“Whispering Corridors” – A.J. Hakari

I’ll give Whispering Corridors credit for trying. As a founding member of the current Asian horror boom, it had the chance to experiment, to do something different with the formula, before these movies started recycling the same damn story over and over. There’s an uncommon intelligence at play here, a drive to put a little more effort into scaring viewers on a thematic level than purely a visual one. Unfortunately, these good intentions are all Whispering Corridors has to go on, and despite a few effective moments, they only carry the film so far before running out of gas.

This rather somber tale of suspense takes place at an all-girls school in Korea. Slightly snooty Ji-oh (Gyu-ri Kim) and shy Jae-yi (Se-yeon Choi) are ready for another day’s worth of lessons doled by their monstrous teachers, only to run head first into tragedy. An unpopular instructor has apparently hung herself, and despite the administration’s best efforts, rumors swirl about regarding the circumstances of her death. But as Ji-oh and Jae-yi continue enduring the rigors of high school life, one person may hold the key to solving the mystery. Mrs. Hur (Mi-yeon Lee), a former student who returned to the school as a teacher, has her suspicions that a former classmate might be responsible — a girl who’s been dead for nine years. But as the body count continues growing, the question remains as to whether the deadly force at work is of the supernatural kind or if a disgruntled student is taking her revenge.

Whispering Corridors feels like the first draft of a really strong horror film. In order to give it a big boost in the story department, director Ki-heyong Park (Acacia) combines the spooky goings-on with recurring criticisms of the Korean educational system. If you thought you had it rough in school, wait until you see what these girls go through, what with teachers who slap them around at will and bark out enough intense speeches to make Patton blush. Park does a fine job of establishing a very joyless atmosphere, unafraid to depict the school as a place where dreams go to die and where individuality is crushed under an iron fist. I liked how the film set out to compare these real-life terrors with the sort of otherworldly theatrics that made features like this and the Ringu series famous. But for as successfully as Park introduces these elements into the story, he’s not as adept at ensuring they run consistently for the remainder of the running time.

There comes a point at which Whispering Corridors stops building up its characters and starts lazily banking on the audience’s sympathy. The true-to-life drama that the horror genre could actually use some more of quickly sours, resulting in too many characters just brooding their way to the ending credits. The paths they tread on turn out to be inconsequential, as the bulk of them end up serving as glorified red herrings. The others find themselves playing some barely tangible part in the central mystery, which isn’t altogether predictable but still not as hard-hitting as it’d like to be. Perhaps the mood was a little too downbeat, so concentrated on conveying a message that the movie forgot its duties as a thriller. That would explain how the more horror-centric aspects stick out like sore thumbs, with grisly death scenes and a room that oozes blood haphazardly thrown in amongst the drama. The made-for-TV atmosphere also makes things look cheap and unpolished, especially for a film with as daring an image of itself as this one.

While Whispering Corridors is by all means imperfect, it still served as the blueprints for bigger and better stories. A big hit in native South Korea, it led to the creation of the “Ghost School” series, whose proceeding chapters built on its ideas and themes to even greater success. I can’t say I enjoyed Whispering Corridors, but I’m glad it inspired other filmmakers to borrow its best parts and take them in more well-rounded directions.

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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