‘If you go outside of the school you will die’

School’s out for ever? Perhaps a popular lyric for rock music loving students (at least the older ones) but in Death Bell the students and teachers are subject to a series of bizarre and gruesome murders at their educational establishment. Marking the feature film debut of music video director Yoon Hong-Seung (aka Chang), Death Bell is an eminently watchable horror film that knows its genre well.

It’s the time of year that all students fear – exam season. Hard work, memorising facts and intense revision sessions, not to mention all the problems that come with dormitory troubles, bullying and gossip. But questions answered, grades obtained and romances curtailed are nothing compared with the horrors that await the students afterwards. Prevented from leaving the school grounds, their numbers are being reduced one-by-one in the most horrendous manner imaginable – murdered in savage and structured ways, mocked by an unknown assailant who demands that those still living solve a series of increasingly complex and obscure puzzles. But are these torturous killings the work of a psychopath or have they occurred at the savage instigation of the spiritual nightmares of a deceased pupil?

Grange Hill meets Silent Hill, by way of Se7en, Saw and virtually any other horror staple you would like to mention but, while Death Bell draws heavily on its genre knowledge, it is comfortably its own film. The opening dream sequence depicting a schoolgirl trying to escape from ghostly apparitions and zombies amongst row upon row of desks is beautifully shot and sets the tone for the film, marking it as a horror flick, even if the scene has been carefully constructed in a context that may or may not relate to the actuality of the forthcoming plot. The reference to Silent Hill is more than just a corny gag as elements of gaming culture – computers and networking – define much of the instigation of the peril, although there is no attempt to overemphasise this aspect within the plot. Rather, this film takes in a supernatural/serial killer mystery approach and combines this with torture elements that recall Saw or The Cell but makes them its own by retaining the levels of conventional school drama amidst the shocking revelations.

The only Korean horror film to be released in the summer of 2008, director (and co-writer) Chang uses a variety of techniques to produce his scares in a way that keeps the viewer constantly engaged – from jump shocks, through to scary monster tactics and torture trauma.

The DVD extras are also enjoyable and include ‘making of’ documentaries as well as supplying essential music videos that help place the film in a wider context.