“Black House” – A.J. Hakari

It’s amazing, the lengths people will go to in order to sell a movie. Just from glancing at the box, you’d probably surmise that Korea’s Black House has something to do with a long-haired ghost, a supernatural curse, and a bunch of nimrods who can barely tie their own shoes caught in the middle. The good news is that Black House actually isn’t some mediocre ghost story at all. The bad news is that it’s actually a mediocre slasher movie, one that begins interestingly enough but soon slips into the same tired routine that befalls most others of its kind.

Jun-oh (Hwang Jun-min) has begun his first day working as an insurance claims investigator. But the young, slightly naive fellow has hardly had time to settle into his new digs before he’s confronted with a terrifying situation. When asked to pay a visit to sullen client Choong-bae (Kang Shin-il), Jun-oh stumbles upon the shock of a lifetime when the man’s son hangs himself to death — or so it seems. The police consider it a cut-and-dry case of suicide, but Jun-oh has his suspicions. Choong-bae’s emotionless attitude and insistence that he be paid the money from his son’s policy convince Jun-oh that he’s a cold-blooded killer desperately trying to cash in. But the more he tries to prove Choong-bae’s guilt, the more Jun-oh ends up putting his own life in danger, as he becomes stalked by someone who’ll go to deadly lengths to stop him from digging too deeply.

If Double Indemnity taught us anything, it’s that a movie based in the world of insurance doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a one-way ticket to boredom. On the contrary, the idea of someone using the system to literally get away with murder is ripe with the potential for mind games galore. It’s this premise that gives Black House its initial hook and, as it turns out, supports the best parts of the flick. At its heart, Black House is a murder mystery, and part of the fun is seeing the determined Jun-oh go up against someone who may or may not be a killer; the case is made on both accounts, significantly adding to the film’s suspense quota. Instead of setting up one predictable scene after the other, director Shin Terra sets the story up so that what seems like the obvious solution may be completely wrong, doing so in a way that doesn’t betray the viewer or negate the entire plot by way of a cheap cop-out.

But while I suppose I should be grateful that Black House didn’t turn out to be the movie it’s being sold as (the titular torture den only figures into a small chunk of the climax), it’s still not that great at being the movie it actually is. As refreshing and clever as the insurance aspect of the story turns out to be, Terra abandons this concept halfway through and proceeds to mold the remainder of the film into a dreary, clunky slasher flick. There’s quite a bit of nastiness to be witnessed, but it’s all for naught, as the way the story develops for the last half of the movie is slow-moving and painfully predictable, to the point that viewers will be groaning at the arrival of each inevitable twist. Characters also aimlessly drift in and out of the story (expect at least one instance where someone will die, and you’ll have no clue who they are), and despite having a strong character, Hwang Jun-min’s performance as Jun-oh comes across as a little too wimpy at times.

Black House comes as something of a mixed blessing. Commendable for avoiding most Asian horror movie cliches and at least attempting to claim an interesting corner of the genre for itself, the flick ultimately falls victim to a different set of horror conventions, resulting in a rollercoaster of an experience where the downs unfortunately outnumber the ups.

Rating: ★★☆☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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