Horror films have always had a tendency to form cycles that reflect their audiences’ tastes. Partly this is because they are often produced for relatively small budgets, but also turnaround can be quite swift as film-makers react to market trends – hence the slew of post-modern ‘knowing’ genre films in the wake of Scream or the tide of Italian zombie films following the success of Dawn of the Dead (1978).
And now, despite the years since it first graced our screens, we are still in the grip of the chill picture response to the global phenomena of Japan’s Ringu (and, to some extent, its US counterpart The Sixth Sense). Ringu spawned two spin-offs in its local territory and two remakes abroad. Which brings us to Phone, a 2002 smash hit in Korea (it was the 8th most successful local film of its year) that rode on the Ringu wave and now has the pleasure of being optioned for a remake in Japan. What goes around comes around.
Ji-Won is used to getting abusive and threatening calls, it’s the reason she keeps having to change her mobile number, but it’s odd that she’s getting some so soon into a new contract, especially from someone who can apparently see everything she’s doing and call on a phone that doesn’t even have a ringtone yet. Ji-Won is a reporter who has exposed sex abusers, seeing that justice is done to those who perpetrate such crimes; a job not without its dangers. But this is different. Her phone might be new but her investigations reveal that the number is certainly not… previous recipients are now texting with the choir invisible and it’s looking like she could well be next. If that were not enough her niece, Yeong-Ju, is behaving very strangely, flicking from pleasant, finger-painting little girl to scary ‘Linda Blair on steroids demonically possessed psycho’ in the blinking of an eye. Could she be a psychologically scarred victim of abuse or is there a more supernatural reason for her lethal mood swings?
Spooky renditions of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, sudden jumps when glancing at the bathroom mirror, rain, art galleries (always a give away, it’s one of the great unwritten rules of film: visit an art gallery and bad things will happen – probably a subliminal swipe at people who think film and culture are mutually exclusive terms) and everyone’s favourite… the spooky kid. Phone has them all and more, even including that boon to modern horror films – the sudden use of the rear speakers to scare your pants off, because up till then the film had apparently been in stereo. But amid the genre entrapments there is a story that’s both unsettling and intriguing.
It’s a sordid mystery that unfolds, slowly revealing more about the characters and their motives, twisting expectations as to who is good, who is evil and who has been wronged. Part of the reason it works so well is the exceptionally convincing acting, particularly from Seo-Woo Eun as the troubled Yeong-Ju – to get such a performance from someone so young is a miracle and the weight of the film falls solidly on her shoulders in order for the audience to suspend disbelief.
Phone achieves the tricky feat of being clichéd genre hokum that also genuinely manages to unnerve in a crawling, insidious manner. The combination of jumps and psychological creeps make it far more affecting than its 15 rating would seem to imply. With top-notch acting and production this is definitely one to check out. As an added bonus there are a fair selection of extras on the disk too.