Mondo Macabro sheds light on the obscure world of Korean 1980s genre filmmaking with their Blu-ray of SUDDENLY IN THE DARK.
In her thirties, housewife Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae, CART) begins to worry about her marriage when her academic husband Yu-jin (Yun Il-bong, MARCH OF FOOLS) spends extended periods in the countryside catching and photographing rare species of butterflies and prefers the company of his colleagues when he is home. While Yu-jin is exhibiting a set of slides of butterflies, Seon-hee is disturbed by the presence of a slide of a wooden witch doll that has found its way into her husband's collection. WhenYu-jin brings home nineteen-year-old orphan Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon, LOST YOUTH) as a housemaid, Seon-hee is pleased at first and even a little attracted to her. When Seon-hee discovers that the girl's guarded sachet contains the same wooden witch doll, she learns that the girl is the daughter of a village shaman who died in a mysterious fire and that the doll is a spirit tablet given to Mi-ok to protect her. Her own fascination with Mi-ok soon gives way to jealousy and the suspicion that Yu-jin is having an affair with the younger woman. Seon-hee's sleep is troubled by nightmares and a larger version of wooden witch pops up intermittently to frighten her. When she accuses her husband of infidelity and confides her fears to her best friend, both suggest that she is suffering from a paranoid delusion and should see a psychiatrist. Fearing for her husband and daughter, Seon-hee decides to take drastic measures to rid the house of evil.
A horrific, fleshily erotic variation on Ki-young Kim's THE HOUSEMAID (1960, remade in 2010 by THE TASTE OF MONEY's Sang-soo Im), SUDDENLY IN THE DARK is not quite sleazy enough to compete with the Japanese Nikkatsu films or the HK Shaw Brothers productions. While it is admirable in its restraint and subtlety, it does drag a bit in the middle when Seon-hee's horror, outbursts, and accusations become a little repetitive. The set-up is intriguing, though, and the final hallucinatory twelve minutes of the film play like a more hysterical variation on Mario Bava's "The Drop of Water" from BLACK SABBATH before culminating in an image seemingly inspired by the finale of "Amelia" from TRILOGY OF TERROR. The costumes and production value seem very seventies, but the perm of Seon-hee's best friend is very eighties, as is the crude but atmospheric synth score of Jong-hyeok Choi (THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER). The effects are naïve but no less effective, whetting the viewer's appetite for more eighties Korean horror while wondering if this solo horror effort from a work-for-hire director is a singular example of the genre or run-of-the-mill for the period.
Restored by the Korean Film Archive, Mondo Macabro's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen encode is bold, colorful, and crisp enough to reveal that the distorting lens flashbacks were created by filming through the bottom of an ordinary drinking glass while the hallucinatory scenes were shot through a toy kaleidoscope. While this does make the film look cheaper, the fact that it was shot this way instead of with post-production opticals makes these bits look vibrant without the added grain (which is more evident when these sharp bits are then layered over each other as a series of dissolves). Some brief instances of archival damage are evident but most of the jitter evident is from some less-than-deft telephoto camera moves. The Korean LPCM 1.0 mono track boasts clean dialogue and a bold rendering of some exaggerated sound effects and the synth score. The optional English subtitles are free of errors.
Critic Kim Bong-seok (21:07) also provides an interview in which he discusses the periods of Korean genre filmmaking starting with the sixties when the country was undergoing modernization (which extended to the film industry) but still haunted by tradition, the move away from cheap genre fare to costume film spectacles in the seventies to a resurgence in the eighties when people went to the cinema for films of social significance and sought escapism on home video (including imports of the American slasher successes). He points out that SUDDENLY IN THE DARK's plot shares similarities with THE HOUSEMAID because social mindsets had not changed as rapidly as technology and lifestyle. The late 1990s upswing of the genre – without mention of the influence of RINGU's international success – was a string of films that were well-made in the slick Hollywood style while addressing social issues, the main example being WHISPERING CORRIDORS (the first of a series including the more acclaimed MEMENTO MORI, WISHING STAIRS, VOICE, and A BLOOD PLEDGE). He provides some scant background on director Ko, whose career of over one hundred and eight films is a bit more fleshed out in the interview with producer David Suh (12:27) in which he discusses the production company he formed with Ko in 1978 and it's early triumphs. He answers Bong-seok's suppositions about the film being Ko's only horror film, revealing that he was interested in the genre but SUDDENLY IN THE DARK turned out to be his only opportunity as a work-for-hire director to dabble in it. He also reveals that the film performed better in the cities than it did in the countryside, and that it was well-received by the critics who usually looked down on the genre. Also included is a Korean VHS Cover Art Gallery (4:33) with English titles sadly limited to the ones printed on some of the video boxes , leaving some of the more intriguing covers untranslated, as well as the usual Mondo Macabro Promo Reel (11:11). (Eric Cotenas)
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