Judge Joel Pearce wishes this was a good movie.
Watch your step.
This is the third film in the acclaimed Ghost School Trilogy, which began with the innovative Whispering Corridors, and continued with the astounding Memento Mori. Wishing Stairs, the final tale in the series (so far), attempts to carry on its predecessors' blend of horror and social commentary, but with limited success.
Facts of the Case
They say if you walk up the stairs outside the girls' dormitory and count each of the 28 steps, sometimes a 29th will appear, and you can ask the fox to grant you a wish. Of course, it's very dangerous to make wishes in horror films, as they tend to backfire. And this school is as just the sort of place where wishes have unintended consequences.
As is probably the case wherever many teenage girls congregate, there is a lot of tension and competition between the students. The biggest current struggle is the competition between Jin-sung and So-hee over a ballet audition. The more talented, So-hee is the natural choice, but Jin-sung is tired of playing second fiddle to her thoughtless friend. When Jin-sung uses the stairs to win the competition, it kicks off a series of events that she never would have intended. So-hee dies after an accident, which makes Jin-sung a lot less popular with her peers.
At the same time, Hae-ju, an overweight outcast, uses the stairs to lose weight, but also begins losing touch with reality. Has So-hee returned to the school, or has Hae-ju gone completely off the deep end?
It turns out the third time isn't the charm for the Ghost School Trilogy. In fact, Wishing Stairs is a muddled mess. While the other two films in the series dealt with serious issues in Korean schools, such as abusive teachers and taboo relationships, the third entry's petty competition between friends just doesn't have the same punch. As a result, the first third of the film is quite weak, lacking the quality of story that made the other films stand out. A terrible performance from prosthetics-laden An Jo doesn't help any. Her character is pure stereotype as she packs away as much food as possible. If there is a serious social statement here, it is probably that, though petty and inconsequential to those on the outside, arguments and fights are quite severe for the teenage girls involved in them. The other problem with the opening act is its general lack of supernatural presence. The stairs are the only apparent supernatural force in the school, which doesn't really set up the ghost-filled second half.
Things don't get much better once Jin-sung and Hae-ju start to see So-hee's ghost return to the school. Other characters are also introduced at this point, which makes Wishing Stairs feel too episodic. These introductions slow down the story, and also make the details of the plot more muddled. Just as the audience gets completely confused, the film barrels into a series of generic sequences ripped off from a variety of recent Asian horror flicks. Although many of these scenes are filmed well, we don't care enough about the characters for them to have the impact they should. These scenes get more ridiculous as the film progresses, and I found myself groaning by the time So-hee's ghost crawls through a window with hair covering her face à la Ringu. Horror sequences simply don't work as well if the audience isn't already committed to the characters and story.
On a purely technical level, Wishing Stairs is impressively designed. The color palette, with vivid reds standing out against a sea of brown and gray, is effective and beautiful to look at. The cinematography is stellar, and shadows and angles are used appropriately during scary scenes. The titular stairs look genuinely haunted. The effects crew used some impressive practical effects, but CGI is not implemented as well, creating a few shots that are unintentionally funny. It's too bad the film isn't as good as it looks.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Weak film or not, Tartan Films has not skimped on the transfer or extras. The video transfer does justice to the stunning cinematography, offering up pristine colors, solid black levels, sharp detail even in the very dark scenes, and few remaining print flaws. The sound transfer is awesome, too, with subtle but powerful surround tracks in both Dolby 5.1 and DTS.
I was impressed by how many special features are on the disc, especially considering the obscurity of the film. There is a production featurette, which details some of the work behind the scenes. There are also some interviews with the cast and crew, which are quite interesting. It's always sad to see such passionate interviews about disappointing movies. The actresses are obviously proud of their hard work, and I wish it had resulted in a better film. Next up is a "director's scrapbook," which is essentially more interviews and production footage. Beyond that, there is a short photo gallery.
After the first two films in the Ghost School Trilogy, I really wanted to like Wishing Stairs. It is competently made, but lacks the heart and brains of its predecessors, so I can only recommend it for die-hard Asian horror nuts and completists. If you have not yet seen the other two, though, make sure you give them a spin.
For failing to deliver an interesting premise or good story, the girls of Wishing Stairs are sentenced to run up and down the stairs until my wish is granted: more good Korean horror.
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Studio: Tartan Video
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