Sunday, October 23, 2022

Top 40 Korean Horror Films


By Pierce Conran

Korean horror isn't what it used to be. But it was never any one thing to begin with.

For many years it was unfairly seen as the poor cousin of J-horror in neighbouring Japan, but K-horror, as it has come to be known, has roots stretching back 60 years. Influenced by local folklore and urban legends and shaped by a society that teeters along sharp divides between tradition and modernity, and shamanism and christianity, it has continually evolved during that time.

Filmmakers like Lee Man-hee and Lee Yong-min were jolting audiences all the way back in the early 1960s and local folklore gave us the templates for the Korean horror films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, whether through mythical creatures like the Gumiho (aka 'Nine-Tailed Fox') or folk tales like 'A Tale of Two Sisters'. 

Yet rather than blood and guts or the pulse-raising editing and sound design of modern horror films, the heart of Korean horror has alway been psychological. What makes Korean horror work so well when done right is the emotional foundation that anchors the genre's shock tactics.

We do love a good list here on MKC (apologies for being away for a while) and while I've finally taken the plunge, the task was a daunting one. Not just because of how much is out there, but because, compared to other genres, tastes seem to vary the most within horror, so I expect (and welcome) quite a bit of disagreement.

Beyond that, it's not always easy to identify what deserves the horror film label, but to keep things interesting I've opted for a broader definition of the genre and put together a longish list (though I would confidently recommend all these films), and offered a list of honourable mentions that I could't bear to leave out completely. 

I've seen a limited amount of classic Korean horror films (though several are featured here), but I believe I've watched the vast majority of K-horror titles released in the last 25 years. So, if you think something is missing, truth is I probably didn't like it as much as you did, but please voice your dissent below!

P.S. The top 6 are essentially a tie. One any given day I'd be likely to rank them a little differently.


40. Spellbound
(오싹한 연애, 2011)


Probably the least 'scary' film on this list, Spellbound is a cute romcom spruced up with some horror elements, which are mostly played for comic effect. However, it happens to be one of the best Korean romcoms released during the 2010s and the horror elements are expertly staged, giving it a more convincing style and atmosphere than many genres films released around the same time. 


39. Bestseller
(베스트셀러, 2010)


Not one of the most fondly remembered titles on this list, Bestseller wasn't really appreciated at the time of its release. Yet this beautifully shot chiller foregrounds a strong character and surrounds her with several curious characters, played by people who would go on to become among the most visible actors in Korea today. It all works beautifully until a few twists and turns threaten to take it off the rails.



38. The Piper
(손님, 2015)


A film that didn't quite deliver on its promise, The Piper was a title that came and went in the summer of 2015 despite a stellar cast (Ryoo Seung-ryong, Chun Woo-hee, etc.) and a beautifully gothic twist on the 'Pied Piper of Hamelin' legend. Combining the story with the mysticism of the Korean countryside and its painful mid-20th century history, and then elevating it with delightfully macabre imagery, the film had admirable ambitions, even if those weren't satisfied by the end of the final reel.



37. The Silenced
(경성학교, 2015)


The film that kicked off the Japanese Colonial Era trend of period films in Korea, Lee Hae-young's The Silenced is a ravishing gothic horror set in a girl's asylum. This lyrical and twisted tale plays out against beautiful and ornate sets and spins off in surprising directions. The film also gave future Parasite star Park So-dam her first major commercial role.


36. Gonjiam Haunted Asylum
(곤지암, 2018)


From Blair Witch to the Paranormal Activity films, I've never been a fan of found-footage horror, and I groaned every time Korea hopped on to this lo-fi low-budget train (The Haunted House Project comes to mind). Yet when Jung Bum-shik, one of the directors of Epitaph, delivered his own take, I had to reconsider my prejudices. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a nerve-shredding Korean horror experience like no other. 



35. Wishing Stairs
(여고괴담 3: 여우 계단, 2003)


The third entry in the Whispering Corridors series, Wishing Stairs is also the one that most typifies the 'Asia Extreme' label, with some hokey characterization thrown in. Yet this entry, which dips into the popular Gumiho legend (the Fox with Nine Tails) is also one of the most brutal K-horrors of the mid-aughts.


34. The Red Shoes
(분홍신, 2005)


Kim Hye-soo turned to horror in the horrific cautionary tale The Red Shoes. She plays a woman who finds a pair of red shoes in a subway car (they're actually pink - the Korean title is 'Pink Shoes') only to discover that they are cursed. This dark fable applies the gothic romanticism of Hans Christian Andersen to modern Seoul in a slickly produced horror package.


33. The Devil and the Beauty
(악마와 미녀, 1969)


Probably the closest thing Korea has to an early Universal or Poverty Row horror picture, The Devil and the Beauty has the added distinction of being one of the first Korean 3D films (and likely influenced by William Castle's earlier 3D film House on Haunted Hill). You're not likely to see it in that format now, but Lee Yong-min's film remains a ghoulish tale of a deranged doctors in a creepy hospital where heads bounce off the walls.


32. Into the Mirror
(거울 속으로, 2003)


He's now known for K-dramas like Move to Heaven and Bad Prosecutor, but director Kim Sung-ho started out as an ace horror filmmaker with the highly stylised chiller Into the Mirror. Yoo Ji-tae plays an ex-cop who starts working security at a department store that is about to re-open following a major tragedy. In addition to some highly effective scares, the film explores the trauma of the Sampoong Department Store collapse which occurred almost a decade earlier.


31. Hansel and Gretel
(헨젤과 그레텔, 2007)


One of two Yim Pil-sung films on this list, Hansel and Gretel is a rich and resplendent twist of the Brothers Grimm tale that plunges unsuspecting characters into a Korean fairytale hellscape. Stunningly produced and filled with vivid and memorably imagery, it's a wonderful mash-up of classic western fairy tales and Korean family horror.


30. Whispering Corridors
(여고괴담, 1998)


Though it would later be surpassed by some of its sequels, the original Whispering Corridors was a seismic event for the Korean film industry. It was a box office titan in 1998, just as the local industry was blowing up, and set a template of girl's high school grudge horror that would be followed for decades. Though it has aged a bit, it's still a well-made horror that clearly and evocatively highlights school pressure and violence. 

MKC Review


29. Tell Me Something
(텔 미 썸딩, 1999)


The grisly serial killer thriller Tell Me Something paired two of late 90s Korean cinema's biggest stars, Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha, on its way to box office glory. A possibly dirty cop is on the hunt for a killer who dismembers their victims and mixes their body parts in a grand plan that is revealed in the film's shocking and thrilling Grand Guignol climax.


28. The Uninvited
(4인용 식탁, 2003)


Breaking her streak of hit romantic dramas, Jun Ji-hyun threw herself into her role as a narcoleptic psychiatric patient in Lee Soo-yeon's memorable psychological horror The Uninvited. Jun's character holds the key to the mysterious haunting afflicting an affluent interior designer, whose dining table in his home is occupied by a pair of dead children.


27. The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra
(다섯 번째 흉추, 2022)


One of the most unique films on this list, The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra is the singular debut of young filmmaker Park Sye-young. With style and imagination to burn, Park explores modern fears of loneliness in a heartless urban sprawl in his unusual story of an abandoned mattress that spawns a creature feeding on lonely Seoulites' vertebrae.


26. Project Wolf Hunting
(늑대사냥, 2022)


What starts out as a Korean Con Air on a boat quickly devolves into something far more unhinged and outrageous in the delirious and unrelenting bloodfest Project Wolf Hunting. A midnight delight if ever there was one, director Kim Hong-sun's colourful and action-packed slice of at-sea mayhem is a bloody good time.


25. Door Lock
(도어락, 2018)


Lee Kwon tackles the sensational Spanish horror-thriller Sleep Tight and gives it his own twist in the highly topical Door Lock. Gong Hyo-jin plays a bank clerk increasingly convinced that there is an intruder living in her small bedsit. Rooted in urban fears, Lee's film is a fiercely effective nightmare about being a woman in a still staunchly patriarchal society.


24. Hide and Seek
(숨바꼭질, 2013)


Apartments, by far the most common dwelling in Korea, have been rich fodder for horror for years, but perhaps no film has probed their socio-economic realities as assiduously and chillingly as Hide and Seek. In his debut film, Huh Jung presents a fiercely original tale of a luxury apartment's family whose life is steadily being consumed by one from a derelict apartment block.



23. The Call
(콜, 2020)


Following Burning, Jeon Jong-seo proved she was no fluke as the deranged antagonist in the wickedly entertaining timeslip horror-thriller The Call. Magical time-spanning links through phones or mail boxes have been a common trope in Korean cinema, but debut director Lee Chung-hyun turned the genre on its head with this expertly-directed and tightly-paced thrill-ride. 


22. Antarctic Journal
(남극일기, 2005)


Coming hot on the heels of stylish genre films like Oldboy and channeling John Carpenter's The Thing as well as Lovecraft, Yim Pil-sung's ambitious debut following an antarctic exhibition that sees its adventurers slowly succumb to madness in the unending and blinding daylight. With vivid and stark photography - shot on location in New Zealand - Antarctic Journal is a rich mix of psychological drama and survival horror.


21. Voice
(여고괴담 4: 목소리, 2005)


Even by its fourth installment, the Whispering Corridors series continued to impress with this Choi Eqan outing. Outside of Memento MoriVoice is the most sensitively staged entry and the one with the most convincing characters. That's not to say it holds back in its set pieces, as the restraint coupled with soft but polished staging only serve to add more bite to the scares.


20. Train to Busan
(부산행, 2016)


After his terrific animations The Kings of Pigs and The Fake, Yeon Sang-ho took the world by storm with his live-action debut Train to Busan. The K-zombie splash that was heard around the world, Train to Busan expertly delivers on a simple but brilliant premise - zombies on a train. Add in some poignant social allegory and memorable characters and what you have is a beloved global hit.



19. The Quiet Family
(조용한 가족, 1998)


Kim Jee-woon's very first film, the landmark horror-comedy The Quiet Family features K-cinema giants like Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-shik in early roles and hinted at where Korean cinema was about to go. Mixing deadpan humour with sophisticated sets and visuals, the film calls back to The Trouble with Harry and The Comedy of Terrors, while also layering in sociohistorical depth with allusions to the IMF Crisis and the dark local politics of the 70s and 80s.


18. A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly
(살인나비를 쫓는 여자, 1978)


Kim Ki-young was always in a league of his own, but even within his own eclectic filmography, the utterly deranged A Woman Chasing a Killer Butterfly stands out. There is truly no point in trying to explain what the film is about, save to say it involves a talking skeleton and a man's intense will to live. Shot on the cheap to fill a production quota back in the day, this is a monument to weirdness you simply have to experience for yourself. 



17. Seire
(세이레, 2021)


In his chilling and unique debut, Park Kang dives deep into Korean superstitions. A new father is dealing with his wife's rigid beliefs about keeping their newborn free from impure influences (a ritual known as 'seire'), and when an old friend dies and he needs to go to the funeral, life and death clash in furious, fascinating and terrifying ways. Seire debuted in the New Currents competition at the Busan International Film Festival.



16. Epitaph
(기담, 2009)


Directors Jung Sik and Jung Bum-shik debuted in stellar fashion with the gorgeously produced Epitaph, a Japanese Colonial Era film that weaves together three closely connected stories which each mine the trauma of the times to brilliant effect. Mixing several horror styles, the film features terrific scares and some viscerally unsettling imagery.


15. 301, 302
(삼공일 삼공이, 1995)


Late director Park Chul-soo's magnum opus, 301, 302 is the story of two starkly opposed women living next door to each other. One is a chef who revels in food, sex and consumerism, the other is an ascetic who refuses what the world has to offer. This formidable drama about being a women in modern Korea (circa the mid-1990s) steadily spirals into some very dark and disturbing corners. 


14. Sorum
(소름, 2001)


A young taxi driver moves into a derelict apartment block filled with oddball characters, including the part-time convenience worker he befriends in the grim and gritty Sorum (aka Gooseflesh). An unusual mix of social drama and apartment horror, this debut from director Yoon Jong-chan stood out with its unique and grimy atmosphere. Low lighting and fading wallpaper abound, inviting us into this hypnotic story of urban decay. 


13. The Devil's Stairway
(마의 계단, 1964)


Hot on the heels on The Housemaid and other genre-bending works in early Korean cinema, director Lee Man-hee made the standout psychological horror The Devil's Stairway. A doctor has an affair with a nurse but after her unnatural death she returns to haunt him. Or does she? With terrifically suggestive sets and framing and a story undergirded by issues of gender and social class, The Devil's Stairway is a marvellously twisty affair that ends with a bang. 



12. Spider Forest
(거미숲, 2004)


Song Il-gon's mysterious and ethereal Spider Forest is one of the great psychological puzzles of Korean cinema. More arthouse than its peers, but just as stylistically daring, the film unspools like a waking nightmare that repeats in more bewildering and unsettling waves until all his finally revealed in a richly satisfying climax.


11. Possessed
(불신지옥, 2009)


Christianity and shamanism intertwine in the disquieting and riveting apartment horror Possessed. In Lee Yong-ju's terrific debut, a college student returns home when her sister goes missing, where she is caught between her nutty evangelist mother and equally deranged neighbours. With its unique symbolism and downbeat hues, Possessed is a wonderfully disturbing experience that presages The Wailing



10. Bedevilled
(김복남 살인사건의 전말, 2010)


The stark island drama gets a brutal revenge thriller facelift in Jang Chul-soo's thunderous debut Bedevilled. Seo Young-hee plays an abused wife and mother in a backward island community who suddenly snaps when even her prim childhood turns a blind eye to her suffering when she visits. The grisly back half of the film is among the most memorable in Korean genre cinema.


9. Suddenly in Dark Night
(깊은 밤 갑자기, 1981)


Not a hit upon its release, Suddenly in Dark Night took decades to be rediscovered and appreciated but now it sits where it deserves to be, as the undeniable Korean horror gem of the 1980s. A haunted house horror that borrows from Kim Ki-young's The Housemaid and stirs in shamanism and kaleidoscopic chills, this visually-inspired work from prolific filmmaker Go Yeong-nam is a must-watch. 

MKC Review


8. Ieoh Island
(이어도, 1977)


1970s Korean cinema spawned a number of terrific island-set shaman tales, including Kim Ki-young's stark and magnetic tale Ieoh Island. A reporter investigating corporate ecological malfeasance visits an island, only to be dragged off in a completely different direction. Turning the patriarchy on its head, this Korean equivalent to The Wicker Man ends with an unforgettable and gruesome climax. 



7. Memento Mori
(여고괴담 두번째 이야기, 1999)


The best entry in the surprisingly consistent Whispering Corridors franchise, Memento Mori is a tender and affecting story that touches on teenage friendship and homosexual themes. You could be forgiven for forgetting that it's supposed to be a horror film, until it's explosive last act when debut directors Min Kyu-dong and Kim Tae-yong (who would go on to other great things individually) descend the school and its students into memorable pandemonium.


6. The Host
(괴물, 2006)


Bong Joon-ho's most broadly commercial film achieved that rare sweet spot of satisfying general audiences and delighting critics. Driven by Bong's filmmaking chutzpah and a splendid ensemble cast, this furious amalgam of genre gleefully broke all the rules on the way to creating something that remains fresh and exciting today. 


5. A Tale of Two Sisters
(장화, 홍련, 2003)


If any film deserves the 'K-horror' label, surely it's Kim Jee-woon's sumptuous and still terrifying psychological house horror A Tale of Two Sisters. From the music, sets and costumes to its confidently gliding camera, it's a rapturous take on gothic horror that has aged far better than all of its contemporaries.



4. The Housemaid
(하녀, 1960)


I debated whether to add this to the list, but at the end of the day, most of the other films here wouldn't exist if it weren't for Kim Ki-young's shocking bourgeoisie takedown The Housemaid. Domestic horror at its finest, it utilises cramped spaces and props to exhilarating effect. Kim's later remakes, as well as the related The Insect Women and its remake, are all also exceptional. Let's just say they're all included in this spot together.


3. I Saw the Devil
(악마를 보았다, 2010)


An infamously divisive work, Kim Jee-woon's exceptionally violent I Saw the Devil is a masterclass in tension, pacing and bloodletting. Lee Byung-hun has never been better as the agent who chases Choi Min-shik's sadistic serial killer and becomes a monster in the process. Disturbing as it may sound, this is comfort food for me that I can stick on at any time. Its 140 minutes always fly by.



2. Thirst
(박쥐, 2009)


Among all of Park Chan-wook's masterpieces, Thirst remains the one that people struggle with the most. I'll admit that I did as well when I first saw it, but each time I go back to it it becomes something more. Breaking away from the digestible themes of his revenge trilogy, Park pushed his style and themes in a bold new direction. Like a lot of great horror it's a little inscrutable on the surface, but it gently winnows itself through you, quietly settling somewhere deep within your bones.  


1. The Wailing
(곡성, 2016)


I'll never forget the white-knuckle terror I felt when I saw The Wailing for the first time during its press screening in Seoul. No smash cuts or loud noises here, just a sense of dread that mounts throughout the film's thunderous clash of shamanism and parochialism. I'm still not convinced its wise to try and make any sense of it all, as director Na Hong-jin may well have been toying with us. But with style to burn and such a memorably unsettling tone, who are we to complain?



Honorable Mentions


The Cat (고양이: 죽음을 보는 두 개의 눈, 2011)
Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사, 2008)
Chaw (차우, 2009)
A Devilish Murder (살인마, 1965)
The Fox Family (구미호 가족, 2006)
Ghost House (귀신이 산다, 2004)
Horror Stories (무서운 이야기, 2012)
Invasion of Alien Bikini (에일리언 비키니, 2011)
The Isle (섬, 2000)
Killer Toon (더 웹툰: 예고살인, 2013)
Let Me Out (렛 미 아웃, 2012)
Midnight (미드나이트, 2021)
Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater (삼거리 극장, 2006)
The Mimic (장산범, 2017)
The Mist Cries Like a Woman (안개는 女子처럼 속삭인다, 1983)
A Monstrous Corpse (괴시, 1981)
The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale (기묘한 가족, 2019)
The Priests (검은 사제들, 2015)
R-Point (알 포인트, 2004)
Scary House (무서운 집, 2015)
Seoul Station (서울역, 2016)
Svaha: The Sixth Finger (사바하, 2019)
White: Melody of the Curse (화이트: 저주의 멜로디, 2011)
The Wicked (마녀, 2014)
Zombie Crush in Heyri (좀비크러쉬: 헤이리, 2020)

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