Directed by Hong Ji-yeong, Jeong Beom-sik, Kim Gok, Kim Sun, Lim Dae-wung, Min Kyu-dong
Starring Kim Ji-won, Kim Tae-woo, Nam Bo-ra, Ra Mi-ran, Yoo Yeon-Seok
Monday, July 22nd, at the Fantasia International Film Festival, the South Korean anthology Horror Stories (Moo-seo-woon I-ya-gi) enjoyed its Canadian premiere a little over a year after it debuted in its home country (a long way to travel just to reach this particular horror critic’s bloodshot eyeballs).
Four segments means four directors (lest we forget Min Kyu-dong’s wrap-around – the aptly named “Horror Stories”), all of whom are fairly early on in their careers. That’s not taking anything away from the handful of solid genre films they’ve already made, giving them plenty of “horror cred” to warrant a team-up. It does, however, make some of the segments a little unsure of themselves while covering familiar K-horror territory and established themes of tortured ghosts, cannibalism, confinement, and the obsession with youth and vitality.
With what is surely one of the weirdest sleep disorders ever recorded, a kidnapped schoolgirl must try to scare her captor until his adrenaline and fetish for fear are high enough to induce a dream state. He can only rest when he’s sufficiently freaked out, apparently. That’s definitely original.
The first story she weaves, a home alone tale called “Don’t Answer to the Door” (sometimes subtitles tend to lose something in the translation) by Jeong Beom-sik (Epitaph) centers around a girl and her little brother wrapped up in a guilty by association haunting fueled by her own super-charged imagination. After watching a scream-eliciting prank video at school and hearing (and seeing to an extent) the news of a woman who burned herself to death, both siblings become fearful of a delivery man as they wait alone for their successful mother to return from her corporate job. Someone or something terrorizes the toddlers, and as the pursuit winds down, a connection is revealed to the burning woman who may have committed the act as a political protest. Making subtle comments about latch-key kids and mothers in the workplace, it’s a solid opener even if it feels a little disjointed at times.
“Endless Flight” from Lim Dae-wung, who previously helmed To Sir With Love, a.k.a. Bloody Reunion (available from Tartan Asia Extreme), represents the weakest of the group. It just doesn’t really go anywhere, never truly taking off even though it’s set on a commercial airliner on special assignment. “Flight” starts with news that a serial killer named Doo-ho has been caught – a young man in his twenties responsible for ten murders. He is being flown to another city for arraignment and to pay for his crimes. Sadly, a flight attendant scheduled to be aboard the plane was murdered by Doo-ho, and he immediately sees her blood-soaked ghoul once aboard, haunted by her apparition and his guilt. From there on out, the aforementioned ghost stewardess floats in and out of scenes solely for the purpose of a quick scare while the other surviving attendants try their best to fight the rampaging killer off long enough to land safely. Never taking advantage of its tight surroundings and completely absent of a genuine payoff, it’s largely forgettable.
Next on the menu is “Secret Recipe” by Hong Ji-Yeong (Kitchen), based on a well-known Korean folktale that bears some resemblance to “Cinderella”. Themes of beauty, youth, vitality, cannibalism, and arranged marriage are all explored as a jealous sister named Bak-Ji undergoes plastic surgery to resemble the beautiful Gong-Ji, who is preparing to marry a wealthy, seemingly ageless surgeon. Unfortunately for Bak-Ji, she winds up staring up at a terrible fate as the ending fast approaches, wishing she had never wanted to replace her sister as his loving wife and servant. I’ll just say that this is certainly the story that best complements a food and wine pairing. Might I recommend a snack consisting of plum or watermelon?
Inspired by our schoolgirl raconteur noticing a bite mark on her would be killer’s arm, the last segment is the zombie entry, and it also has the best title. “Ambulance on the Death Zone” (again, the subtitles I viewed needed a little tweaking) is from the directing duo of Kim Gok and Kim Sun, who have directed five films together dating back to 2003. The most successful of all the segments in Horror Stories, this small-scale story about a rat that infects the populace brings out the most human drama of the bunch. Wrestling with the common undead outbreak theme of humanity versus survival, the stakes are clear and well defined. The despair of not knowing whether this mother’s child is infected or not and whether the medics should take a chance at saving her is also felt at every turn. Without giving away who makes it out alive or if the injured daughter winds up rolling down the road strapped helplessly to a wheeled gurney, it is worth giving away that this entry definitely has the most blood splatter, featuring a healthy number of Z-infectees hitting the ambulance windshield like bugs.
Returning to the wrap-around one last time, it seems as if this final tale has allowed the storyteller to escape when he awakens to reveal that he is ready to tell some scary stories of his own.
Is a horror anthology only as strong as its weakest link? Absolutely not. If it’s part of a larger arc that was undermined by one or more of its stories, then that’s certainly up for debate, but the interweaving segment featuring the storyteller in Horror Stories only serves to bookend the individual parts, not connect them all together. This is a South Korean sister film to V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (Horror Stories 2 is in the works) – our own hometown horror compilation showcasing the best and brightest of this generation of genre filmmaking – and although it doesn’t push the boundaries as much as the V/H/S series, there’s still a lot of promise shown and a few new themes explored.
3 out of 5