BLACK HOUSE (2007)

Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on April 23, 2008, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


If nothing else, the Korean chiller Black House is the first film to note the important distinction between “psychopaths” and “psychos.” I never knew there was a difference before, and to be honest, Black House doesn’t completely succeed in defining it—but then maybe something just got lost in translation. In the Truth About Psychopaths making-of featurette on Genius Products’ DVD, we’re further informed that the movie’s production was inspired by an increase in cases involving “psychopaths” in its home country—another clue that perhaps the reference is supposed to be to a more specific type of mental imbalance, unless Korea was in fact maniac-free up until the last few years.

Black House is more specifically based on a Yusuke Kishi novel that was previously filmed by Japanese director Yoshimitsu Morita in 1999—reportedly also influenced by real-life incidents, there involving insurance scams. In the new movie, directed by Shin Tae-ra, the central character is insurance investigator Jeon Jun-oh (Hwang Jeong-min), who is called to the titular, dilapidated home in a rundown part of the city. Its owner, Choong-bae (Kang Shin-il) seems to be hiding something, and Jun-oh soon discovers what it is: the body of Choong-bae’s preteen son, hanging from a noose in a back room. This is particularly unnerving for Jun-oh, since he witnessed the suicide of his own brother at a young age, but he soon comes to suspect, based on Choong-bae’s behavior, that the death is not all that it appears.

Based on Jun-oh’s suspicions, his company refuses to pay off on Choong-bae’s insurance claim, and the man begins making menacing visits to his office and odd phone calls to his home. The more the stalking intensifies, the more Jun-oh becomes convinced that Choong-bae actually killed his child—and that Choong-bae’s wife (Yoo Seon) may be next. There’s a major twist about an hour in, however—one that observant viewers may figure out in advance based on an early scene—leading to an all-stops-out final reel of explicit horrors.

Black House has moments that work, and a few that work really well, without coalescing into a truly satisfying experience. It’s not lacking for atmosphere (the DVD’s 2.35:1 transfer looks great, with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound that drips with creepiness), and before the truth of the matter is revealed, Choong-bae makes for an effectively deranged antagonist, both frightening and pitiful. Once Shin and scripter Lee Yeong-jong spring their big switch, however, the movie literally descends into well-worn torture-horror territory, showcasing mayhem that is by turns startling and absurd and straining way too hard for emotional significance at the climax.

Shin discusses the Truth about not only psychopathology but also the characters, cast and production in that 21-minute documentary, with the first-time fright-film director admitting he got “physically sick” during the shooting of the grisly finale. More bodily harm seems to have been a possibility for the stars, who are seen doing their own stunts and potentially dangerous knife play, and those into faux grue will enjoy a bit detailing the niceties of sewing a character’s eyes shut. It’s a decently informative segment, one in which the director expresses his hope that “there is no copycat crime as a result of this movie”—hardly likely, given the contrived nature of its villain’s worst offenses.

Also included is a segment on the production design and how it reflects the psychology of the characters, in which the exploration of the murderer’s lair (modeled on an old bathhouse) is unsurprisingly the most interesting set covered. There are also 20 minutes of deleted scenes, among them a long confessional monologue by Jun-oh that might have added an extra dramatic level to one of the movie’s more predictable frights, and a bit in Choong-bae’s house that clears up an apparent inconsistency involving an envelope. This section ends with outtakes of a feisty dog attacking actor Kang—one of the few glimmers of humor in this presentation of a movie that takes its themes a tad too seriously.

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