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South Korea 2008

Horror, Thriller

Yoon Hong-Seung

Lee Beom-su
Nam Gyoo-ri
Yoon Jeong-hee
Kim Beom
Son Yeo-eun
Lee Eol
Kim So-hee
Kong Jeong-hwan
Ham Eun-jeong
Son Ho-joon

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Death Bell

Story: At Chang-In Highschool it's time for the final exams. But a selected group of pupils has to stay at school for a few days more. The top twenty of the year have to adequately represent Chang-In Highschool during the visit of a class of the twinned school Eaton. Conducted by teacher Hwang Chang-wook (Lee Beom-su) and English teacher Choi So-yeong (Yoon Jeong-hee) the students have to complete some units in order to be prepared for the big day. However, suddenly terror moves into school. One of the female students gets kidnapped and becomes part of a deadly game. The students have to solve several riddles within the next few hours, should they give a wrong answer or if they take too long one of the students will die. I-na (Nam Gyoo-ri) and her wannabe-boyfriend Kang Hyeon (Kim Beom) try hard to uncover the motive of the killer, while at the same time giving their best to complete the tasks of the murderer. While doing so the two stumble upon a name that is familiar to them. Jang-won, a girl who has been found murdered at school a few years before. Either someone is now taking revenge for her or her spirit itself couldn't find any peace and is now roaming the school...

Review: A school, the ghost of a female student... You can't help but to think of the "Whispering Corridors"-series when hearing this. Still, "Death Bell" doesn't walk down the road of a psychological horror film nor is it a Sadako-rip-off, even though one of the first pictures at the beginning is just the face of a girl with long black hair and grey skin. Instead it tries to please teenie-slasher movie-fans, though. For the fact alone that this time there seems to be an actual real lunatic being behind all the killings, even though the film leaves open the possibility to shift everything to a ghost story eventually, the movie should deserve some extra points. But what follows during the course of the film is a sequence of scenes which will simply make you hit on your forehead because of their missing credibility and random running through school corridors. The pacing may be picking up constantly but this doesn't automatically create tension as you truely can't warm towards the characters because of the sadly shallow character drawings.

"Death Bell" was the only horror film in Korea 2008. Therefore, it also had some decent box-office success. Even enough to publish it on DVD internationally and make way for a sequel. This success isn't justified at all, though. Countless logical gaps and a crude script in general let the entertainment value of this horror flick go down on several occasions. And this even though the movie is quite solid in technical respects and despite the fact that there is also enough starpower involved with Lee Beom-su ("City of Violence") and singer Nam Gyoo-ri ("More than Blue") supporting the film. Lee Beom-su has been dealt an especially bad hand. At first, he is quite charismatic, but his character undergoes some serious changes during the course of the events which despite the emotional stress involved in the situation he finds himself in isn't comprehensible. The explanation for his behavior at the end also doensn't change this fact. His character isn't drawn coherently. Yoon Jeong-hee on the other hand is incredibly cold and unsympathetic most of the time while the rest of the students more or less stands as a uniform pulp with different names attached to them.

Nam Gyoo-ri also can't convince as the main actress and behaves at least as dumb as the whole rest of the pupils. Which brings me to the part of this review that is the most fun. Criticizing the logical gaps. Normally you would have to hold back a little because you don't want to spoil anything. Actually, that's not necessary with a film like "Death Bell" but I nonetheless will restrain myself a bit. So, let's start. The students and some teachers are locked inside a school building and isolated from the outside world. The telephone is dead, all cellphones have been taken from the students at the beginning of the lessons and the teachers apparently have never heard of something like a mobile phone, resp. their cellphones are collectively broken for some reason. It seems as if no one of them has an appointment with someone outside the school walls who could start to worry. The school stands as a perfectly isolated space. Moreover, students and teachers prefer to argue instead of taking care of the first riddle (which, only on a side note, wasn't even named by the killer), leading to a student drowning on the monitors right in front of them.

The riddles that have to be solved or tasks being taken care of are another story, too. A few details are without a doubt lost in translation but what remains is still an unoriginal collection of ideas that are either wrapped unnecessarily cryptical or just don't make any sense to begin with. Furthermore, there are some riddles that are ridiculously easy to solve and nonetheless the so-called elite of the school takes a frighteningly long amount of time to do so. So the PISA study was a lie after all! Anyway, they at least take enough time to manage getting every single kidnapped student killed. Then again, we also get the impression that the killer at some points doesn't even give the students any chance.
Or what about a student who is attacked by someone with a knife, manages to knock him down for the moment and then turns his back on him and takes all his sweet little time to tell his girlfriend to run away. Now, guess what happens to him next!
Of course there is also rule number one: Don't leave the group! Despite several lectures of the teacher this happens frequenty, though, one time the same teacher who told them not to split lets them go to the toilet in a small group only minutes afterwards. Also, I-na splits from the group anytime she wants to. With so much stupidity we are almost happy to see, or let's just say we deem it appropriate, that some of the students get butchered for that. Elite-students, really!? One thing is for sure, the scriptwriter certainly isn't part of that elite...

"Death Bell" looks like a brutal movie full of torturing and gruesome murders. Normally, I'm not a fan of bloody killing scenes but in "Death Bell" it looks as if pictures like that should be part of it and yet director Yoon Hong-Seung always takes a step back when it comes to the critical moment. A slasher flick on the back burner. Why would you do something like that? There is also some strange editing. During the most thrilling moments there is simply a cut to another scene so that any details or information is withhold from us. This happens so often that it doesn't raise tension anymore, but just becomes annoying! The twist at the end might be nice in a way, but the motives are still not credible. And apart from that: Is "Death Bell" supposed to have a message like "grade pressure at school will kill children"? Why do the one with good grades have to die?! And what about the odd epilogue during the ending credits?
"Death Bell" may be able to deliver decent thrills, but the stupidity of the students alone makes the film become a frustrating experience, not to mention the crude script. Only for hardcore horror fans.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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