Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Cutting Classes: Death Bell (2008)

Death Bell (Gosa) (Korea, 2008)
starring: In-sook Choi, Da-Geon and Sung Jin

At Chang-in High School in Seoul, examinations not only marks how good a student is but how well they will be treated in their current and future life. Names will be made or will be trashed, depending on how well you score it all.

It is the end of the school year and those lucky enough to hoard a good mark on their exams will have the chance to attend a Saturday Study Session to prepare them for a test competing with foreign schools. Not exactly that exciting for them but it is an honor all-together; with them will be three teachers, two of which were Mr. Kim and Ms. Choi, two popular teachers who are loved by their class.

For some students, the study session doesn't stop them from letting off some steam, as did our lead girl Ina who was confident enough that she'll pass her tests that we see her partying with friends and being flirted by the school heart throb the night before; still, she's troubled by what it appears to be the school's very own ghost story, that of a murdered girl that seems to be haunting Ina's dreams and one of her classmates to the point that he goes insane.

At the day of the study sessions is when things go awry: during a lesson, the TV suddenly shows one of the students enclosed inside a giant fishtank. A voice on the P.A. system suddenly warns them of death if anyone tries to leave and that they all will be playing a series of games where if they fail, a captured student will die. With a pattern in each riddle, it all becomes clear that all of this had something to do with a tragic murder from years passed and whoever was responsible for it will be weeded out.

Death Bell was the very reason why whenever Korea makes a slasher, I listen. While not the first Korean slasher I saw in my early years (that one goes to the creepy, High Tension-inspired To Sir, With Love), Death Bell is regarded by many as one of the better releases from Asia in a sort of cult-classic way.

Influenced by the SAW movies and Japan's action-thriller Battle Royale, Death Bell's is a welcome break from all the long-haired ghost stories that tries too much to be taken seriously, even if some of them are a little to cliched for their own good. Though the usual suspects in an Asian horror are present in this film (the tired "long-haired ghost girls", the jump scares, the looming shadows, red-herring nightmares, etc), its generally closer to that of a naw age slasher movie where gore matters.

The plot twists, glamorized bodycount, and even some POV shots of the killer stalking around and kidnapping kids highlights the tropes Death Bell familiarized itself as a slasher. Ironically, this can be said as well for it gaping plot holes that are left unanswered even if the story gave us some flashbacks to close itself in.

Still, with it's flaws, Death Bell is entertaining when it comes to thrills and kills, playing with imaginative traps and tortures from carved letters in human flesh, death by candle wax, and a spin-dry killing with box cutter blades; exaggerated the least but highly passable for gore hounds everywhere and, honestly, worthy of cringe moments than any of the blood drenched death-machines of the SAW series. The cultural background also gave this film a fresh air and at least a new take on the campus slasher trope.

The direction builds tension and mystery, tagging along a powerful soundtrack and a lot of turns that we never expect for the fate of our characters; once he killing starts, it doesn't slow down, leaving no turns for any boring or sluggish scenes until the very plot twist that I never seen it coming and shocking at some sense. It is these little quirks that makeup the cliche ridden flaws from this really passable effort of a movie.

As a cliche-bound horror movie, Death bell passed that test with flying colors, technically doing everything that makes a slasher movie what it is; gore, scares, thrills, nubile teenagers screaming, and some dab of cheese. Not exactly as engaging as Korea's Bedevilled or as creepy as To Sir, With Love, but as a thrill ride from start to finish, it's more entertaining with its fast-paced action, crazy gore and cheap scares.

1 female drowned inside a fish tank
1 male had letters carved on his body and exposed to dripping candle wax, dropped to his death
1 male found stabbed to death
1 male had words carved on his body, later found death
1 female tumble-dried in washing machine
1 male stabbed in the gut with sharpened tile
1 male brained to death with rock
1 female snared on the leg and dropped to her death
1 female strangled with rope
1 female strangled to death (flashback)
1 male hacked to death with hatchet
1 male stabbed, blood splash seen
total: 12

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