A bumper pack of Korean horror arrives in the creepy form of “Horror Stories”, two anthology collections now released in one combo edition and boasting some of the country’s top genre talent. Volume 1 was originally released in the summer of 2012 (typically the high season for horror in Korea), and featured 30 minute offerings from Min Kyu Dong (“Memento Mori”), Hong Ji Young (“Naked Kitchen”), Lim Dae Woong (“To Sir With Love”), Jung Beom Sik (“Epitaph”), Kim Gok and Kim Sun (“White: Melody of Death”). Volume 2 arrived in 2013, with Min Kyu Dong and Jung Beom Sik again directing segments, along with newcomers Kim Whee (“Neighbors”) and Kim Sung Ho (“Into the Mirror”).
Volume 1 kicks off with “Beginnings” directed by Min Kyu Dong, the framing tale in which actress Kim Ji Won (“Romantic Heaven”) plays a kidnapped schoolgirl being forced to tell a psychotic murderer (Yoo Yeon Seok, “A Werewolf Boy”) sinister tales in order to stop him from killing her. Though, as with most framing devices the tale is fairly limited, serving mainly just to introduce the coming segments; it’s perfectly acceptable, and has a few funny twists on the formula along the way, even if it ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere.
This leads quickly into the first proper tale, Jung Beom Sik’s “Sun and Moon”, in which a couple of young kids are left home alone by their mother and are warned not to open the door. Soon enough, a maniac comes calling, and the poor little tykes are forced to try and hide and wait for a chance to escape while he stalks them. Though it might sound straightforward, the short is surprisingly off-kilter, Jung playing things out from the kids’ perspective, and working in some odd scenes and possible dream sequences. While a bit manipulative and confusing, it’s a solid start to the anthology, and works in some effective shocks, and the viewer gets the impression that the kids are genuinely in danger, which is pretty rare for this kind of thing.
Second is “Fear Plane” from Lim Dae Woong, a taut tale revolving around an air hostess in peril at 30,000 feet after a serial killer being transported by police breaks loose and causes havoc. Bloody and tense, it’s a fun variation on the usual slasher theme, and while it doesn’t do anything particularly new, the airplane makes for a claustrophobic setting and Lim certainly knows the right genre beats. Extra marks are awarded for a real lunatic of a slayer, who goes about his business with bizarre relish, making for some effectively gruesome scenes. “Secret Recipe” offers something more original, with a young woman set to marry a wealthy corporate president being tormented by her wicked and vain stepmother and stepsister, who want him for themselves. Combining ruthless sibling rivalry, plastic surgery, cannibalism and black humour, Hong Ji Young does a great job here, and the short subverts expectations cleverly as it builds toward an amusingly gory, if not entirely unforeseen conclusion.
The final segment, Kim Gok and Kim Sun’s “Ambulance”, also aims for something different to the usual long haired ghosts of Korean horror, with a story set during an outbreak of plague spread by rats, which turns its victims into raging flesh eaters. The action mainly takes place on board the vehicle of the title, which stops en route to the safe zone to pick up a young mother and her daughter, one of whom might have the virus. Tensions mount, and violence ensues. “Ambulance” is a great example of how to structure a genre short for maximum thrills, with plenty of well-timed jump frights, gore and twists, keeping the viewer guessing as to who is infected and who will be left alive – though needless to say, a happy ending shouldn’t really be anticipated.
Volume 2 opens with actress Kim Seul Gi (“Flower Boys next Door”) in the wraparound segment as a young psychic telling her sleazy insurance salesman boss the truth behind a series of weird case files. As she tells him the tales, a dark aura starts appearing over his head, and it’s clear that something sinister is going on. Min Kyu Dong again takes the reins for the linker, and does a decent job, and though insubstantial, it’s suitably fun.
First up is “The Cliff”, directed by Kim Sung Ho and based on the webtoon by Oh Seung Dae, following a couple of guys who go climbing, and after an accident end up marooned on a small ledge. With no hope of help, and only one chocolate bar between them to eat, they’re soon at each other’s throats, leading to dire consequences. It’s a familiar setup, though Kim manages to generate a fair amount of tension during the early stages, as the protagonists turn nasty, with a few enjoyable twists. Unfortunately, when a supernatural element is introduced it goes off the rails, and even for a short it gets needlessly convoluted, and outstays its welcome before the predictable ending.
Kim Whee’s “The Pain of Death” comes next, in which three girls take a road trip to help them get over their exam woes. After crashing their car on a remote mountain road they find themselves stranded, and head off into the woods looking for help. Things go bad in a fairly predictable fashion, with the usual jump scares and frights, though while there’s nothing new or clever here, Kim keeps the pace brisk and directs with efficiency. As a short it’s reasonable enough, and doesn’t outstay its welcome, benefitting from some amusing moments and chemistry between the cast members.
The package closes on a high with Jung Beom Sik’s bizarre and creative “Escape”, which sees a nerdy loser of a teacher wanting to change his life and ending up in an unpleasant parallel world after an encounter with a young Satanist student. Following her instructions, he tries to find a way back, though things get increasingly worse, and hell awaits. A comedy of errors, “Escape” is perhaps the best of both volumes, taking the viewer to some very strange places indeed, and though it makes little, if any sense, it offers an entertaining string of surprises and wisely never takes itself seriously.
It brings “Horror Stories” to a very enjoyable end, and caps off what is a very creditable pair of anthologies and a great value package for fans of Korean scare cinema. Though probably not something to consume in one sitting, the quality of the shorts is generally high, and there’s a very pleasing overall air of eccentricity rather than just the same old hauntings and vengeful long hairs.
Ji-Yeong Hong, Beom-sik Jeong, Gok Kim, Sun Kim, Dae-wung Lim, Kyu-Dong Min (director) / Beom-sik Jeong, Gok Kim, Sun Kim, Dae-wung Lim, Kyu-Dong Min (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-won Kim