“You will be taking another test. If you don’t answer students will die one by one. You must solve all questions.”
Death Bell, the first release from Terracotta’s new horror imprint Terror-Cotta, is a mash-up of The Whispering Corridors, Battle Royale and Saw with nods to Carrie and Scream. The final result is a film that fails to synthesise any original or shocking horror but remains largely enjoyable due to strong visuals and performances.
A group of students at an elite high school, preparing for mid-term exams (goas) are held captive and forced into a series of sadistic games. The students find themselves plunged into a deadly test where they are picked off one by one and held in impenetrable traps where they must rely on the amazing intellects of their classmates to be released, every time a question is answered incorrectly, a classmate meets their torturous, grizzly death. When it emerges that the students are being picked off according to a pattern, pupil Kang Yi-na (Nam Gyu-Ri) discovers how much time she has to stay alive, and solve the puzzles to unmask their vicious killer, before the Death Bell rings for her.
Purely in terms of horror the film fails because it liberally takes from every horror trend created from ghost girls, slashers, psyco-drama and torture but doesn’t make them gel. The closest comparison might be Saw, a franchise with finely constructed satire and nasty torture chambers but Death Bell’s execution is too silly to be believable and a horror atmosphere fails to emerge because of the director’s hyperactive visual style.
Chang’s approach is clearly “everything plus the kitchen sink”. Despite a good location, slick visuals and generally decent mise-en-scene, his insistence on throwing so many visual techniques at the screen adds little to the atmosphere while tense chase scenes are sometimes broken due to inept cross-cutting.
But, but, but… the film is not meant to be viewed solely as horror, the director admitting as much in his statement:
“Through stages of giving a mission and puzzle solving that mission, I wanted to add intellectual amusement to differentiate my movie from existing horror movies.”
The result is that this film is more of a fun-house and this is where Chang’s excess of style works especially when he shows torture/puzzle solving in split-screen. He also manages to get strong performances from his cast.
The supporting actors give a sense of being real teens, although they are less memorable than the selection in Battle Royale and do some stupid things, acting more like graduates from the school of Scooby Doo mystery solvers with qualifications in splitting up and getting chased.
The lead performances are very strong, especially Lee Beom-Soo who puts in a riveting performance as a seemingly dedicated teacher. As the main heroine Nam Gyu-Ri starts off interesting but dissolves into tears and becomes largely irrelevant to the proceedings.
The film is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some great shocks and it is visually slick with a lot of striking images such as the opening.
The tempo is fast and the script is pretty lean, getting on with the killing and bringing some invention to the very tiresome torture genre, if skimping on brutality. There is enough grue here to satisfy gore-hounds because the make-up is brilliant. Characters end up battered and bruised and look like they’ve been through hell with copious amounts of blood and real looking injuries.
Ultimately completely meaningless, over the top and shameless in the way it takes from various trends, it whips along cheerfully without too much thought and results in a fun if undemanding title. Stay around for the hilarious credits.
Death Bell is released on the 24th of October and can be purchased here.
Intrigued by South Korean horror? Try A Tale of Two Sisters (classic) The Chaser (brutal) or Hansel and Gretel (excellent), which is available from Terracotta.
DVD BONUS FEATURES:
Very generous extras showing effort that went into production of the film, make-up and music. The director elucidates his ideas and the film gains from this revealing a lot of ingenuity went into the production. Actors and director give us their stories and even giving anecdotes on how the location was haunted. The music videos are K-pop from the lead actress. – music videos – lead actress that inter-cut the horror with studio recording shots which was amusing.
Starring: Nam Gyu-Ri, Kim Beom, Lee Beom-Soo, Yun Jung-Hee, Lee Chae-Won,
Origin: South Korea
Release Date: 18th of October 2011
Running time: 88 mins