Directed by Hong-seon Kim
Written by Hyang-ji Kim
Starring Sung-Woo Bae, Dong-il Sung, Hye-Jun Kim
Often times if you look at the most popular theme or monster found in horror films of a particular era, you can learn a little about what was keeping us all up at night during that time. The giant radioactive bug craze of the ’50s can be tied to the world’s growing terror of the atomic age and its potential for oblivion; the death of the nuclear family is subtext pulled by some from viewings of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and other films of the ’70s; and zombies, well, they can be a placeholder for just about any boogeyman that’s haunting the hearts and minds of society at any given moment. So, I’ve often wondered what fear is represented when looking at the resurgence of the exorcism subgenre in horror filmmaking. What does the concept of demonic possession say about the dark side of humanity?
The best films in the endless wave of exorcism entries we’ve seen in the last decade or so try to give some sort of answer to that question, while the lesser ones are more interested in imitating the style and tropes seen in the popular movies that came before them. This can be forgivable as long as they manage to succeed at doing the one thing all horror movies are supposed to do: frighten us. Metamorphosis (the latest offering by South Korean filmmaker Hong-seon Kim) feels like a love letter to several other well-known possession pictures, and while it does have some inventive moments that lend some originality to its premise, that all gets lost in its painfully obvious adoration for a certain William Freidkin-helmed cornerstone of the subgenre.
Metamorphosis opens with the failed exorcism of a young woman being performed by a priest (Sung-Woo Bae) who is unable to rid her body of the legion of demons inhabiting it. Before she dies, the spirits tell the priest that this will not be their last encounter, causing him to step away from his role as an exorcist and contemplate leaving the church altogether. Meanwhile, something strange and terrifying is taking place in the new home of one of the priest’s relatives. It seems that something insidious is jumping from one member of their small family to the next, breeding distrust and fear. Soon violence erupts and the priest is brought in to try and save the souls of his family from the evil forces that have targeted them.
The problem at the core of Metamorphosis is that, like the demon mimicking the different members of the priest’s family, the film is far more concerned with imitating the pictures that came before it rather than breaking new ground. All the hits are present: demonic voices, facial deformities, body contortions, flying puke, crosses flipping upside down. Subtly is thrown out the window, and in its place is an overabundance of literalism that makes the world the film takes place in feel tired rather than frightening.
This is most obvious in the redemptive arc of the priest, who is placed on such a high pedestal that his eventual self-sacrifice is more of a foregone conclusion rather than a touching act of bravery. Though it tries hard to make the character fit the mold, this is no Damien Karras. That character (played so beautifully by Jason Miller in The Exorcist) resembled an actual human being, complete with relatable flaws that brought him down to our level. Metamorphosis’ man of the cloth plays like some unknowable spiritual superhero.
More frustrating than all of this is the fact that Metamorphosis manages to botch the one new idea it brings to the table. When the family’s paranormal problems first begin, it seems like the demonic entity is jumping from person to person rather than staying in one body, which is absolutely terrifying. One scene, in particular, involving one of the daughters waking up to find her father standing over her bed and leering at her is incredibly uncomfortable. If done properly, this could have been used to inject The Thing-levels of paranoia and dread into the story. But then they elaborate on the phenomena and we see that it’s not so much that the family members are being possessed but more that the demonic presence is shapeshifting and creating malevolent doppelgangers of them. Which kind of works, but it also loses its essential creepiness by making the evil an outside manifestation rather than one that is internalized.
Flaws aside, there are moments in Metamorphosis that will stay with you after its viewing is over. Fans of the gooier side of the exorcism subgenre will be pleased by its more graphic moments, and there is a dream-sequence experienced by the priest that’s genuinely inventive and terrifying. This is why the film’s inability to go deeper is so disappointing. What do stories of demons hiding within say about our fears today? Don’t expect that question to be answered here.
Though visually inventive at times, Metamorphosis ultimately feels far too familiar to standout from the rest of the exorcism entries in horror today.