Judge Michael Nazarewycz loves story time.
If you want to stay alive, then tell me…
Continuing with my 2013 horror viewing renaissance (see my review of Resolution for my thoughts on that) and coupling it with my ever-increasing appreciation for Asian cinema, how could anyone resist a horror anthology from South Korea? The answer is, I couldn't.
Facts of the Case
Horror Stories is a collection of four short stories that are connected by the high school girl who tells them. That girl (Kim Ji-Won, Romantic Heaven) has been kidnapped by a young man (Yoo Yeon-Seok, Romantic Heaven), who cannot sleep unless he is frightened. He offers to free the girl if she can tell him stories scary enough to lull him to slumber.
The first story the student tells is "Don't Answer the Door." In it, two young children (Kim Hyun-Soo, Silenced, and No Kang-Min, 26 Years) are dropped off in the evening at their high-rise apartment by their English teacher (No Hyeon-Hee, If). Their businesswoman mother (Ra Mi-Ran, Sympathy For Lady Vengeance) calls to tell them to expect a package from a delivery man (Uhm Tae-Gu, Choked), but that they should not open the door for him. When he arrives, terror ensues.
"Endless Flight" is the second story. A commercial airplane is the mode of transportation for one very special passenger: serial killer Park Doo-Ho (Jin Tae-Hyun, See You After School). With him on the flight are two cops, two pilots, two flight attendants—including So-Jung (Choi Yoon-Young, Little Black Dress)—and no one else. When the killer escapes his shackles and is loose on the plane, a perilous game of cat-and-mouse is carried out at 30,000 feet.
With her captor still awake but drifting, the student offers a third story, "Secret Recipe." In this tale of love and jealousy, Gong-Ji (Jung Eun-Chae, Haunters) is engaged to Min (Bae Soo-Bin, After the Banquet), a handsome and successful corporate president. Her stepsister, Bak-Ji (Nam Bo-Ra, I Saw the Devil), is so jealous of the couple, she undergoes plastic surgery to more closely resemble Gong-Ji, with the hopes of stealing Min away—hopes endorsed by her mother/Gong-Ji's stepmother (Na Young-Hee, Hello Schoolgirl). Little do they know what scary secret Min holds.
As her finishing stroke, the student tells the story, "Ambulance on the Death Zone." A city has become infected and overrun by zombies, but there is a clean zone where the hospital is. A desperate mother (Kim Ji-Young, Cyrano Agency) manages to get her daughter to an ambulance before it leaves the infected zone. Outward signs suggest the daughter has been infected, but field tests are inconclusive. The doctor (Jo Han-Cheol, Romance Joe) is reluctant to take a chance, but the nurse (Kim Ye-Won, Sunny) errs on the side of hope.
If you watch, you'll notice that the student doesn't narrate anything during the stories. What the characters refer to as "tell," the viewer experiences as "introduce."
The two things this collection has going for it are the varying degrees of good from entry to entry (no entry is bad) and that each entry is unique in its subject matter and style. While it's tough to compare apples to oranges to bananas to pears, the best of the foursome is "Ambulance on the Death Zone," directed by the anthology's only directing duo, Kim Gok and Kim Sun (Anti Gas Skin). While technically a zombie story, the zombies are only representative of a threat; the true story is more accurately described as a fast-paced study in the human condition. The mother is loyal to her child, the doctor is defiant of his Hippocratic oath, and the nurse is somewhere in between. It mostly takes place in the confined quarters of a speeding ambulance, adding claustrophobia to the mix. It's relentless in its pace and well-deserving of the closing spot.
The next best is "Endless Flight," directed by Lim Dae-Woong (2006's To Sir With Love). This entry, perhaps more claustrophobic than the ambulance tale only because there is no pulling over and getting out, is the furthest from horror and very much structured like an action film, with its extreme setting, devious villain, and unlikely protagonist.
"Secret Recipe" comes from the only female director of the group, Hong Ji-Young (The Naked Kitchen). It is by far the most stylish of the four, from costuming to settings, and its recurring contrasts between reds and whites are gorgeous. In addition to being about love and jealousy, this tale, with its shades of Cinderella, is also one of vanity. I think Hong was going for a deliberate pace, but at times the short drags.
No collection of horror stories would be complete without a mysterious stalker, a frightening spirit, or kids in peril, and "Don't Answer the Door" from director Jung Bum-Sik (The Epitaph) offers all three. The stalker is creepy enough, the spirit is spooky enough, and the kids are cute enough, but overall, it's only a decent effort. It's convoluted at times (which is the last thing you need in a short), and the end takes a moment to make something of a political statement against corporations.
The audio presentation is very good. The various scores, which are all story appropriate, never trample over the small, important sounds that lend to the atmosphere. The picture, on the other hand, is mixed. Well-lit scenes look fine, and as I've already said, Hong's imagery in "Secret Recipe" is beautiful (more a testament to artistic design, but the presentation doesn't hurt it). The nighttime scenes, though, tend to be murky and soft around the edges.
Other than the film's trailer, there is a 9-minute collection of superficial interviews with cast members from each of the vignettes. The questions appear on title cards in Korean. Not all of the questions are translated with subtitles. Oops. Also touted as extras are a reversible DVD case cover (and it turns out the cooler image is on the inside, so I flipped mine) and a nice twelve-page booklet. The booklet offers three entries: a sycophantic summary of each story (with spoilers: you have been warned), an overview of modern Korean horror, and an interview with Don't Answer the Door's director Jung Bum-Sik.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you consider the interconnecting scenes with the student and her abductor as the "fifth story," it's a weak effort. Rather than seize the opportunity to weave a frightful narrative in between the frightful entries, director Min Kyu-Dong (Memento Mori) presents a dull conduit between the stories. It's shot well; it's just bland.
On the whole, I'd call this collection more thriller with shades of horror than vice versa. On that level, it works well. It is stylish enough—and the majority of it is suspenseful enough—that it's worth watching the entire thing.
Majority rules. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Artsploitation Films
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