"You will be taking another test... The first question has been given. If you can't answer it, this girl will die."
At the end of mid-term exams at an elite high school, the pupils with the best results are grouped together in a special class, in preparation for a forthcoming school event. Grudgingly attending the first 'lesson', the students sit down to watch a DVD but rather than the video that the teachers intended to show, they are instead confronted with CCTV footage of student Hye-young imprisoned in a tank which is quickly filling with water, while a voice tells them that they are to answer a series of questions, with a student dying for each incorrect answer.
As the test continues, the questions become ever more difficult, and as the bodies start piling up, In-a (Nam Gyu-ri) discovers the order in which students are being chosen to die. Realising what little time she has left before she too becomes a victim, In-a must find a way to stop the killings before the Death Bell rings for her...
Death Bell feels distinctly old-school (so to speak) in style, reminiscent of classic Korean high school horror films (such as the Ghost School series) mixed with archetypal references and imagery found in a plethora of Asian horror movies from numerous countries and territories - most noticeably the featuring of a long-haired, wild-eyed, vengeful female ghost, so prevalent in Asian horror films from the late 90's onwards - and while the use of such obvious imagery and plot devices as these could easily be considered a straight copying of ideas, their appearances in Death Bell are so blatantly unapologetic as to largely feel rather more like homages than simple out-and-out plagiarism. Add to that the fact that such iconic and familiar elements bring with them an assumption as to their ultimate place in proceedings, thereby allowing Death Bell to bring a number of red herrings into play and (somewhat) raise the level of unpredictability present, as a result.
However, where Death Bell differs most from the classic ideas detailed above is in its choices for the various gruesome deaths of the students. Owing far more to recent visceral horror fare from Hollywood and the like, their viciousness ultimately brings up the question of whether they are simply gratuitous for the sake of it. That said, they are fairly well thought out (for example: a young female pupil imprisoned in a large washing machine laced with razor blades, which is then switched on) and ultimately succeed to a greater overall degree than many of those found in the majority of Death Bell's yawn-worthy Western counterparts.
As with many South Korean films (of a number of genres) based around high school, Death Bell also references the underlying theme of the importance of success at school within Korean society; the focus on competition and exam results; the strictness with which those ideals are enforced; and the intense pressures placed on pupils and parents alike, and while Death Bell largely limits itself to a statement of the facts, rather than providing an in-depth dissection of related issues, it nonetheless manages to get its point across - even succeeding in alluding to the effect of this treatment (and constant pressure) on pupils' psyches, on more than one occasion.
Case in point: Early on in proceedings, long before viewers are aware of the true state of play, several students repeatedly see a menacing apparition (the aforementioned long-haired, wild-eyed, vengeful female ghost); a male student becomes increasingly unhinged as a result of what he believes he sees; and In-a is shown to have nightmares of being chased by undead female ghouls - heralding the arrival of her period (shown with fairly graphic visuals, and an almost over-abundance of menstrual blood) - and while at this point we cannot be sure if a malevolent, supernatural force is actually responsible for the escalating goings on in the school, it could just as easily be assumed that these ghostly figures are simply hallucinations brought on by students' over-stressed minds, thereby serving to reference the main theme within the plot itself.
The ultimate outcome of Death Bell's main storyline underlines this main theme once more, and though it largely remains just a statement, that statement does truly deserve to be referenced.
Cinematically, Death Bell is accomplished throughout and while filming was completed in just twenty days, on a very limited budget, that fact is never overly apparent.
The pace is brisk, but never rushed and director Yoon Hong-seung's (listed as Chang in the film's credits) experience as a music video director largely helps this rather than being a hindrance.
His previous career also shows in the importance placed on the music used in Death Bell, and his decision to avoid music which heralds pivotal moments of horror with bangs, crashes and crescendos, is to be commended.
Finally, the limited budget also resulted in actors (rather than CGI effects and unrealistic dummies) being used in the majority of the gruesome death scenes of Death Bell, and this too actually works in the film's favour, adding to the overall perceived realism of the brutal and gory killings.
The majority of the cast of Death Bell are fairly new to acting but manage to give fairly decent performances on the whole, and while there is somewhat of an abundance of rather overwrought wailing in terror, this actually suits proceedings, for the most part, rather well.
Death Bell was singer Nam Gyu-ri first acting role (having been chosen by director Yoon Hong-seung subsequent to directing two of her music videos), but even though being cast as the main, and most important, character is quite an undertaking for a first project, she largely succeeds in giving a worthy performance - certainly as much as the characterization of In-a will allow.
However, it almost goes without saying that the performances of Lee Beom-soo, Yoon Jeong-hee and Kong Jeong-hwan (as the three main teachers) hold Death Bell together on more than one occasion, with their more nuanced portrayals contrasting with the less experienced performances of the other cast members to almost mirror the teacher/pupil relationships seen within the film itself.
Nam Gyu-ri, Yoon Jeong-hee, Lee Beom-soo, Kong Jeong-hwan, Kim Beom
While Death Bell is unlikely to cause viewers to alter their list of the best ever South Korean horror films, its old-school feel combined with elements from more recent visceral horror fare, alongside numerous references to the incredible pressures that Korea’s school system can place on pupils, parents and teachers alike, ensure that it is nonetheless a welcome addition to the horror genre.
edition reviewed here is the UK (Region 2) Terror-Cotta (Terracotta Distribution) Single Disc release - provided for review courtesy of Terracotta Distribution. The film itself is
provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present.
The original Korean
language soundtrack is provided as a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 and is clear and well balanced throughout.
Excellent (removeable) subtitles are provided
throughout the main feature and all of the DVD Extras.
Death Bell is the first release from Terror-Cotta, a new imprint label of Terracotta Distribution, and continues Terracotta's reputation for releasing high quality DVDs packed with informative, and highly watchable extras:
As well as cast and crew interviews within a ‘Making of’ featurette, the DVD also features a ‘Special Make-up’ featurette, ‘Music’ featurette, UK Trailer of the film, as well as two music videos, and while music videos are rarely particularly worthy of note, one of those presented here has some great visuals of Nam Gyu-ri singing sweetly, and beautifully, while covered in copious amounts of blood - astutely referencing the plot, visuals and soundtrack of the film in a fresh and unexpected way. Add to that, the almost unmissable sections on the horror make-up and death scenes used in the film and, all in all, Terracotta's release of Death Bell is easily worthy of its place within your DVD collection.
• Director: Yoon Hong-seung (credited as Chang)
• Format: PAL,
Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Digital 2.0
• Region: Region 2
• Aspect Ratio:
• Number of discs: 1
• Classification: 18
Terror-Cotta (Terracotta Distribution)
• Run Time: 88 minutes (approx.)
- Making of Film Featurette
- Making of Special Make-up Featurette
- Making of Music Featurette
- Music Videos
- UK Trailer
- Other Terracotta Release Trailers