This article is part of our ongoing series, 31 Days of Horror Lists.
We love South Korean cinema around these parts. Sure, we’re fond of movies from all around the globe, but if pressed into naming just one country whose cinema we wouldn’t want to live without the answer would most likely be South Korea. There are great examples from every genre, but their kimchi and gochujang is a talent for crafting some of the best, bloodiest, and most thrilling genre movies in existence. Many take the form of action movies and revenge pictures, but some lean hard into the darkness to embrace the horror.
That’s the focus of the list at hand, and while you’ll probably recognize some of the country’s finest filmmakers here including Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, and Park Chan-wook, you’ll also find some lesser known names responsible for horror movies equally worthy of celebrating. From monsters to ghosts, killers to vampires, the films tackle all kinds of terrors, and as with the best of genre cinema the world over they frequently tackle more realistic ills too including misogyny, classism, pollution, and more. All ten of these movies are brilliant, so join Chris Coffel, Valerie Ettenhofer, Kieran Fisher, Brad Gullickson, Meg Shields, Jacob Trussell, Anna Swanson, and myself as we dig into this darkly delicious and cinematic Korean banchan spread.
10. Hide and Seek (2013)
The first of only three non-supernatural titles to make the list, this slick and extremely creepy thriller is also one of the least known on our top ten. That deserves to change as writer/director Jung Huh delivers a smartly terrifying tale that begins as a mystery involving a man’s missing brother but grows into a horrifying, slow-burn blend of paranoia and social commentary. Jung keeps the suspense flowing and even adds in an action beat or two, but the darkly beating heart of the film is the realization of just how far some people will go to protect and care for their family. Don’t let the “serious” vibe scare you off, though, as there are some legitimately unsettling and frightening beats punctuating the drama, tension, and terror. (Rob Hunter)
9. Death Bell (2008)
Exams are always difficult, and the pressure they put on students causes heaps of stress. In Death Bell, however, the ante is upped as a group of elite high school students are forced to complete a series of riddles in order to save one of their kidnapped classmates, as well as themselves. On paper, the premise is very reminiscent of Saw, but Death Bell flirts with supernatural ideas without ever becoming too muddled in its execution. It’s a fascinating movie with some good bloody kills thrown in for good measure. Show this one to your kids before their next test. (Kieran Fisher)
8. Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a freaky found footage flick about a film crew live-streaming their experience inside South Korea’s famously spooky psychiatric hospital. The real-time online shtick adds a compelling twist on the Ghostwatch format, particularly an early reveal that, given the film only came out this past year, I dare not spoil. Gonjiam shows more restraint in the jump scare department than most of its kind and does a good job of establishing its characters before the investigation kicks off. While admittedly there isn’t an original bone in its body, Gonjiam boasts some genuinely chilling scares, likeable characters, and a slick presentation that make it well worth the watch… ideally at 3am with all the lights off. Happy ghost hunting! (Meg Shields)
7. Bedevilled (2010)
Genre films that drive women to their breaking point can sometimes feel like a dehumanization exercise; a stripping away of every part of a person until they transform into a dick-ripping terminator. But even at her most furious, Bedevilled never stops rooting for Kim Bok-nam (the ferocious Seo Young-hee). We might not sanction what she does. But boy howdy, after an hour of build up, we sure do understand why she’s doing it. Despite being enjoyably character-driven, Bedevilled is not a fun watch. Nor should it be. It’s about abuse and digestible abuse stories don’t really do it for me these days. Anyone who disagrees can put some bean paste on it, I’ll be over here happily booting up my Revenge/Bedevilled double feature. (Meg Shields)
6. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
Like his countryman Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon has managed to land two titles on our list. His incredibly grim and thrilling serial killer film sits below, but this spot is for his perfectly executed supernatural tale. Ignore the — surprise surprise — terribly underwhelming Hollywood remake (The Uninvited, 2009), and instead seek out Kim’s original for a beautifully crafted, marvelously spooky story about death, grief, and murder. Oh, and ghosts. Eerie, creepy, and endlessly affecting ghosts. (Rob Hunter)