By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Using a device which has become tiresome and lazy over the last two decades, the South Korean horror film Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum manages the impossible; being royally entertaining while delivering some solid, well-executed scares.
After a brief prologue showing two foolhardy teenagers attempting to access the cursed room at the title location, the story centres on popular internet broadcaster Ha-joon (Wi Ha-joon), who hosts and operates a site called Horror Times. Concentrating on the supernatural and unexplained, Ha-joon uses the youngsters’ iPhone footage to lead guests into a crash course on the history of Gonjiam, a renowned mental asylum which suddenly closed in 1979 when 42 patients committed suicide, and the hospital director mysteriously disappeared. The asylum has now become infamous for being haunted by these tortured souls, and is regularly visited by ghost hunters far-and-wide.
Wanting to capitalise on this and increase his online subscriptions, Ha-joon puts out a call for volunteers, who aren’t afraid to enter Gonjiam and discover if the legends are real or not. Answering the call are Ji-hyun (Park Ji-hyun), A-yeon (Oh A-yeon), and Charlotte (Moon Ye-won). Also accompanying the expedition are Ha-joon’s site technicians and designers, Sung-hoon (Park Sung-hoon), Seung-wook (Lee Seung-wook), and Je-yoon (Yoo Je-yoon). The group get to know each other as they make the long drive to their intended destination, and make base camp once they arrive. This has to be done secretly, as police make intermittent rounds in the area, due to curious tourists wanting to break in to the run-down asylum.
Ha-joon remains at base camp, overseeing the computer screens and console, while everyone else are fitted with cameras, which are designed to show not only what’s in front of them, but their faces as well, so viewers can see how each person reacts to the possibly terrifying events that follow. Sung-hoon and Seung-wook enter first, to set up CCV cameras in many of the rooms, so whatever happens can be seen from many different angles.
With everything in place, the six nervous participants are soon standing at Gonjiam’s entrance, and Ha-joon begins the broadcast, triggering a night that none of them will ever forget.
There is no denying that Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is working to a set formula, and horror fans will sense that feeling of déjà vu from the very beginning. Ever since The Blair Witch Project utilised the ‘found footage’ format to blockbuster effect in 1999 (although Cannibal Holocaust deserves credit for truly putting this device on the map), there has been a non-stop stream of imitators, many of which are excruciatingly bad. Subsequently it takes quite an effort now to garner audience interest in this overdone sub-genre (Troll Hunter is great, recent example), so it comes as a pleasant surprise that Gonjiam manages to do just that.
What immediately sets it apart from other wannabe entries is the fact that the characters are genuinely likeable, successfully drawing the viewer in to the scenario, so when all the horror occurs later on, you feel invested in what is going on, rather than not caring if everyone survives or not. It is a simple ingredient, but one that many modern horror film-makers seem to ignore (Eli Roth probably being the biggest offender), and it must be said that the early scenes with the newly formed group are convincing and frequently hilarious.
Another plus is the way the roaming cameras are used (Yoon Byung-ho is credited as cinematographer), with an astute blend of clever angles, tight editing, and carefully placed lighting helping generate considerable atmosphere and tension. Some shots are overly reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project (one in particular), and not every shock works, but it never dampens the ride. By the way, the Gonjiam asylum is real, and was the subject of a 2013 CNN report, which called it one of the seven freakiest places in the world (although the reasons for its closure a far more mundane).
The cast, mostly made up of unknowns (Ha-joon did appear in The Chase, Eclipse, and Coin Locker Girl, while Ji-hyun also turned up in The Chase), are terrific, and the chemistry between them is utterly believable, with natural dialogue that seems ad-libbed, but not gratuitously so.
Co-writer/director Jung Bum-sik, who helmed the under-rated 2007 Epitaph, one segment in the anthology fight flicks Horror Stories 1 and 2, and then had a decided change-of-pace with the funny comedy Casa Amor: Exclusive for Ladies, walks a fine line between the familiar and the compelling, but builds proceedings to the expected horror and mayhem with notable skill and intelligence. Only right near the end, when some of the unseen terror becomes too tangible, does the suspense partially falter.
While hardly groundbreaking cinema, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum does what many current horror movies fail to do (Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch reboot was a huge disappointment); illicit a genuine air of fear and dread, introduce an appealing group of characters, and probably most of all, offering audiences a whale of a good time.