SUDDENLY IN THE DARK (1981)
Director: Ko Young-nam
Run time: 1h 40m
K-Horror cult classic twists the malicious housemaid format and brilliantly portrays the paranoia and jealousy of a wife descending into madness
Cinematic output during the 70s and 80s was partly curtailed in South Korea by a military dictatorship during the 70s and long-running draconian film censorship.
For a country that had produced such horror classics as The Housemaid (1960), The Evil Stairs (1964) and A Devilish Homicide (1965), there was a comparative drought of K-Horrors until 1998 when Whispering Corridors begun its renaissance.
This makes Suddenly in the Dark, also known as Suddenly at Midnight or Suddenly in Dark Night, all the more remarkable as an early 80s film that is both genuinely scary and superbly made.
Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) is a wealthy lepidopterist professor spending much of his time on field work tracking rare butterflies. He meets Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), a young woman who is the daughter of a shaman priestess who recently died in a house fire.
Yu-jin appoints Mi-ok as his new housemaid and brings her home to his wife Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae) who is instantly suspicious about the beautiful young woman who has mysteriously arrived and infiltrated her household.
Mi-ok moves in and brings a strange wooden doll, the same one that has been haunting Seon-hee's nightmares. This sends Seon-hee into a spiral of suspicion towards Mi-ok, fearing the new housemaid will kill her and steal her husband.
There is sometimes this misapprehension that a ‘cult classic’ has become popular to a smaller audience for perhaps its kook value, but Suddenly in the Dark is a genuinely chilling, fascinating and well-made film. It deserves more than its cult, or ‘hidden gem’, status. Indeed, any comprehension of the wider history of K-Horror should incorporate its viewing.
On several levels the film is a homage to legendary Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-young, not just for the references to The Housemaid (1960), but also for the use of bright primary colour lighting. There is a Kim-like similarity in the general atmosphere of the film, one matching Director Kim’s brilliant Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death (1978), including both featuring a lepidopterist.
Some elements of the film might seem too twee to work – such as the regular use of kaleidoscope shots – but somehow the film carries it off.
The film uses a steady burn, the slip into madness for Seon-hee is a gradual one and the true intentions of Mi-ok remain a genuine mystery as the narrative builds. The pay-off is worth it though, with a superb pulse-racing final 15 minutes.
It does a brilliant job of using camera angles and colours to amplify the main character’s deteriorating mental state. This is a psychedelic and hallucinatory outing, but it manages to paint obsession and paranoia in clear colours, aided by its visually-stunning cinematography.
There is a superb restoration from Mondo Macabro available now, enabling this K-Horror beauty to be viewed in full Blu-ray glory. An essential for K-Horror fans everywhere.
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