Directed by: Yoon Hong-Seung (aka Chang)
After watching ‘Death Bell’ I wondered why there has never been a British horror film made that speaks out against the enormous exam pressure placed on young people in this country. Maybe you could title such a film GCSE (perhaps standing for Gore, Corpses, Sadism, Extremism?). Have someone clubbed to death by a chalk duster or stabbed in the eye with a compass point. Alas, I digress. ‘Death Bell’ is basically ‘Saw’ set in a School, but unnecessarily complicated. And by complicated, I don’t mean the plot necessarily, I mean the puzzles that the students are set in order to survive.
Aside from ‘Saw’ there are similarities also with the well-known South Korean franchise ‘Whispering Corridors’, in that a restless presence haunts a school seeking vengeance. In ‘Death Bell’ we are introduced to the horror when our scream queen has a nightmare. Dressed in white she wanders through hundreds of burning school desks, the kind you’d carve the name of who you fancied, and discard bubble gum underneath. In the horrible dream she gets attacked by a zombie girl. Shamefully she wakes up in her dorm room dripping period blood; an early indicator of all the blood to come.
In this South Korean school the elite students are grouped together; they are ranked according to grade. The cream of the crop gather together to sit an important exam and in the lead up to this pressure seems to really be getting to the kids, so much so that a sensitive boy called Cho Beom sees a scary image on his exam paper, he later freaks out in the corridor, attacking a the girl who woke up dripping, her name is Kang Ina (Nam Gyu-ri).
The class receive another interruption a few days later when a television screen flickers on and shows a pupil trapped in a glass fish tank. The tank begins to fill with water. A sinister voice comes over the intercom and instructs the pupils to solve a puzzle. If they don’t then the trapped pupil will drown. The voice also tells them that if they try and escape from the school then they will die.
Director Chang goes out of his way to hide the identity of the killer, this cruel examiner who sets the pupils impossible to solve puzzles. This is to the detriment of the big reveal at the end of the film, which common to South Korean horror films is unnecessarily convoluted. So when pupils die in increasingly bizarre fashion, from getting covered in candle wax to drowning in a washing machine, there is not much of a clue of who could possibly be behind the slayings. Usually this leads to a good pay off, but in the case of ‘Death Bell’ it doesn’t really work.
K poppet Nam Gyu-ri plays the scream queen role satisfactorily, but her classmates are all pretty interchangeable, screaming girls with long black hair and boys with all the charisma of shop window mannequins. Aside from Lee Beom-soo, who plays the teacher with a dark secret, everyone else seems to be floundering in the roles, either gormlessly gathering around boards to solve puzzles and looking decidedly perplexed in the process or running through corridors in blind panic.
‘Death Bell’ is one of those horror films full of good ideas, but let down by poor execution, even all the cruel deaths seem to miss a beat. Not providing sudden jolts of fright, or the right amount of gore to unsettle the stomach. The most disturbing sight of the film comes at the end via the sight of a fire axe repeatedly hitting flesh, but by then my head aches terribly, having tried to get my head around all those blasted puzzles.