The Korean adaptation of a famous Japanese novel, word is that The Black House plays a little bit fast and loose with its source material. It’s a situation that might upset fans of the original work but as someone coming to the film fresh, The Black House is one hell of a fun ride, an impressive work from a young director that starts off as an above-average psycho-thriller before taking a hard turn into slasher territory. Yes, it’s finally something different in the world of Asian horror with no hair ghosts to be found, in their place just one compellingly heartless killer with a great big knife.
Popular character actor Hwang Jeon-Mi – if you’re at all a fan of current Korean film you’ll have seen him on screen more than a few times – gets a rare leading role as Jun-o, a man haunted by a tragic past just starting a new job as an insurance claims adjuster. He seems an odd fit for the job, overly compassionate he becomes emotionally involved in the situations his clients present – a trait that makes him an easy target for those looking to simply work the system. Is that what’s happening when a new client requests him by name to come out to his home and address some policy issues, a trip during which Jun-o discovers the lifeless body of the family’s young son hanging from a noose in his bedroom?
It’s an apparent suicide but Jun-o becomes convinced that he’s being used, that the boy’s step-father is a killer motivated by greed for the insurance money. When he can’t get the police to listen, Jun-o steps in himself. He launches his own investigation and warns the wife that she is in danger herself, that if the child was killed for insurance money she may well be next in line since she is insured for even more. Bad move. There is a killer and the killer is now angry. Jun-o’s voice mail fills daily with silent messages. His mail goes missing. The head of his girlfriend’s dog is delivered to his door wrapped in newspaper. Maybe it would have been better to just keep his mouth shut but it’s too late for that and soon the bodies begin to pile up.
In the early going The Black House feels like simply an above average entry into the Korean psycho-thriller category. Jun-o’s history is played with a strongly melodramatic twist, the early mystery played as a standard investigation film, interest maintained largely through the strong performance of Hwang. It’s nothing you haven’t seen done before but it’s done well enough to keep you engaged. Director Shin Terra, making his studio picture debut here, is too much of a genre fan to leave things there, however, and once he makes the turn into darker territory he does so with gusto and the film develops into a satisfyingly full blooded slasher, a genre seldom touched on in Korea.
Blessed with stellar set design and art direction, Black House ends up being a legitimately unsettling bit of work. The kills are inventive, the gore shocking, the characters compelling. Put it all together and what you have may not be high art but it’s certainly proof that in Shin Terra Korea has one very skilled genre director on their hands, the film’s only mis-step being a series of false endings that bogs things down slightly in the waning moments. I’ll be very surprised if the source novel for the film isn’t optioned for a US version very soon – if it hasn’t been already – and be on the lookout for whatever Shin comes up with next.