The “Ghost School” series consists of the best horror movies that aren’t really horror movies. There are about ten shades of irony to that statement, but it’s true; while these Korean imports succeed as straight dramas, it’s when they shift into freak-out mode that they break thematic flow. It eventually comes down to how long they can hold out doing what they do best, and in that respect, Wishing Stairs fares well. While it’s not as dramatically robust as predecessor Memento Mori, it’s less heavy on emotions and plays better with the story’s horror-centric side. There are still plenty of flaws and flubs to go around, but if there’s any hope that Asian horror hasn’t been conquered by derivative rip-offs, Wishing Stairs provides it.
As always in this franchise, the action takes place at an all-girls boarding school, where the soap opera and the supernatural have a funny way of colliding. Our heroines of the hour are Jin-sung (Song Ji-hyo) and So-hee (Park Han-byeol), fellow classmates and the best of friends. While the girls remain close-knit, however, it’s their shared love for ballet that threatens to unravel their friendship. There’s only one spot available for an important audition, and thanks to her talent, it looks like So-hee has it in the bag. Desperate for a chance at stardom herself, Jin-sung turns to an old school legend for some otherworldly assistance. Rumor has it that if you ascend a set of stairs leading to one of the dorms and count each of its 28 steps, a 29th will appear, and a fox spirit will grant any wish. But as is often the case, these requests tend to backfire in the worst of ways, as Jin-sung soon discovers when her rivalry with So-hee takes a turn for the deadly.
Wishing Stairs goes to show that it matters little if a movie is cliched, as long as it’s handled the right way. The premise isn’t anything new by a long shot; everything from “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” to “Goosebumps” has taken a crack at it, long since becoming a genre standby. But in the storied tradition of films that give a damn about their audience, Wishing Stairs connects its story to a set of engaging themes that will resonate with anyone who’s set foot in high school. The “be careful what you wish for” motif will ring familiar if you’ve ever dreamed of being more popular, more skinny, or generally more accepted. It’s when such wishes go awry due to their selfish aims that the film transitions well to its more lurid side, as well as effectively conveying the lesson that maybe it’s not always better to get what you want. It also helps that, after focusing a fair amount of attention on bullish teachers in Mori and Whispering Corridors, the picture gains extra sympathy by firmly entrenching itself amidst the student body.
It’s hard to capture teenage angst without getting too preachy or resorting to stereotypes, so it’s a credit to Wishing Stairs for having presented its key players with natural complexity. No one is a “good guy” or a “bad guy” here, just an ensemble of misguided souls going through the same pubescent drama everyone does (minus the whole vengeful ghosts thing, of course). The story benefits from the various touches from the various touches given to the characters, which in turn strengthens the already emphatic performances. Song and Park make for a realistic pair (their characters bolstered by one’s subtle crush on the other), while Jo An cranks up the kookiness as Hae-ju, a fringe figure who comes to serve a key role later in the story. But while it has a better time accepting its duties as a horror film than Mori did, Wishing Stairs does encounter a decent amount of turbulence. The film loses a bit of its momentum around the second act, and while it remains as interesting as ever, the pacing feels a little broken up by the stalk-and-scare set pieces. By the end, the theatrics have since grown stale, though the handsome photography has kept the spooky atmosphere intact.
I fear how Wishing Stairs would have turned out if America got its hands on the story. More likely than not, a flavor-of-the-month starlet from the CW would find herself fleeing from a Ringu refugee, while the audience would groan their way to the ending credits. There are a few moments when Wishing Stairs succumbs to horror convention, but enough of its themes and solid acting survive to entertain those viewers searching for at least a semblance of a brain.
Read Chris Luedtke’s Wishing Stairs review here.