A group of gifted South Korean students meet for a special class one Saturday, only to find out that they’re in for a more exciting day than they expected. Right before class starts the TVs all around the school turn on and present an image of a schoolgirl screaming inside a sealed glass tank. The other students realize that it’s a classmate that was missing from attendance, and start to freak out when water begins to rush into the tank and the girl screams for help. The teachers run around panicked, trying to figure out where she is and what they should do, when a strange voice appears over the loudspeaker with a command- either solve a school problem or the girl will drown.
The voice also warns the students and teachers that anyone who tries to leave the school will be killed, so of course some people immediately run off to test the concept, only to find out that they weren’t kidding. Clearly some people still have yet to learn the importance of sticking with a group when they’re in a horror movie.
One of the students is being labeled as a possible culprit due to him having hacked into the loudspeaker system only days before, and another student thinks he’s going insane, seeing visions of a dead girl everywhere. The girls start to form up into their cliques of the haves and have-nots, and they all try to figure out how to escape in their own ways, as kids keep getting abducted.
The concept of Death Bell immediately caused me to think of a movie that was equal parts Battle Royale and Saw, with a dash of Ringu, but I had it all mixed up. It turns out that it’s more of a Japanese ghost story than anything else. It’s got the typical themes of wrongful death and grudges from beyond the grave and has the same mistake of multiple endings (with a big twist!) that mar these kinds of films. When everything is laid out you’ll find no Battle Royale-style social commentary here, no real depth to it, merely a ghost tale that’s meant to creep you out and make you jump.
In that respect it’s a successful, if shallow, film. It’s not terribly scary or bloody but does manage to startle you here and there with some effective setups, even if the way the kids are killed is completely over the top and ridiculous. The characters themselves are typical and they make the same boneheaded decisions that everyone does in horror flicks, but it’s entertaining throughout and perfect for curling up on the couch with your favorite gal or guy.
For a young first-time filmmaker Yoon Hong-Seung has shown an incredible ability to emulate what’s been done before and bring a little of his own flavor to it, so if he can manage to take some more risks with his next films his will be a career to watch.
7.0 out of 10
Death Bell is available right now On Demand via IFC Festival Direct.