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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Black House
Black House
Genius Products // Unrated // April 22, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted May 7, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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Gritty and tense from the start of its melancholy mystery, Black House takes its viewers into the "fascinating" life of an insurance investigator. It might not sound that engaging at first, but trust me - you'll be glad that you're not working for this guy's firm once this Korean horror mystery from director Shin Terra runs its course. It's a twisted, coarse story of manipulation and fear, one that crawls over its muddy rationality to send a few chills down your spine in genre-specific template fashion.

The Film:

From the ominous lighting to the overall gloomy stature of its first moments, Black House obviously isn't here to blend heartfelt sentiment with its tough nature. It takes a rookie claims specialist Juno (Hwan Jeong-Min, A Bittersweet Life), this simple guy with a beautiful wife, nice apartment, and a dark secret about his childhood, and throws him head-on into one of the worst cases he could imagine. A family, primarily its brooding, animalistic patriarch, attempts to claim a large insurance sum following their child's apparent suicide. When the claims investigator starts to suspect foul play on the parents' part, the tension only escalates once retaliation and desperation starts to find their way into the story.

Black House revolves around this unsettling idea by latching onto mystery-based suspense from the get-go, throwing little tricky nuances that try to shock and sting the audience's composure. A lot of the film's strength comes from an aptly dark, straight-edged script that tries to blend the situational believability of the tricky insurance world with engulfing terror. For the most part, the framework of Black House sucks you into its pitch blackness, arming you with a timid bundle of nerves as the lead seeps further into convolution. There are a lot of semi-realistic ideas revolving around the meaninglessness of death and the corruptible, disheartening world of insurance coverage, which solidifies Black House's grimy nature.

This leads to Black House's grandiose twist, this antiquated twist ever-present in just about all Asian horror dramas. Black House plays on a narrative in which the "reveal" occurs roughly half way through the film, and then sorts out the chaotic remains from the dust and debris afterwards. In hindsight, it's a rather foreseeable bend in the narrative, but what follows after the cards hit the table still cooks up some compelling opportunities for both dramatic and moralistic themes. Shin Terra's flick is more about the dark mood and the overwrought performances than latching onto sensibility, which teeter Black House further into popcorn territory. Instead of spending all of its time on being a serious, austere critique, it ties together some pitch black humor and horror elements to make it lighter - in a macabre sort of way.

Even a lack of concentration on realism for mood's sake has its boundaries, though; at one point, you'd think that the insurance company, as a hive, would gaze a bit deeper into their unscrupulous accounts. Black House carries a potent idea that pulsates from the exploitation of a child's death, so pushing the boundaries too hard might've sent the film overboard - or strengthened it, I can't be certain. Instead, Black House borrows from several other films in visual and audible design, such as the Saw series and even mild influence from Fincher's Se7en, that give it more easily graspable horror cues. However, smaller logistical ideas, like the timeframe that a heavily monitored hospital patient could conceal a rather large kitchen knife, leave a bit to be desired.

Ultimately, Black House still thrives on its intriguing performances and raw nerves that scrape along until the brutal finale. As the most important of these performances, Hwan Jeong-Min controls the screen with subtle facial expressions that illustrate Juno's troublesome past alongside the unbelievable strife he's pushing through in the present. Together with a fluent cast of haunting character actors, Black House crafts an environment of distrust and uneasiness that really accentuates the film's tense efforts. Even with its little hiccups, Shin Terra's film is a nerve-rattling rollercoaster that spills plenty of blood and conjures up a few goosebumps at its chilling nature.

The DVD:

Black House comes from Genius Products in an attractive standard keepcase presentation with matching glossy slipcover, featuring a smattering of red atop stark black-and-white graphical art.

The Video:

First and foremost, it must be known that this transfer for Black House lacks a lot of vibrant color and sports a ton of grain within its 2.35:1 anamorphic image. Now, I'm makaing an assumption that it was the director's intention to show the film in said manner, but I can positively say that the color scheme works quite well to the film's mood. The splashes of color used, such as the maroon on a vest and the green leaves within a stark gray office, really look good in this transfer. Also, outdoor scenes look pretty sharp as well, displaying nice depth of field and balancing. Furthermore, many close-up shots display a lot of facial detail and clarity. However, this transfer also looks flat and a bit blurry at other times, such as items on tables or facial features. It's a mixed bag, but overall is still a wholly satisfying visual presentation.

The Audio:

The Korean 5.1 track exhibits a similar lack in dimensionality, but delivers plenty of clarity. Vocal strength really pours through the speakers, as does the beautiful piano-infused score. Everything sounds distortion free as it echoes through from the front two speakers, as well as the occasional movement in the back. Now, that's exactly the way it feels - like a bloated Stereo track. Little bits of effects echo to the back, but the majority of the activitiy stays firmly at the front. It's a clear audible presentation, though. Optional English subtitles are available.

The Extras:

Making of Black House
Nearly 21 minutes of behind-the-scenes material is featured in this full-frame bit, a lot of it captured as material used in the film from a behind the camera. It also covers the casting decisions, research the characters did, as well as how the film compares in ways to the source material (a novel). It's a good watch, though it gets a bit quiet and bothersome at times when you're doing nothing more than watching the same scenes that you've already seen in the film.

Production Design:
A 7-minute production design feature is also included, which discusses the artistic choices for the film. It features the two key designers as they walk us through the visual choices surrounding Juno, his apartment, and the ominous house itself. It's a neat look into how designers take character personality and meld their environment together with specific demeanors.

Deleted Scenes:
Also included is 20 minutes of deleted scenes from the film, which varies from a mosaic of a child's wall coverings and other odd ornaments, to Juno's first day at work. I'm actually a fan of a few of these scenes and wished they could've been incorporated into the core narrative. Others, of course, are excess fat that needed trimming.


Final Thoughts:

Black House is one of the better morose Asian horror dramas primarily because of its solid focus upon a compellingly thoughtful and twisted premise. Granted, it eases up once it approaches realism too closely, but this Korean flick still maintains an equally fluid momentum through solid character performances and some sick little horror tricks that'd give Takashi Miike a nod. Fans of the genre will get a surprise out of this, while even those who don't typically see this kind of manipulative, edgy film should still see this as a Recommended film to snatch up.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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