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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: HORROR STORIES 2 Slightly Improves Upon Its Predecessor

By Patryk Czekaj

At first glance, Horror Stories 2 looks like a more mature and self-conscious version of the original film. Though the chapters are still uneven and often come close to being simply absurd, the directors seem aware of the predecessors’ mistakes and ultimately create a gripping and penetrating atmosphere of terror, grounding their visions both in dreams and in a three-dimensional reality. This clarifies the structure of all the segments and gives them a much-needed touch of intrigue. Less cheap thrills based on jumps scares and nonsensical gore material makes Horror Stories 2 a serviceable allegory for the soul and its journey towards redemption.

Horror anthologies have a long-lasting positive effect on the systematic development of the cinema of fear. What’s fascinating about this specific subgenre is that even though it’s relatively hard to find a film, whose composition wouldn’t be tainted with slip-ups of various sorts, the collaborative work between directors from different environments often results in some high-quality fear-inducing creations. Although directed solely by one person, Kobayashi Masaki’s haunting Kwaidan (1964) might easily be easily called a quintessential entry. Its enormous success sparked a trend, leading to a turning point in the history of the whole genre.

Korean horror is a mixed bag of hits and misses. Among such gems as A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) or Voice (2005) appears nonsense like Death Bell (2008). Horror Stories (2012) tried to go beyond what’s conventional, but despite its efforts, it ended up being a stylish yet shallow series of short stories that relied too heavily on visual scares and dream-based sequences, without putting enough emphasis on expanding their narratives. It premiered around the time when V/H/S (2012) had its victorious international run and intuitively sought to repeat the American film’s triumph, but eventually failed mostly because of the fact that its shock factor seemed rather weak in comparison.

What is striking about Horror Stories 2 is that even the framing tale, which usually works as a mere prelude and doesn't necessarily bring anything into the general concept, improves on the original. Directed by Min Kyu-dong, 444 takes place in an insurance company and follows manager Park (Park Sung-woong) and his employee Se-young (Lee Se-young), who possesses a supernatural ability to communicate with the dead. Park wants to test her uncanny powers and gives her three presumably unsolvable cases to go through. That experiment serves not only as an introduction to the following narratives, but also as a cautionary tale about the consequences of playing with fate. By reopening old cases Park unwillingly condemns his soul, a first but not last such occurrence in the film.

Kim Sung-ho’s minimalist The Cliff is the least otherworldly of all the segments, and by far the most engaging. Apart from a few fantastic elements, it’s a strikingly truthful representation of a people-turning-into-animals scenario. When two good friends get stranded on a cliff bad things ought to happen. Beyond being a surprisingly solid tale of greed and guilt in times of selfish capitalism, it's also a nice twist on the revenge genre. Seong Joon’s passionless acting is in perfect unison with his character’s skin-deep personality. The most horrifying image that lasts, however, is that single Snickers bar lying on the edge of a cliff.

Kim Hwi’s The Accident shows that death might not be the most extreme repercussion of drunk driving. When three carefree girls (Baek Jin-hee, Kim Seul-gi, Jung In-sun) cause a car accident their desperate search for help ends up taking a mystical turn for the worse. There’s a brief yet visually arresting reference to occult and a few scary moments within a story that builds its pace adequately but arrives at a conclusion that’s unreasonably predictable and clich├ęd. The Accident is basically a promising and depressing morality tale, but its biggest killers were a familiar premise and an abrupt finale.

Essentially, Horror Stories 2 wouldn’t be as much fun without Jung Beom-sik’s The Escape, an exercise in foolishness of the most engaging kind. Ridiculous, bloody, comical, it immediately becomes a sort of guilty pleasure despite its few faults and rather foreseeable ending. Ko Byung-shin (Ko Kyung-pyo) is a socially awkward, childish teacher. Convinced that his life’s a one big failure he decides to change something with the help of a pretty student hilariously named Sa Tan-hee (Kim Jee-won) and the powers of black magic. Transferred to an alternate universe, the poor guy soon realizes that he got more than he bargained for when his flesh-loving, paper bag-wearing family drives him into one hell of a nightmare. The Escape doesn't take itself too seriously and aptly delivers its many rude/gory jokes, but still manages to share a tale about how anxiety and lack of acceptance might lead people to hazardous and controversial decisions. With Byung-shin it’s rather a case of stupidity, but the universal truth remains visible.

Outside of a well crafted and often striking visual realm, Horror Stories 2 gives some thought to its manner of narration and that’s what makes it slightly better than the original. Although Horror Stories was more intense and bloody in a typical modern horror-style, the second installment found a way to combine creative storytelling with very decent scares that slowly build in intensity. The film goes through certain phases – starts with a story that seems most down-to-earth, then teases the viewer with its deceptive vision, only to top it all off in a bizarre nightmare. Seeing the potential in the series, it wouldn't be a surprise if the next installment was already in the works.

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