Style and splatter go hand-in-hand in “Black House,” a full-bore K-horror picture that’s proved the first hit of South Korea’s traditional summer scarers, with a meaty $8 million-plus in four weeks. Widescreen chiller about a series of grisly murders investigated by an insurance adjuster more than delivers the goods, making this a tasty pickup for Western distribs with genre labels attached.
Script derives from a 1997 hit novel by Japan’s Yusuke Kishi that was filmed in 1999 by Yoshimitsu Morita as “The Black House.” Present version, by sophomore helmer Shin Tae-ra (“Brainwave”), ditches Morita’s unsuccessful formula of thrills and black comedy and goes for straight drama, ratcheting up the tension with glacial lensing, intense perfs, a powerful soundtrack and modern-gothic production design by Jo Hwa-seong that’s right on the money.
Usually seen in tough-guy roles (“A Bittersweet Life”), an almost unrecognizable Hwang Jeong-min plays geeky, bespectacled bank employee-turned-insurance investigator Jeon Jun-oh. As an opening scene shows, Jeon’s boss is not above using hired muscle to scare clients into signing away their rights.
Jeon is requested by name to visit a potential client in a grim-looking house in the sticks. The owner, rough-looking Park Chung-bae (Gang Shin-il) seems jittery and suspicious — which is nothing next to what Jeon feels when he sees Park’s 7-year-old son hanging from the ceiling in an adjacent room. Even weirder is Park’s grieving wife, Shin Yi-hwa (Yu Seon), who’s lame and has signs of a suicide attempt on her wrist.
Jeon becomes convinced that Park, who seems to fit all the requirements of a social psychopath, is running an insurance scam, and after killing his own son is now after Shin as well. The cops aren’t convinced of any foul play, but Jeon, who’s also saddled with guilt over the death of his brother when they were kids, becomes drawn deeper and deeper into the case. As he slowly goes off the rails, he uncovers a simple truth that finally imperils both him and his wife, Mi-na (Kim Seo-hyeong).
The Big Twist comes about an hour into the movie, which then piles on the thrills in one set piece after another — starting with a wonderfully nasty sequence in which a flossing thug meets his just desserts courtesy of a railroad train. Pic’s apparent finale, set in a stygian human abattoir, recalls “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” in its use of claustrophobia, and manages to suspend disbelief at all the shenanigans through the relentless piling-on of horror.
Casting is on the button, with Hwang underplaying the main role and giving the stage to the other thesps, among whom Gang and Yu are first-rate as the husband and wife. Underneath all its frills, “Black House” is a simple story, expertly staged — a full-on scarefest, with perfs to match.