Time for another double dose of horror, and damn, I got two good ones today, though they’re definitely not for all tastes (but then again, what is?).
The first is 2016’s The Wailing, a massive hit in its native South Korea and an exceptionally reviewed flick on American shores as well. I’d been hearing recommendations for this one almost from the moment it came out, so I’m glad I finally got around to seeing it. Just a heads up, though: it’s unusually long for a genre film (about two and a half hours), so it’ll take a significant time commitment on the part of the viewer. Though the film is kind of epic and rambling and all over the place thematically, I think that was one of its greatest strengths, so I definitely feel like the time spent was worth it, though of course your mileage may vary.
Directed by Na Hong-jin, The Wailing (known in Korean as Gokseong, also the name of the tiny village in which the film is set) begins as a gruesome murder mystery being investigated by the most comically bumbling cops imaginable. Doughy, hapless police officer Jong-gu (Kwak Do-wan) is called to the scene of an unimaginably horrible mass murder: a ginseng farmer has slain his entire family, and now sits, empty-eyed and covered with festering boils, on the porch of the house where the atrocity took place.
Before long, more similar murders begin turning up; it appears that some sort of disease is causing people in this sleepy little village to erupt into revolting rashes before going completely doolally and killing off their entire families. At first, the cops and the media blame a bad batch of magic mushrooms, but during a poke through one of the crime scenes, Jong-gu meets a mysterious woman in white named Moo-myeong (Chun Woo-hee), who tells him that the culprit is really an evil spirit in the form of a reclusive Japanese man who moved to the village shortly before.
And indeed, rumors have been circulating about this sketchy fellow, who is never named but is only referred to as “the Jap” (and is played by Jun Kunimura). A friend of Jong-gu’s says he heard the Jap raped a woman down by the river, and a backpacker reported that he had seen the Jap running through the forest clad only in a diaper and chowing down on a dead deer. The guy also supposedly has glowing red eyes.
Jong-gu begins having terrifying dreams about the Japanese man, which only intensify after his beloved daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) begins to develop the telltale rash and starts to exhibit some decidedly Regan McNeil type behavior.
Wanting to get to the bottom of things, Jong-gu and a few of his cop buddies go on a possibly unsanctioned mission to break into the Jap’s secluded cabin to see what’s what. While in there, they find a shrine-like room that contains what appears to be some sort of Satanic altar, plus dozens upon dozens of photographs of people both alive and brutally butchered. After discovering one of Hyo-jin’s shoes among the creepy collection of personal effects in the shrine, Jong-gu finally accepts that the Jap is likely a demon who is possessing his little girl.
At this point, at the recommendation of his mother-in-law, he brings in a renowned shaman named Il-gwang, who claims he can exorcise the spirit with an intensive ritual. During this long and very screamy interlude, in which animals are sacrificed willy-nilly and drums are beaten to within an inch of their lives, Hyo-jin seems to be in great pain and begs her father to stop the ritual. Jong-gu is reluctant, since Il-gwang had told him beforehand that the exorcism would be unpleasant, but at last he can’t stand it any longer and cuts the rite short, much to Il-gwang’s consternation.
And this is where the movie is at its most interesting. While Hyo-jin is undergoing the exorcism, you see, the viewer has been privy to intercut scenes of the Jap doing his own chicken-killin’ rite, as though trying to protect himself from the shaman’s attempt to expel him from the girl. Il-gwang’s exorcism appeared to be working, because we see the Jap keel over, but then he revived after Jong-gu made the shaman stop. So we’re led to believe that Jong-gu has doomed his daughter by not seeing the exorcism through to the end.
But then The Wailing throws us something of a curve ball. Hyo-jin actually appears to go back to normal for a while, but then reverts back to her possessed ways and eventually becomes so ill that she has to be taken to the hospital. Jong-gu still thinks the Jap is responsible, and ultimately ends up killing the guy (or so he thinks) but shortly afterward, Il-gwang desperately informs him that he was wrong, that the Jap wasn’t the demon at all. The real demon, he says, is Moo-myeong, the woman Jong-gu met at the crime scene. The Jap was actually a good guy who was trying to kill her. This introduced some real intrigue into the film, as it subtly played with the idea that the Jap had been targeted and vilified by the townsfolk because of his nationality.
There then follows a hair-raising final act in which we have no idea who we can trust, an analogous situation to Jong-gu’s dire predicament. He is simply a clueless schlub trying to save his daughter, and knows nothing of the ways of the spirits. If he makes the wrong choice, his child will die, but how does he know who the real demon is?
As I said, this film is really not thematically one thing or another. The first third of it is like a surprisingly funny police procedural, as the cops stumble ineptly around and make wisecracks at each other. Jong-gu makes a sympathetic but pitiful protagonist, as he is constantly (but hilariously) emasculated by the women in his family, and pretty much fails at everything he tries to do, though you can’t help but root for the guy as everything turns to shit around him.
The humor of the piece is juxtaposed against the grisly murders from the beginning of the film, but as the story progresses, it just gets darker and darker until no humor remains, and all we’re left with is complete hopelessness by the ending. I’m not sure too many American filmmakers would really have the stones to try and pull off something like this: an overstuffed, kind of insane film packed with hilarity and grim bleakness in almost equal measure. It probably shouldn’t work, but it totally does. The movie’s kind of ramshackle and chaotic, with particularly the exorcism scene going on so long and so loudly that by the end you’ll feel like you’ve banished some demons yourself, but there is definitely an underlying method to all the madness. Not for everyone, but if you like your horror films epic-length, sort of bonkers, and aren’t afraid of intensely downer endings, then The Wailing might be for you.
Next up is Liam Gavin’s 2017 debut A Dark Song, which he both wrote and directed. The setup of the piece is pretty straightforward: Sophia Howard (Catherine Walker) rents a remote Welsh cottage and hires occultist Joseph Solomon (Steve Oram) to help her perform a months-long magical ritual, the Abramelin, that will allow her to talk to her murdered son once again. But that simple plot synopsis doesn’t even begin to convey the depth and originality of this creepy slow-burner, which I have to say is easily one of the best horror films I’ve seen in a long, long while.
The movie is essentially a character piece: Sophia and Joseph are really the only two people in the movie, other than a couple minor characters that turn up in a scene or two near the beginning. The horror of A Dark Song, then, sprouts out of the interactions between these two flawed strangers as they hole themselves up in the house away from the world and put themselves through physical and mental torture in order to achieve their goal. The ritual is grueling and exacting, and if it is done incorrectly, the cost could be their very souls.
There are myriad wonderful things about this movie, but let me just list a few of them. Firstly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film that focused so intensely on the actual mechanics of magic; that is to say, the sacrifice involved, the study, the precision, the tedium. The invocation these two are attempting necessitated six months of celibacy and a strict diet before it even started, and then complete commitment to the rite once begun, which meant that Sophia would be unable to leave the house for any reason for anywhere from six months to a year after the ritual commenced. She is forced to write thousands of pages of invocations in multiple languages. She undergoes various water tortures and food purges. She must sit in magic circles for 48 hours at a time without moving, eating or drinking, and pissing and shitting where she sits. And all the while, she is constantly berated by the deeply unpleasant occultist she has hired, who is going to be paid 80,000 pounds for his efforts but never lets Sophia forget that he is completely in control of everything and that she has to do whatever he says in order for the ritual to work.
But will it work? This is actually the linchpin on which the rising action of the movie turns, and another one of the things I really loved about it. Joseph (referred to as Mr. Solomon) is a brusque, abusive asshole who nonetheless appears to know his stuff. But for a long time as we watch the film, we’re not actually sure if he can do what he says he can, or if he’s just a contemptible con man or psychopath taking advantage of a woman’s grief, who gets his jollies from forcing women to bend to his will. Though there are a few apparently “supernatural” things that happen during the early stages of the rite, they’re small enough that they could be misidentifications, or even hoaxes engineered by Joseph himself to make Sophia think that the rite is working. So there’s a great deal of delicious tension as we question whether Joseph is the real deal or simply full of shit, a dynamic which plays out in some pretty disturbing ways.
I also liked that writer/director Liam Gavin wasn’t afraid to make both characters fairly unlikable (though they were also relatable and compelling at the same time). Joseph is obviously a raging cockbonnet from the start, but he does have his moments of vulnerability and humor that makes the viewer see him in a different light. And even grieving mother Sophia, who we are primed to empathize with, is sometimes abrasive and dishonest, even lying about her reasons for doing the ritual at first and misleading Joseph about her intentions.
Another great thing about the film is its slow build, as we watch these two fascinating characters struggling to get results. And when scary shit does begin to happen in earnest, it’s kept low-key and in the shadows, which makes it a hundred times more creepy. There are some fantastic, skin-crawling scenes that needed nothing more than a voice speaking from behind a door, or the glow of a cigarette across a darkened room. The whole claustrophobic atmosphere of it was superb, with the viewer left unsettled by what might be scurrying around just on the edges of the frame.
The ending was also really beautiful, redemptive and totally earned, if a touch on the bizarre side. I’ve seen a couple reviewers even throwing the word “masterpiece” around in regards to this film, and I’ll tell ya, I ain’t gonna argue with that one bit. All in all, a highly recommended movie for fans of subtly eerie, character-based horror.
That’s all for now, so until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.