Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: Underappreciated THE DEVIL'S STAIRWAY Is a Sinister Psychological Horror

By Patryk Czekaj

Lee Man-hee’s 1964 film The Devil's Stairway is a strikingly sinister psychological horror that, even after all these years, possesses the ability to frighten even the most devoted fans of the genre. What’s unreasonable to me is that the picture never got enough attention and its darkly sensuous powers somehow failed to garner it the critical attention this hallucinatory work truly deserves. Why The Devil's Stairway to this day remains an underwatched gem of Korean cinema is a mystery. Thus, by writing a bit about its many strong points I’d really like to encourage everyone to see (it’s available for free on Korean Film Archive’s YouTube channel) and experience this eerily inviting film.

Dr. Hyeon (Kim Jin-kyu) is a renowned chief surgeon working in an old but prestigious hospital. The hospital director’s beautiful yet spoiled daughter (Bang Seong-ja), deeply in love with the doctor, soon manipulates Hyeon into an arranged marriage. Seeing how this rather unexpected state of affairs might actually be greatly beneficial he politely complies. Due to the fact that he hasn’t got a son who could take over, the director is also most pleased with the result of the whole situation. What would otherwise be a wonderful turn of events unexpectedly changes into a deadly nightmare. Hyeon has a long-lasting romance with one of the nurses (Moon Jeong-suk), who’s become excessively jealous after she’s sensed what’s about to happen. For the sake of his reputation and future prosperity Hyeon chooses to take extreme measures and ends the illicit affair with murder, a decision that costs him more than he could’ve imagined.

The Devil's Stairway needs some time to establish its penetrating atmosphere of terror, but when it finally does the result is pretty much perfect. The drastically distressing and tense atmosphere is heightened by the all-pervasive sense of dread created by swift camera work and many recurring visual effects that are always adequately timed. Lee’s purposeful repetition of major fright-inducing, very effective techniques (i.e. playing with light, doors opening on their own, pouring rain in the most climatic scenes) might seem familiar and even cheesy these days, but given how relatively fresh such methods were then it’s all the more awe-inspiring.

The often loud and piercing score is forcefully juxtaposed to the silence that creeps into scenes taking place within the hospital, giving the setting an even more menacing look. Most of the action takes place in this particular location but what’s strange is that even when I knew (or just assumed) that there are more patients and employees somewhere around I couldn’t stop thinking that it’s yet another one of the infamous abandoned hospitals, where evil lurks behind every corner. When people mysteriously disappear one might expect moments of pure, pitch-black horror.

The disquieting and somewhat claustrophobic ambiance of the place owes much to that one seemingly ordinary spot, where gruesome accidents suddenly begin to happen. The titular stairs are apparently nothing more than that, but horrible circumstances make it seem as if the devil himself has cursed them in order to punish mortals for their serious and inexcusable sins (or, as the plot insinuates with a dose of humor, the specialist just did a bad job of repairing the stairs).

The phantasmagoric allure of the picture has a huge impact on the perception of this psychosexual story. In his guilt-ridden state Hyeon is unable to think clearly and his growing paranoia soon causes him to hallucinate. Everywhere he goes a ghost of the deceased nurse haunts him, gradually turning his life into a living hell. Adding to this delusion is a little trick that his brain is playing on him while he desperately hunts for redemption – faces of other people transform into that one unforgettable face blessed with a pair of piercing eyes craving bloody revenge.

Throughout the years there’s been a vast number of psychotic, nightmarish film personalities that have had the ability to stick in one’s mind with ease. Seeing how little screen time Moon Jeong-suk actually has the impact of her performance is colossal. Every close-up of her face is like a thunder that strikes unexpectedly, violently and without a doubt gives the creeps.

The Devil's Stairway possesses a few traits that bring to mind some other, more successful features, such as The Housemaid (1960), Gaslight (1940), Elevator to the Gallows (1958) or even Psycho (1960), by which it may have been influenced. But those influences are definitely strengths in this tantalizing story narrated by a mysterious and sombre atmosphere of utter wickedness. I can only hope that The Devil's Stairway will someday hold an equally special place in the genre as the aforementioned pictures do.


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