DEATH BELL DVD Review
Korea's last big horror hit was Death Bell in 2008, and is a film which hasn't seen western distribution until now. What makes Death Bell interesting is the setting, as an American production company would have a seriously hard time getting funding for a slasher set in a high school these days. The production value is very good on this film, and what it may lack in big budget spectacle, it makes up for in creativity. The UK's Terracotta Distribution has decided to start its own horror imprint and Death Bell was the film they chose to open the doors of Terror-Cotta. Considering the dearth of Asian horror in recent years, it is a good choice. The DVD is a bit of a mixed bag that may leave the pickier videophiles cold, but I enjoyed my experience.
Students at an elite high school, preparing for mid-term exams, 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, Kang Yi-na understands exactly how much time she has to stay alive and figure out the mysteries of who is imprisoning them and what is the ghostly presence that stalks the school and seems to bind them all together? Before the Death Bell rings for her.
The golden age of Asian horror has passed. Those magical years from 2000-2006 or so pumped the market so full of horror flicks that the market saturated and there was no where for quality to go but down. Down it went, one after another, horror films bombed or rehashed the same old shit over and over. Eventually, the production companies kind of took the hint and moved on to other genres, notably thrillers and revenge stories. In 2008, South Korea took a big risk on a summer release of Death Bell, and the gamble paid off.
Death Bell was one of the biggest grossing films in Korea in 2008, and it's a darned solid little film as well. The setting of the film, a high school for gifted kids, is a novel addition to the genre and provides some interesting narrative possibilities. This is not a classic by any means, but the film holds up pretty well, and at 88 minutes, it succeeds in doing something that most Korean films, even the good ones, don't, it doesn't overstay its welcome.
One of Death Bell's great attributes is its remarkably breezy pacing. The film opens with a brief bit of exposition and then we're off to the races. The set-up is in the Saw vein, with an unseen force testing the students in the school with various puzzles. For each unsolved puzzle, a student dies, and it is up to the teachers and students to figure out the pattern before they are all lost.
I really liked this film, it is a solid, creative slasher. The effects are very cool and there are more than enough decent kills for me to get my kicks. The plot does become unnecessarily complicated in the final act, but the reveal in any horror film always seems determined to tie up loose ends that often don't matter. That small complaint aside, I can recommend this film to Asian horror film fans who are ready to dip their toes back into this genre, trust me, it's safe to come back now.
Here's where things get sticky. Terror-Cotta's DVD release of Death Bell is 4:3 letterboxed and interlaced and stretched to cover a 16:9 screen. The film does not look good. I know it has a Korean release, but those go out of print so quickly I cannot even confirm if it's even still available. The image took me aback when I first saw it, but after 15 minutes or so, I settled in and it became less of an issue, however, it is clearly not an ideal transfer. There is also a 5.1 surround mix and a 2.0 stereo mix, and strangely the latter of the two is the more robust audio track. The 5.1 track sounds a bit hollow and distant, whereas the stereo track is moire full and aggressive. Go figure.
One area where Terror-Cotta steps up to the plate is a full set of English subtitled extras. There is a behind the scenes featurette on the making of the film. There is a music video from one of the stars, as well as a behind the scenes featurette on the making of the video. There is also a very fun behind the scenes featurette on the creation of the effects make ups, which are really good in this film. There are more than enough bonus features on this disc to keep nerds like me happy.
Death Bell is a solid horror film, but Terror-Cotta's disc leaves a bit to be desired. As the best entirely English friendly option, I can recommend it, but I expected better image and sound quality. Better luck next time.
- Chang (screenplay)
- Eun-Kyeong Kim (screenplay)
- In-sook Choi
- Eun-jeong Ham
- Sung Jin