A child becomes a demon. It’s a cliché in the horror film genre. So how does a smart filmmaker avoid the obvious and create the new? This way.
He’s a mess. A recent car accident has taken the life of Sang-won’s (Jung-woo Ha, The Handmaiden) wife. The crash haunts him. As a busy architect, he’s overseeing the building of a new museum and raising his young needy daughter Yi Na (Yool Heo, Mother) alone is a supreme challenge. The man is stressed and it’s taking a toll
Dad and daughter move into a new home to start over. Yi Na grows increasingly sullen because her father doesn’t spend enough time with her. He’s frustrated, concerned but absent. One day, her personality flips. She’s eccentric and laughs inexplicably. Dad is perplexed and confused. Then when she disappears, he moves heaven and earth to find her, driven by guilt.
The film starts with a very intriguing and cryptic video made in 1998. A woman dressed in white appears in a room surrounded by others. She twirls around, like she is dancing. A closet door opens suddenly. She whips around and there’s a knife in her hand. It’s as if a force has taken over, and the blade cuts her neck. End of scene.
Making sense of that passage and its connection to the rest of the story is a job writer/director Kwang-bin Kim gives his audience. You have to figure out, over the course of the film, that incident’s significance. He makes you think it through. He makes you feel the distress of the father, the sadness of the daughter and keeps you in that state of confusion and despair until there is a resolution.
If this was a typical American horror film, the plot would be thin, the emotions shallow and the tricks of the genre would be the main event. In this inventive South Korean film, it’s the opposite. Menacing ghosts appear. Bodies are hurled through the air. Necks are slashed. Dead deer lay in the road. Closet doors creek. But that kind of artifice is not the point.
In this story, people are in a crisis that won’t end until they heal themselves or someone heals them. That is a far deeper premise and richer landscape than genre fans expect. The more complex than usual screenplay gives Sang-won secondary characteristics that make him callous (pawns his child rearing duties on others) and vulnerable (panic attacks so severe he needs medication). The very pouty Yi Na is not all that likable initially. But when she becomes possessed by demons, you’re scared for her.
Dread turns into unsettling fear when the spooky closet creatures emerge. Demonic kids with creepy voices beckon from Yi Na’s bedroom closet: “Come with us.” After arms pull her in, you’re invested in her plight and her dad’s fight to find her. And unlike most other child demons, there is more to this crew than just being evil tykes. These are lost souls mired in sorrow. Give in. You’re gonna get roped into caring about the protagonists and antagonists too.
Kwang-bin Kim’s thoughtful script grows on you. The realm of the dead land he creates, thanks to a visionary tech crew, is just enough to scare you. It looks like the sparse set of an Asian opera—if it was in your nightmares. Frightening sound effects, odd set design and weird props (an array of dolls) populate the normal world and the devil’s way station. As the horror becomes more intense, composer Yeong-wook Jo knows just how to tweak the squeaky violins to make you squirm.
The adult actors provide a strong base. Jung-woo Ha keeps his father character on that precipice of change long enough to capture empathy. Nam-gil Kim (Memoir of a Murderer), as the mysterious man who aids Sang-won, adds needed comic relief, especially when he slurps noodles. However, the little girls upstage the grownups. Yool Heo, though she sulks most of the film, finds a way to make you feel sorry for her. When she cries it breaks your heart. Si-ah Kim’s portrayal of Myung Jin, the demon girl leader, is the most disturbing. When she menaces you shiver. When she sobs, her sadness is so primal she makes the heavens rain.
Somewhere in this cloud of reality, mysticism and intrigue is a lesson on the importance of loving children before you love yourself. Parents beware. Take the hint. If you neglect your offspring these little imps are coming for you.
The Closet brings a bit of respect back to the horror genre.
Arriving On Digital Platforms + DVD December 15th