Ghastly (South Korea, 2011)
The summer of 2011 produced three major K-horrors. I’ve already had a chance to see and review the interesting but butchered White: The Curse of the Melody (review here) from the indie cineastes behind Anti Gas Skin (2010) and the limp and lethargic The Cat (review here). Both of those films had a powerful and mercurial factor going for them: potential. White, with its mix of cult pedigree filmmakers, strong production values, and K-pop setting, was not the sum of its promising parts. I learnt after writing about it that a first cut was thrown out by the studio and Kim Gok and Kim Sun were forced to reshoot the film, likely lobotomizing it in the process. I would love to get my hands on that first cut, perhaps it delivered on that potential? The Cat was a return to supernatural felines, which have long been a source of great horror in Korean cinema. The buzz was there, but the product was severely lacking as the actors and filmmakers seemed to sleepwalk their way through the films.
Ghastly, which I’m glad I was able to get my hands on just before Halloween, was the final big K-horror release of the summer. However, at least in my eyes, it was not saddled with any special expectations. It seemed pretty by the book but, judging by the trailer and the shower scene that was made available online ahead of its release, it seemed to have a little panache in the production department. The film has a great opening, a disturbing, macabre sequence that leaves you with a lot of questions. Sadly, any cautious optimism I had was dashed out as the narrative ended up presenting itself as a prosaic variation on common horror themes and tropes.
All the usual tricks are out in force in this one: the haunted house, the freaky kid, the terrorised-in-bed dreams, the crawling, decayed ghost hands on protagonists’ faces; the weird middle-aged neighbour who is hiding something, and the creepy shaman grandmother in a mental institute who knows the truth about the demon. And that’s pretty much all this is, an excuse to go through the motions, but with some very attractive leads and fancy locations.
The film begins with a young boy waking up in the middle of the night to find his father’s corpse at the bottom of the stairs and his mother hacking her own feet off with a kitchen knife. The father’s brother-in-law is given custody of the child. He, along with his wife and sister-in-law, move into the enormous house. The child is prone to some bizarre behavior and soon the sisters start having terrible nightmares. Meanwhile, a young detective goes looking for the boy’s grandmother, who disappeared before the murders.
The most tedious problem with the film is that there are no less than seven instances of the sisters dreaming about the child, with a bloodied demon face, doing horrible things to them, including cutting off their feet and stabbing out their eyes, which mostly take place in bed. Isn’t it obvious to the filmmakers that, aside from how silly and bad for the narrative this repetitious device is, each new version on the theme will dilute the potency of the scares? My eyeballs were doing loop-the-loops by the third or fourth of these sequences. Such unimaginative filmmaking, surely they could figure out another way to insert scares and violent imagery.
I can never quite understand in these films which feature freaky children, how after so many ominous dreams and examples of plainly demonic behaviour, they are treated perfectly normal. It’s always far too late when the protagonists realise that something is wrong. I suppose this is how the formula works but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few smart characters going up against these antagonists every once in a while.
For the most part, the film is well shot and the production design and locations look great, but the real problem seems to be the editing. A lot of the film is badly or not at all explained and this could be the result of scenes that didn’t work and were cut out, or it could have been that it did not occur to the filmmakers that certain things needed explanation. This is why you have reshoots! Maybe they didn’t have the money, or worse they didn’t care. The little splices of violent imagery, another staple of the genre, were poorly executed as well. It’s all about timing and Ghastly is very uneven.
While things start off okay and continue in a rather innocuous fashion thereafter, the moment new elements start to appear the script begins to unravel. Why is the husband such an asshole? How come everyone is acting so normal after such horrific events? What is the point of the depravity of the school scenes, how does it fit in? How the hell is this lithe 25-year-old model a homicide detective?
For a film that takes pains in its aesthetics and goes so far as to reference revered horror classics such as Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980), Ghastly has nothing original to say or show us. Blood is spilt, some skin is flashed, shamanism is thrown in, even pedophilia is alluded to for good measure, but all we’re left with is a series of discordant elements and disconnected scenes, though at 77 minutes, at least it’s mercifully short.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.