I’ve always felt that cleverness can save your work when, for whatever reason, originality is impossible. Horror Stories, an anthology from South Korea, is not original. Not with its retelling of fairy tales populated by monsters, zombies, boogeymen and various maniacs. However, it is clever at times, almost devilishly so, and this makes up for a lot.
We begin, as if the custom for these things, with the wraparound. (Note: For those who are not in the know, the “wraparound” is the central story in an anthology that ties all the other stories together.) A teenage girl has been kidnapped by a mute serial killer and taken to his lair, where he presents her with a choice: Tell me scary stories so I can sleep, or else. True, it’s a bit silly for a grown man to ask that, but at the same time he is holding a knife and talking about drinking all her blood if she doesn’t. Not having much of a choice – and probably finding quite a lot of inspiration in the fact that if she cranes her neck ever so slightly from where she’s sitting she can see a room full of gore covered women’s shoes – the girl begins.
The first story (“Don’t answer to the door”) is about two children, left alone at home by their mother, who are terrorized by murderous, seemingly supernatural, intruders. I loved the jump scares here. True, it’s a cheap way to frighten people, but so what? Who cares as long as it’s effective, and this is effective. What’s sort of funny is that I always hear people loudly complain that these tactics are manipulative and stupid when I walk out of a theatre showing this sort of film. Yet you always notice that these very same naysayers spent the whole time peeking through their fingers and flinching during every single “boo” scene. So you have to wonder if their dislike isn’t rooted in the fact that they weren’t able to feel snobby and superior to the movie because they were much too busy hiding under the seat like a little bitch. It’s hard to sound haughty when you have to ask your girlfriend if it’s safe to look now.
The second story (“Endless Flight”) is about a flight attendant trapped with a serial killer on a plane. This is my least favorite of the stories, in large part because I just couldn’t shake the similarities to the Ray Liotta movie Turbulence. It’s so similar I’d almost have to call it a reverse remake. Also, like its American ancestor, it’s sort of pedestrian. True, there are a few surprises here and there, but nothing really stands out. The main character runs around a lot, she screams a lot, the killer seems unstoppable and is cruel beyond all measure. It’s tense, it’s tight, but it’s not that great. Like I said, I’ve seen it before and wasn’t impressed the first time. Other than the fact that it’s mercifully short, there isn’t much to recommend here.
The third story (“Secret Recipe”) is a grisly retelling of Cinderella, but one in which the wicked stepmother and stepsister are the least of the monsters. Now we’re talking! Okay, so it didn’t have me jumping in my seat like the first one, but it was still pretty chilling in a slow creep out sort of way, as you begin to get more and more unnerving hints about what sort of kinky things Prince Charming is into. I also liked how everything was turned upside down and inside out, sometimes quite literally. I still can’t explain the ending, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a hell of ride while it lasts.
The fourth story (“Ambulance on the Death Zone”) is entirely set in the back of an ambulance as paramedics evacuate a wounded child and her mother out of an area overrun by “the infected.” I liked the claustrophobia of this story, and how they avoid ever showing you the infected at all. Instead, it features five characters helplessly trapped together as they each begin to suspect that one of them might be the early stages of infection. In my opinion, this is a lot better than if the film was a straight-out gorefest of gnashing teeth and devoured entrails. Besides, it’s not like we can’t imagine what must be going on outside as they speed through the night towards what they hope is somewhere safe. Of all the stories, this is probably the best. It’s the best directed, the best written, has the best dialogue, and is the most original. Yet, I missed the sheer funhouse mirror lunacy of the first and third stories.
I like how all of the stories seem to be based on various fears and archetypes. The kind of things that a teenage girl might be familiar with if she was well read. The kind of things she might think up if, for example, some f*****g lunatic was threatening to disembowel her if she didn’t. I also liked how, when we return every now and then to the wraparound and see that the kidnapped girl’s situation is deteriorating, those events influence the stories she tells.
Another thing I liked, and this is why I started the review by saying that cleverness can be a good substitute for originality, is that the film’s internal “reality” always seems to be shifting a little. It’s never quite absolute. The continuity is a little askew. Things happen that don’t make any kind of sense, even within the context of the story they take place in, even when you take into account that this is fiction as recounted by a fictional character. There’s always this feeling that anything can happen because nothing is ever as it seems. As if it’s all a horrible dream that you’re about to wake up from any minute.
In the end, Horror Stories is not original, uses cheap scares, has one rather mediocre segment, but it’s a lot of fun and it’s clever as hell. That makes up for a lot these days.