The Korean education system is a brutal, arduous regime for students; in addition to the standard school hours they must attend, students also frequent numerous private academies of various subjects during the evening, slotting in further educational events whenever spare time allows. Understandably the stress and pressure imposed by the education culture – and more specifically, parents – often leads to depression and ill health, at best. Escalating matters further are the tales of corruption as parents attempt to secure the future of their offspring through bribery and ‘favors’ of teachers and officials.
Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사) attempts to take the grueling education system as the basis for horror, as a mysterious killer/ghost slowly murders the students of a special class. While the social commentary underpinning the film is an interesting cultural examination, director Chang (real name Yoon Hong-seung (윤홍승) has crafted a vapid, uninspiring horror film that appeals to the lowest common denominator through its ‘torture’ porn aesthetic and hyper-editing over genuine chills.
During the exam season, the students are frantically studying in an attempt to be the best in the school and secure a place in a good university. The pressure is intense and students begin to crack under the strain, yet kind teacher Hwang Chang-wook (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) tries to reassure his students; in his rival class, however, strict teacher Choi So-yeong (Yoon Jeong-hee 윤정희) pushes for the best. At the end of the exam season the relieved students prepare for vacation, yet the news of a ‘special class’ with a rival school forces the elite students to stay behind for further studies. However just as the session is due to begin, a missing student appears on TV in a death trap. The killer gives instructions that the students need to complete a series of challenges if they are to survive, and so begins a battle of wits as the students attempt to solve riddles and find the murderer before they are all killed.
While a large number of horror films require the audience to suspend their disbelief in logic, Death Bell ranks amongst the worst examples of the genre for pushing it to the limits. When murdered bodies appear, no-one looks in the direction it arrived; when voices and images are broadcast, no-one thinks to look for the source; in the search for the killer, teachers regularly leave students alone to fend for themselves. Additionally, in the attempt to be ‘Saw in a high school’, Death Bell features puzzles for students to solve in a bid to save their companions yet they and their solutions are generally pointless. The writers endeavour to add meaning to the riddles and to apply a time limit to create tension, but the execution is flat and the answers are quite ridiculous, especially as student I-na (Nam Gyoo-ri (남규리) almost immediately knows who the murders are related to.
Yet horror films aimed at a teenage audience often place chilling scenes above narrative logic, and in this regard Death Bell is also limp. Bizarrely the film features ‘torture porn’ scenes such as dripping hot candle wax on a victim, and in the oddly superfluous – and unsubtly symbolic – opening sequence featuring zombified students, horror and menstrual blood are misogynistically conveyed as one and the same. In one scene, a female student is hoisted by one leg exposing her panties for no particular reason before receiving a death not in-keeping with the other murders. The female students are routinely ‘punished’ for being intelligent and, as with American horrors from the 1970s/80s, for being curious about the opposite gender. In all cases, director Chang never builds tension effectively and instead relies on rapid camera movement and editing to provide thrills, yet as it is often difficult to see anything on screen the results are generally less than impressive.
Death Bell does become interesting in the final act however, as social commentary involving the Korean education system and the roles of parents and teachers are inserted and portrayed. This late but welcome addition depicts the extent to which high grades play in Korean culture, and the lengths to which all involved will go to secure them in the highly competitive system. Unfortunately as such themes are introduced so late the potential is never truly expanded, yet it does provide some much needed impetus to events as well as tying up narrative loose ends.
As teacher Hwang Chang-wook, Lee Beom-soo is the central protagonist of the film and does well to keep the pace of the film moving and involving. His role is highly limited due to awfully vapid narrative, forcing him to be a reactionary figure in moments that lack logic, yet the actor performs competently and genuinely works hard to make the the premise and his situation believable. He ultimately fails due to the nonsensical script, but his effort is commendable.
The films other two lead roles fall to Yoon Jeong-hee as strict teacher Choi So-yeong and Nam Gyoo-ri student I-na. Both roles are woefully underdeveloped and leave the actresses with little to do save to convey the stereotypes they are constructed as – Choi So-yeong as a stoic disciplinarian and I-na as a vulnerable schoolgirl interested in boys. Both roles add precious little to the narrative, but the actresses competently act the stereotypes ascribed to them.
Death Bell is a dull, vacuous horror film that attempts to be ‘Saw in a high school’ but is ultimately a bland excuse to depict torture porn on teenagers. Hindering the scares further are the kinetic camera movements and editing that continually frustrate. While Lee Beom-soo attempts to make the film compelling, and the late introduction of key cultural themes try to elevate the film, Death Bell is a hollow, soulless example of the genre and is for enthusiasts only.