High school is hard… In fact, somewhere between the raging hormones, social battles and educational pressure, it is a kind of Hell – a torturous prison that incarcerates, for six hours out of the day, unwilling teenage masses.
Nowhere is this idea more perfectly exemplified than horror cinema; Ginger Snaps presented the difficulties of puberty within the high school arena, The Faculty showed the emotional distance between social factions, teachers and pupils (imagine if John Hughes had written Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Carrie elucidated the longing of ‘different’ individuals to fit in and their rage at being outcast, etc, etc. Death Bell, a North Korean offering from single-name director, Chang (aka Yoon Hong-Seung), now joins this illustrious tradition.
It begins in a nightmare. I-na (ex-K Pop singer Nam Gyu-ri) stumbles in her PJs through a dusty playground of classroom tables and open graves. A spectral student body claw at her, all blackened eyes, varicose veins and long, ashen hair – now a tired Ringu ghost aesthetic. It is a theme that is repeated throughout, that of deceased students as apparitions that haunt their still living classmates, so one could be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be a ghost story.
However, what we are given is a curveball horror that somehow defies convention while playing to it at the same time. What it becomes is almost intriguing – a slasher movie where the victims are subject to all manner of inventive torture deaths rather than traditional knifings.
After the sitting of some important midterm exams, the students are ranked in terms of their final grades. Those with the highest marks are asked to return out of school hours for a ‘special visit’, supervised by a trinity of teachers (one, Hwang Chan-wok, is played by the legendary Lee Beom-soo) but things take a turn for the murderous when a live video feed of a drowning girl is streamed directly into the classroom.
It quickly becomes apparent that, in order to avoid more deaths, both faculty and pupils will have to solve a series of obtuse questions – a ‘final exam’ of true poetic irony.
These pressured situations create some delightful tension as students are picked off one by one, their friend’s speed and intelligence being the only thing between them and a terrifying, calculated and painful death. Teenagers are shoved into dryers, drowned in candle wax, mercilessly slow sliced and hung above potential infernos. It allows for a brisk pace that keeps the audience guessing and raises the stakes with each passing murder as, whenever someone is lost, we know it’s not long before the killer has to nab another victim. The mad dash to avoid this fate, between each ‘exam’ section, is even more enjoyable than the attacks themselves.
But that’s just it, despite the severity and brutality of the killings, there’s something awfully tame about them. Compared to more explicit torture fare (Saw, Martyrs, Hostel, etc) this is practically sanitized. An actual torture lasts for mere moments and is visualised so obscurely and fleetingly that it’s hard to absorb the impact of the violence. More importantly, it’s difficult to care about the tormented when they appear such boorish archetypes. The nerd, the cool guy, the tough girl, the misunderstood nutter…you’ve met them all before and as more interesting manifestations than this.
It’s a strange little movie and not entirely without merit. After a sluggish first act, it really grows legs and seems to sprint to a blistering finale… Only, it doesn’t. Bafflingly, it goes out on a twist ending that makes little to no sense and reveals the killer to be laughably unbelievable.
Still, something new is attempted here and that, if nothing else, is worth the watch.