Jeon Juno (Jeong-min Hwang) has just started a new job. A former bank employee, Juno is now an insurance investigator, his job is to determine if a claim is valid or fraudulent. From his first encounter with a hospital patient it is easy to see that Juno is a compassionate individual who hopes to appeal to his clients—and possible criminals—softer, more human side. When he later receives a phone call from a client who indicates that they might be contemplating suicide, he expresses his desire to help and relates the tragic tale of his younger brothers death—before his very eyes. Later, Juno is called to the home of Choong-Bae (Shin-Il Kang) to discuss his policy. When Juno arrives he discovers Choong-Bae’s son has hung himself. It also seems that Choong-Bae and his wife (Seon Yu) have an insurance policy on their son and they are anxious to cash it in. Juno soon begins to suspect that Choong-Bae may have murdered his son in order to collect the Thirty Million Won death benefit. As Juno pleads with authorities to investigate the murder—and delays the payment to Choong-Bae and his wife—he begins to discover that the mysterious answering machine messages he’s been getting on his phone have placed him and his girlfriend squarely in the sights of a psychopath.
Based on the 1997 novel The Black House by best selling Japanese author Yusuke Kishi, this 2007 adaptation is actually the second version of the book to be immortalized on screen. The first came in 1999 with the J-Horror film KUROI IE.
Unlike most Asian Horror Films, which are deeply seeded in old superstitions and supernatural occurrences, BLACK HOUSE is wholly grounded in reality. The film is factual and at times almost dry. Its momentary lapses into near Crime Drama territory make the film feel like an Eastern cousin to the SAW franchise—although, despite some significant gore in the later frames, the film is mostly topical and not visceral.
To further push the reality of the situation the production even references notorious South Koran serial murder Yoo Young-cheol. With these nudges of real life creeping in, BLACK HOUSE seems at times to be reminding us that this could happen to anybody—and that everyman, Hitchcockian spirit, even winks its trained eye at us when Juno approaches Choong-Bae’s wife with his concerns for her safety. She in turn, accepting Choong-Bae may have murdered their son, asks Juno to kill her husband. Shades of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and even Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY permeate the scene.
A few minor missteps aside—and a slow burn build-up—just past the hour mark BLACK HOUSE reveals its twist. From there on out it seems hard to believe that the film could sustain forty-five more minutes of action and exposition, but this is the part where the film truly shines—even if—in the final frames genre conventions kick into full gear and the film loses a lot of its absolute reality to the undying-cinematic-serial-killer-cliché.
BLACK HOUSE isn’t as genuinely creepy as most Asian Horror films and their innumerable counterparts. But it absolutely has an air of authenticity about it that makes it fascinating in the same way that SAW or HOSTLE or even SEVEN managed. Is it as good as those films, not if your criteria is simply guttural intensity? BLACK HOUSE plays its hand more closely to the Film Noir’s of the 1940’s and the Hitchcock “wrong man” thrillers of the 1950’s—albeit with a good deal more bloodshed in the end. That’s never a bad thing in my book, but if you’re looking for jump-cuts and whip-pans to progress the story, then your attention span will never get you to the payoff director Terra Shin has in store for you and that’s too bad because BLACK HOUSE is worth it.