tactic actually helped director Terra deliver come last act confront time. Based on this personal position alone, and the abundant supplemental material, the DVD would earn a Highly Recommended rating. But since others coming to this title may not appreciate the filmmaker's slow burn dynamic, viewing the middle act lull and wondering why they are wasting their time, a well regarded Rent It may be in order. Splitting the difference, Black House will therefore receive a Recommended determination. It definitely is worth your attention. It may require a little more patience than you are used to offering a foreign fright film, however.