10 terrifying South Korean horror films that you’ll want to watch with the lights on
By Ryan General
October 29, 2021
Longtime Asian horror fans know that films under the South Korean subgenre (K-horror) are not for the faint of heart.
K-horror has a distinct approach that targets the human psyche and aims to leave a lasting impression long after the credits roll.
For everyone just discovering South Korean cinema, we’ve created a shortlist of essential K-horror movies that can more than fulfill your appetite to be spooked this Halloween.
“The Housemaid” (1960)
Directed by the late legendary filmmaker Kim Ki-young, “The Housemaid” is a haunting domestic horror that revolves around a family’s slow collapse upon the entry of an eccentric housemaid.
What makes it scary: The sense of foreboding as the story unfolds at a slow but engaging pace. The inevitability of something terrible bound to arise from the characters’ manipulations and missteps is enough to make viewers hold their breath up until the film’s conclusion.
More reasons to watch: Contemporary filmmaker Bong Joon-ho considers “The Housemaid” among his top favorites and has previously praised the film for its subtle but effective critique of social class in 1960s South Korea.
Bong would explore a similar social commentary highlighting the stark contrast between the lives of haves and have-nots in his 2019 Oscar-winning film “Parasite.”
“Whispering Corridors” (1998)
Set in an all-girls school, “Whispering Corridors” is about the ghost of a student who comes back to protect her friends and seek vengeance.
What makes it scary: Despite a somewhat predictable plot, the film’s chilling atmosphere stitches a narrative together that keeps the tension building from one scene to the next.
More reasons to watch: The film, directed by Park Ki-Hyung, was considered groundbreaking when it was released and has since been credited with sparking the explosion in popularity of the Korean horror genre in the late ’90s.
Four more distinct horror films were subsequently made as part of the “Whispering Corridors” film series, with an upcoming new film titled “Whispering Corridors 6: The Humming.” While the first film mainly offered criticism of the South Korean education system, further entries in the series tackled taboo topics such as gay relationships and teen suicides.
“A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003)
Inspired by a Joseon Dynasty-era folktale entitled “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon,” the film “A Tale of Two Sisters” revolves around a mental institution patient who is recently released and reunited with her sister, her father and her stepmother.
What makes it scary: The fear of the unknown grasps the viewer as hints to what is actually going on are sparingly dropped. The viewer is already filled with a mix of anger, sorrow and dread by the time the exposition for the twists picks up.
More reasons to watch: Written and directed by Kim Jee-woon, the film was a massive hit and went on to become among Korea’s highest-grossing horror films ever. It also earns the distinction of being the first Korean horror title to be screened in the U.S.
A Hollywood remake of the film in the form of “The Uninvited” in 2009 failed to make a significant impact.
“Hansel and Gretel” (2007)
A dark and twisted take on the classic fairy tale of the same name, “Hansel and Gretel” focuses on a young man who stumbles upon a welcoming house after getting lost in the woods.
What makes it scary: The sense of anticipatory anxiety when a character is thrown into an unfamiliar place or situation and is unable to escape. The inclusion of bizarre themes and creepy imagery adds to the growing dread and desperation.
More reasons to watch: Helmed by filmmaker Yim Phil-sung, the movie was a flop at the local box office but gained international recognition, winning two awards at the 29th Fantasporto in 2009: the special jury prize in the Fantasy competition and the best film award in the Orient Express sidebar.
Inspired by the 1867 novel “Thérèse Raquin” by Émile Zola, “Thirst” tells the story of a Catholic priest who becomes a vampire after a medical experiment gone awry.
What makes it scary: The film’s stylistic use of the macabre separates this vampire tale from the stories about the blood-sucking monsters in Western pop culture at the time.
More reasons to watch: Written, produced and directed by “Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook, the film was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival but took home the Jury Prize award instead.
“Bedevilled” is about two women: a female banker who takes a vacation on a remote island where she spent part of her youth and an abused woman who seeks a way off of the same island.
What makes it scary: The film examines the degree of evil some are capable of and the kindness some are willing to withhold.
More reasons to watch: The film is the directorial debut of Jang Cheol-soo, who raked in multiple est new director awards upon the movie’s release. Actress Seo Young-hee also won numerous awards for her role as the mistreated Kim Bok-nam.
Hide and Seek (2013)
Marking the directorial debut of filmmaker Huh Jung, “Hide and Seek” tackles the story of a father and his family who believe a mysterious figure is trying to break into their home.
What makes it scary: The film effectively grabs its audience’s attention by tapping into the universal fear of strangers invading personal living spaces.
More reasons to watch: The movie had little budget and no high-profile stars but proved to be a huge hit upon its release.
“The Wailing” (2016)
Directed by renowned horror auteur Na Hong-jin, “The Wailing” is about a policeman on a quest to save his daughter while investigating a series of mysterious events in a remote Korean village.
What makes it scary: The sense of escalating paranoia as bodies pile up will keep viewers on their toes guessing what’s causing the mysterious deaths.
More reasons to watch: The film, which blends a variety of supernatural lore into one terrifying village tale, has received widespread critical acclaim since its international release.
“The Mimic” (2017)
Inspired by the local urban legend of the Jangsanbum (Jangsan Tiger), “The Mimic” tells the story of a mother of a missing son who takes in a girl she finds in the woods.
What makes it scary: The film’s creepy vibe stems from the tension weaved into the story from the moment the young girl enters the family’s lives and questions start emerging.
More reasons to watch: “The Mimic” is the second feature film by Huh Jung, the award-winning filmmaker behind low-budget horror-thriller “Hide and Seek.”
“Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” (2018)
Based on a real-life psychiatric hospital of the same name, “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” revolves around a film crew that chooses an abandoned asylum as their setting for a live broadcast.
What makes it scary: The darkness that permeates most of the scenes lends itself well to the film’s chilling tone.
More reasons to watch: While “Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum” is a South Korean entry into the saturated found-footage horror genre, director Jung Bum-shik was able to inject fresh ideas into it. The film was a box office success in South Korea, becoming the third-most-watched horror film in the country after “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “Phone.”
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