Although when thinking of Korean horror the most obvious examples which spring to mind are modern efforts such as Park Ki Hyung’s “Whispering Corridors” and Ahn Byeong Ki’s “Phone”, both of which have become known the world over, the country actually has a long and rich history of genre film making. One director who has been responsible for his fair share of scares is Lee Yong Min, who began his career back in the 1940s before turning his hand to horror in the 1960s with the likes of “The Gates of Hell”, “Bride from the Grave”, and of course “A Devilish Homicide”, a macabre classic now the subject of a welcome DVD re-release.
The film begins in thoroughly creepy fashion as a man called Lee Si Mok (Lee Ye Chun) hails a taxi on a rainy night, only to be taken against his wishes to a mysterious gallery where he sees a painting of his long dead previous wife. Intrigued, Si Mok takes it to show an artist friend, who is subsequently killed by a crazed woman while Si Mok cowers under the bed. Fleeing the scene, he takes the painting home with him, setting off a series of disappearances and strange events, not least of which is the apparent return of his dead wife (played by Do Geum Bong, an actress known for horror roles) from beyond the grave.
When watching “A Devilish Homicide”, it is interesting to recognise many of the themes and motifs which are still so common in Korean horror today, such as vengeful female ghosts and past secrets coming back to haunt the present. As with the modern form of the genre, the film is culled together from a mixture of folklore and then-current concerns, in this case revolving around a mixture of cat murderous spirits and an exploitation of the growing fears for the traditional family unit and its changing place in society. One difference of note is the way that the vengeful ghost is a far more human figure, without the usual horror show makeup, and yet is arguably all the more frightening and driven for it.
Lee throws in plenty of deception and wicked scheming amongst the supernatural goings-on to make for entertainingly ghoulish viewing, and although the plot is basically predictable, being little more than a slight variation on a time-honoured formula, it does feature a few surprises along the way. The film relies upon eerie atmosphere rather than sudden frights to scare, and it’s possible that viewers used to the rollercoaster pace of modern horror may find it slow going. However, there are still a fair amount of startling and disconcerting moments, such as scenes of a cat-possessed grandmother licking the faces of sleeping children, some brief shots of grudge bearing ghosts wandering in the fields and a few surprising flashes of violence and gore, including a gruesome eye gouging. Although special effects are used sparingly, they are fairly accomplished for the time, and come across as being appropriately strange rather than cheap.
Lee’s direction has at times an almost expressionistic feel, with exaggerated camera angles and weird set design working well to keep the viewer on edge and to give the film a surreal look, especially during the opening scenes at the gallery and during some forest sequences. The murky black and white photography, along with some good suggestive use of shadows gives the proceedings a nightmarish, gothic air, and although the film does look a little worn in places, this only adds to its sinister charm.
Whilst “A Devilish Homicide” is most likely to appeal to Asian horror fans keen to take a look at past examples of the form, the film is good enough to stand as far more than just a curiosity piece. Spooky and sinister throughout in the best classic tradition, it should be enjoyed by all connoisseurs of weird and wild cinema, and serves as a timely reminder that the Korean genre extends far beyond the current wave of big budget teen friendly blockbusters.
Yongmin Lee (director) / Yongmin Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Ye-chun Lee, Geum-bong Do, Ae-ran Jeong, Bin-hwa Lee, Kung-won Nam