Ginger Nuts of Horror
By Alex Davis
Dir. Yoon Hon-Seung (AKA Chang), South Korea, 88 mins
It feels like it's about time Film Gutter made a stop in South Korea – while the series has visited Japan many times over the course of its existence, we've rarely dipped into Korea, which is a nation that probably doesn't have the same association with extreme cinema. However there are doubtless some offerings that are well worth our time, and Death Bell is among them. My main point of reticence is that the story is all set in a school, and given how terrifying I find the girl ghosts of Asian Cinema, I was a bit uncertain going into it. But blessedly there was nothing too Ringu-seque to truly keep me awake at night here. What there was, however, was a pretty decent horror/thriller with some more gruesome elements.
Death Bell begins with a pretty weird – and practically meaningless – dream sequence before introducing us to a class of youngsters getting ready for their final exams. With the stresses and strains of those vital tests behind them, the kids are looking forward to breaking up for summer – but for the brightest and best there's a catch, as they're expected to stay in for additional classes as part of an exchange with Eton. The mood at the beginning of this extra day's teaching isn't great, but is going to get an awful lot worse as a deranged killer begins trapping the students in deadly situations – giving their fellow students the chance to save their lives by answering exam-style questions correctly and unravelling something rather more sinister one answer at a time...
I described the movie as pretty decent as I felt this was something of a mixed bag. There were a number of things I liked and a fair few things I wasn't keen on as well. The story itself is a slightly uneasy mixture of a paranormal horror and a Saw-esque thriller that never really satisfyingly resolves whether there is a ghostly element involved or not. There may be something lost in translation from the Korean but some of the answers, and the logic to reach them, don't really make a great deal of sense to me. The acting is OK but some of the characters are pretty annoying, including one who evidently knows much more than he lets on about the haunting element but again there's not a full explanation given there. The ending is largely possible to work out, which doesn't make it ineffective but maybe demeans the ultimate impact.
With that said, some of the traps are pretty inventive and the visuals tend to be very good – the director has a strong background in music videos, which I think shows in the look and feel throughout. The atmosphere is tense and there are a host of scenes that do leave you uneasy, although some of the deaths do lack a bit of impact because you don't know the characters all that well. But it's twisty enough and stylish enough to be enjoyable, although I couldn't call it unmissable. If you're also looking for serious gore then there's plenty more gruesome offering out there than this one, and you might be better served elsewhere. But I think it's worth ninety minutes of your time to check out.
RATING: 7/10. Death Bell makes a lot more sense once you read that it's made by a director largely known for music videos. It has style, and gloss, and ideas for sure, but equally the story itself is a bit messy and has a few logic holes here and there that can make it a slightly frustrating experience at times. But overall it has enough atmosphere and enough energy to keep you watching, although it's hard not to be slightly in mind of better movies – the British Exam included – as you work your way through. So it's an endorsement for Death Bell, although not exactly a ringing one. (Ringing? Get it? Bell? Oh, forget it...) 7/10, or maybe I should better describe it as a steady B...