Sometimes, as unfair as it can be, two films just beg for a comparison. At Fantastic Fest, I saw two films that were made in different countries and share no cast or crew, only the basic skeleton of a story. Both of these films are female revenge stories, following a wronged woman as she makes sure a bunch of evil bastards get what’s coming to them. One of these film is the remake of I Spit On our Grave, soulless junk that sets out only to shock, succeeds and vanishes into the ether. The other film is Bedevilled, which is not only shocking, but sad and scary and oddly moving, a revenge story with a soul and a point and final message that may not be subtle, but it’s a vital observation about human beings.
Bedevilled is a film that gets under your skin and leaves a lasting impression. To call it a “slasher” film feels like a disservice, but let’s not get too pretentious here: Bedevilled is slasher horror film, but it’s the only slasher horror film I can think of that features this much raw emotion and a killer whom we cheer on not because the kills are cool and her victims are ciphers, but because we empathize with her on every level and her long-in-the-making bloody retribution feels like the ultimate catharsis.
Seo Yeong-hee’s Bok-nam is one of the most sympathetic killers I’ve ever seen in a movie and she rightfully won the Best Actress award at this year’s Fantastic Fest. Bedevilled took home the Audience Award and rightfully so: I’ve rarely seen an audience as emotionally overwhelmed as they were watching Bedevilled.
We first meet Hae-won (the lovely Ji Sung-won), a professional woman who witnesses a group of men assault a woman and chooses not to intervene and later, not to implicate the men who did it. Between stress at work and this incident, Hae-won decides that a vacation is in order and takes a boat out to Moodo, the island where she grew. Formerly a bustling community of farmers, the island is down to only a handful of inhabitants, including her childhood friend Bok-nam and her young daughter. Bok-nam is overjoyed to see her old friend and we soon see why; things are not happy for her on Moodo, mainly because she is treated as a slave by the older women and as an object of sexual desire by the men. This is a woman who has never known kindness, never known love and lives in community that is slowly destroying her through mental, emotional, physical and sexual torture.
And like she did on the mainland, Hae-won stands by idly and does nothing. And then Bok-nam takes matters into her own hands.
To say too much more would be treading into spoiler territory, but you should have a pretty good idea of what transpires even though you’ve never seen this type of story told in this manner. Bedevilled is a slow-burn of a film, with some morons suggesting that you should fast-forward through the first hour so you can get to the carnage-filled second half. That’s missing the point. What separates Bedevilled from junk like I Spit On Your Grave is that we have the time to understand these characters, to get what makes them tick and to truly feel for them. This isn’t an hour of rape followed by revenge murders. This is an hour of connecting with a character on an incredibly human level, watching helplessly as her life goes to hell and hoping, wishing, praying, that she finds a way to escape.
Of course, what she does is not the sane option, but we’ve also spent enough time watching every other option fail that we agree that it may be the only option. The Audience Award winner being a slow burning, bloody horror movie without a single moment of humor or levity may seem like an odd choice, but this is the rare slow burning, bloody horror movie that goes out of its way to invest the audience in the characters’ plight in a truly honest way.
This is the debut of writer/director Jang Cheol-so, a name that I hope we see more often. Instead of going gritty with the material, he goes classical, shooting the film with an beautiful simplicity that feels more like Ingmar Bergman than any other contemporary horror director. Taking full advantage of his gorgeous island location (and his two gorgeous leads), he crafts a film that looks and feels like a dark drama, allowing the second-half horror happenings to feel appropriately jarring. I’ve recently bemoaned the lack of class and sophistication in modern horror, the kind of elegance you see in The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, but Bedevilled feels like it belongs to that school.
Beyond the blood and vengeance, Bedevilled has a message embedded into the arc of Hae-won: violence occurs, and continues to occur, because people choose to sit idly by and mind their own business rather than help their fellow man in a moment of need. It’s not a subtle message and it’s to the film’s detriment that it’s hammered home with such a heavy hand, but it’s not the kind of thing you see in your average horror movie. And that’s why Bedevilled is a great Horror Movie: because it never goes for easy gore or simple scares, because it tries to be a great Film first.
A good horror film plays in the sandbox of its own genre. A great horror film transcends its genre.