Thursday, 7 January 2016

Film Review - 'Black House'

As a child, Jeon Joon-oh (Hwang Jung-min) was forced to watch his younger brother driven to suicide by the constant bullying he was subjected to. This gives him a understandably profound familiarity with the pain caused by suicide which seems to serve him well when, in his new job as an insurance agent, he finds himself receiving a call from a woman asking about his company's policy on paying out in the event of suicide. Convinced that he is speaking to a woman who may be considering the act, herself, Joon-oh is moved to ignore the standard operating procedures for dealing with this sort of call - instead offering sympathy and support, and sharing details of his personal life, including giving his name when the woman asks.

A few days later, Joon-oh finds himself called to the home of an insurance policy holder, as a result of a complaint filed against a co-worker. Finding himself at a run-down and decrepit house, he is greeted by Park Choong-bae (Kang Shin-il), a grim and intimidating figure. While there, Joon-oh also stumbles upon the body of Choong-bae's young step-son - hanging from a noose in his bed-room, in what appears to be a suicide.

Joon-oh becomes convinced that, not only did Choong-bae murder the boy and stage it as a suicide in order to collect the substantial insurance pay-out, but that he's also planning on doing the same to his wife, Yi-hwa (Yoo Sun). He convinces his employers to hold off on authorising the pay-out while he conducts an investigation of his own. But, Choong-bae clearly wants the money that he believes he is owed - and, as Joon-oh continues to do what he can to delay the pay-out, Choong-bae begins to show up at his office each day to make his demands. Then, Joon-oh begins receiving mysterious phone-calls at his home each day. Then, his girlfriend's dog is killed, and its severed head is left on his door-step.

It quickly becomes clear to Joon-oh that his interference is placing himself, and the people he cares about, in very real danger. Even the police officially labelling the child's death as a suicide, and his employers deciding to go ahead and authorise the insurance payment, isn't enough to stop the escalating harassment - as, after all, there is still the matter of Choong-bae's wife.

Black House is a film that gets off to a fantastic start - taking a premise that is instantly engaging and using it as the basis for some wonderfully tense moments. It is extremely disappointing to see a film start out as strongly as this one did, only to devolve into almost incomprehensible silliness toward the end. For most of the running time of Black House, I thought that what I was watching was a grounded and realistic thriller - one based around the escalating battle of wits between a surprisingly decent insurance agent, and a psychopath willing to kill for a large enough pay-out. And, I was enjoying that film. It was tense, and dramatic - and, I genuinely wanted to know where it was all going to lead. But, then, for the final third of the film I found myself watching something entirely different. At that point, Black House suddenly becomes a fairly generic slasher/horror film.

This sudden change in tone would have been jarring enough if it had actually been effective - but, perhaps worst of all, Black House just wasn't a very good horror film. Here, we have a killer who is suddenly able to pull off some implausible feats of strength, we have scenes set in a fairly generic serial killer's murder dungeon, and we even have the 'shocking twist' of the killer returning at the very end, despite apparently dying earlier. And, none of it works. None of it fits with the more 'realistic' tone that the film had worked so hard to establish.

At the same time, we also have a hero who is suddenly making all sorts of idiotic decisions, seemingly for no other purpose than for the film-makers to place him in more obvious danger. And, it's necessary, too - because, the villain of the slasher film I suddenly found myself watching was probably one of the most ineffectual and unimposing I've ever come across. Jeon Joon-oh had been a genuinely likable and well-developed character before the sudden change - with Hwang Jung-min's performance giving him the perfect combination of endearing awkwardness, sympathy for the suffering of other people, and lingering guilt to get the audience on his side. After the change, though, he was just a fairly generic character in a fairly generic slasher film.

As the credits rolled, the only thing I could really think to say about Black House is that I really wish it had continued as it had started. I was fully on board with the tense thriller I thought I was watching - so much so, in fact, that the film's sudden change into gore-soaked horror really only left me feeling irritated. Instead of the great film I wanted it to be, and which it was shaping up to be, Black House really just ended up as the perfect example of how a poorly executed ending can ruin an otherwise entertaining film.

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