In my opinion Korea is becoming one of the real hotbeds of Asian horror of late. Along with Thailand there seems to be so much in the way of good, and occasionally not-so-good, genre flicks coming out on a fairly regular basis. Death Bell was however the only homegrown horror flick to hit the Korean theatres in the summer of 2008, and it is not hard to see why. It has a good-looking young cast, plenty of blood and some striking visuals. In fact, if it wasn't for the slightly touchy subject material and nasty imagery, this is the sort of horror flick that would be slapped a PG-13 rating in the U.S. and would clean up at the box office. Fortunately though it is not watered down horror, just a slick, fun and slightly disturbing mish-mash of a few other movies.
Set in a high school, Death Bell follows the fortunes of the elite pupils of the school as they await the arrival of pupils from their sister school. These pupils are the elite as they have done so well in their Mid Term exams (the original title is Go-sa, or Bloody Mid Terms), and have been chosen to stay on, along with three teachers, to greet their fellow students.
No sooner are they alone in the school though when a video kicks in on all of the monitors in the school, and believe me they are everywhere. What appears on the screen is one of the kids fellow pupils who is trapped in a large fish tank. A voice then proceeds to inform them that they have several questions to answer, failure to answer any will result in the death of a pupil. They must answer all questions and answer the question as to why they are here, or they will all die. Specifics as to whether the teachers would be killed wasn't given, but I am guessing that it would be a safe assumption that most killers want to kill everyone. I digress though. Any attempts to leave the school will result in death, and all phone lines, internet cables have been cut.
The action then follows the students and teachers as they try to solve the questions given to them, at the same time groups fracture off in their attempts to stay alive. Is it a psycho that is after them? Is it a ghost? Why does one of the kids keep having strange visions? All we be revealed come the end.
Playing off as a cool blend of Saw and Battle Royale, along with a healthy dosage of Slasher and Ghost movies, Death Bell is an exciting, if a little predictable, horror flick. Starting off with what I think is one of the most visually cool scenes I have seen in awhile, which turns out to be a dream, it soon gets into its groove. Fans of both Western and Eastern horror will see many familiar elements here, although it does manage to thorugh in enough cool ideas to keep it fresh. In fact the only real disappoint for me was the ending, but even then it managed to throw me a slight curve ball.
Death Bell is a great looking movie, all the images were nice and crisp, and the death scenes were imaginative, occasionally bloody (although not gory) and disturbing. The cast all did a decent job, even when playing some slightly cliched characters; the cool teacher, the strict teacher, the bad boy and so on. All give engaging performances which leads the viewer to actually care about what happens to them.
After watching Death Bell you can see why it did so well in its home country. It's not perfect but it is a good slick horror movie that never allows itself to get bogged down by unnecessary baggage. Well worth a watch.
Rating 3 stars
Review by Jude Felton