Over the years it hasn't been uncommon for North American horror films to borrow elements of Asian genre efforts. In fact, Hollywood became so enamored of overseas genre fare that there seemed to be an almost endless string of remakes throughout most of the 2000's which took the basic style and elements of their counterparts but usually ended up sucking. Which is why it's surprising to see this Korean flick turning the tables and taking a lot of cues from the Saw series.
Taking inspiration from the popular franchise and mixing in a liberal dose of elements from The Ring school of supernatural "white faced, hair in the eyes ghost chick" scares, Death Bell isn't in the upper echelon of K-horror (which includes Acacia and A Tale of Two Sisters), but it does throw out a handful of engaging visuals and a decent, if pedestrian, twist in the finale to be a watchable, if pretty unremarkable, time.
The premise is pretty basic as a group of elite students taking weekend study sessions to prepare them for their University exams as well as a visit from some English students, along with a few teachers and the school's security guard, find themselves locked down in their school after an apparent mad man has taken control of the P.A. and closed circuit television systems and has set everyone up to take part in a deadly game. He's cut off outside communication, warned them that if they try to leave they'll be killed (which is proven when one of the teacher's does and is murdered), and starts asking many riddle-like questions each tied to the life of one of their fellow students who has been kidnapped and strapped into various torture devices.
This gives director Chang plentiful chances to use a lot of flashy directorial touches, toss out lots of hyperactive editing, and have a few decent kill scenes (the nastiest involving a clothes dryer) before tying things up fairly nicely in the finale. It's certainly a good thing the script does manage to bring things together okay in the end because most of the first half feels haphazardly plotted with no real attempts at character development, the questions posed by our baddie make absolutely no sense (which in turn takes any suspense away and leaves us scratching our heads), and our characters are constantly breaking rules without repercussions - they're told more than once to not leave the building but there's various scenes of them sneaking around various areas of the school grounds.
Given that Chang started off in music videos, it's not surprising how he tends to shoot most of the horror and suspense scenes with way too much kinetic energy. Some of the traps used aren't too bad, but the camera is jerking around so much, we don't get much of a look at them. And considering they want to emulate the Saw films, what's on display here is pretty tame.
A problem with having minimal characterization is the fact we just don't care about any of the kids and whether they live or die. Pretty much all the actors here are interchangeable with the only notable things being that Korean pop star Nam Gyu-ri is making her acting debut (and gets to scream a lot, especially in the pointless nightmare dream sequence that kicks the film off) and the performance by Lee Beom-su as head teacher Mr. Hwang which alternates between steady authority and outright batshit crazy by the end of it all.
There are some things I liked about Death Bell, but a lot more I was indifferent about. The scripting is clumsy and there's no real thrills. This is too bad because, in a landscape where most American genre films are retreads/remakes and we have to look to Europe and Asia for above average fare, this is middling at best.
Followed by a sequel. (Chris Hartley, 9/11/12)
Directed By: Chang (Yoon Hong-Seung).
Written By: Chang (Yoon Hong-Seung), Eun-Kyeong Kim.
Starring: Nam Gyu-ri, Lee Beom-su, Shin-ae Yu, In-sook Choi.