In his new horror flick Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, it seems that South Korean writer/director Beom-sik Jeong took the time-worn axiom that “imitation it is the sincerest form of flattery” to heart and then some. A uninspired blend of well-worn conventions stripped from a rogue’s gallery of horror/suspense films including The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, and The Grudge, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is short on scares but is elevated a step above its straight-to-streaming peers thanks to the solid acting of its attractive cast, inventive cinematography, and excellent set design.
The film wastes no time, kicking things into high gear from the outset by introducing two teenage boys who have snuck into the infamous Gonjiam Asylum. First opened in the early 1960s only to be closed down in the late 1970s after a rash of suicides and the disappearance of the institution’s director, Gonjiam is apparently deemed one of the three most haunted places in South Korea. As such, it apparently attracts a fair share of thrill seekers looking to prove their mettle/resolve like these two knuckleheads who we witness trying to break into room 402 — the last locked door in the place. Anyone who opens said portal is cursed to die, goes the local legend. Suffice to say, some doors should stay closed.
“…after a rash of suicides Gonjiam is deemed one of the three most haunted places in South Korea.”
In an interesting twist, the film then shifts to the set of Horror Times, an online ghost hunting show hosted by a charismatic young man — aka “The Captain” — who postulates that the evil that occupies accursed asylum may actually spring from the fact that it was built on an old World War II burial ground or perhaps because it had been the site of a torture facility previously used by the country’s secret police. Regardless, faster than you can say Scooby Doo, Horror Times is on the case. Accompanied by a team of nubile young archetypes — including the nerdy/science-y girl, the hot though not so bright Korean American chick, the technophile guy, the wry jokester, and a few others — The Captain and his squad of six set out to expose the truth about what may or may not luck within Gonjiam Asylum.
Kitted out with cameras of every description — go-pros, cell phones, professional shoulder-mounted cams — the Horror Times crew make their way into the building. After a ritual meant to invoke the spirits of the dead (need I say that this is a terrible, terrible idea) they break into groups of two (again, a terrible, terrible idea) and begin exploring the asylum floor by floor. Amidst the obligatory jump scares, appearances of floating girls with long stringy hair, possessions, episodes of telekinesis, and a host of stock horror movie red herrings, I do have to give the filmmakers props for finding inventive ways of knitting some incisive social commentary into the narrative about our seemingly bottomless addiction for social media appeal – much the same way Olive Stone years before the digital age in Natural Born Killers. Additionally, the film’s art direction is, at moments, quite startling. A scene wherein a character returns to the Horror Times base camp, only to find herself back in the asylum was quite creepy. And the cinematic realization of the aforementioned room 402 was uniquely visualized and genuinely unsettling.
“…incisive social commentary about our seemingly bottomless addiction for social media appeal…”
However, as the film wore on, I found myself mentally pulled out of the action — reflexively thinking about how scene after scene felt wholesale lifted from The Grudge/Ju-On The Curse/Paranormal Activity/etc, etc. Again, there’s a lot to like in Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum. I only wish the director had trusted himself more to take the horror road not taken. The result would have been something new, and fresh in a genre in which unconventional ideas are regularly road tested and rewarded.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018) Directed by Beom-sik Jeong. Written by Beom-sik Jeong, Sang-min Park. Starring Seung-Wook Lee, Ye-Won Mun, Ji-Hyun Park, Sung-Hoon Park and Ha-Joon Wi.
2 ½ out of 5 stars