31 Days of Hell: Suddenly in the Dark (1981) - Reviewed

South Korean horror became increasingly popular (as well as available) with Western moviegoers in the early 2000s, moving from a niche interest to full blown mainstream popularity.  With some titles even being remade for the West or South Korean directors coming stateside to unleash their talents un unsuspecting cinephiles, South Korean cinema and in particular horror was booming in the 2000s. 

Unbeknownst to myself, however, the roots of horror in South Korean film stem much further back than you’d expect, dating all the way back to the mid-60s and onward.  As the Korean Film Archive gradually continues to pursue restoring many of these forgotten and largely unseen gems of East Asian horror back into the cinematic playground, one such film to crop up and be given a proper stateside release for the first time is Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray disc of the 1981 South Korean shamanist supernatural horror shocker Suddenly in the Dark.

Also known as Suddenly at Midnight, the film directed by industry veteran Ko Young-nam tells the story of a middle-aged couple involving an entomologist named Yu-jin (Yun Il-bong) and his wife Seon-hee (late actress Kim Yeong-ae) and young daughter whose tranquil existence is shaken by the arrival of a mysterious beautiful housemaid named Mi-Ok (Lee Ki-seon).  All seems well at first, until a creepy doll Mi-Ok carries with her at all times belonging to a deceased shaman shows up in the entomologist’s slideshow as well as turning up seemingly in the most unlikely of places at all times. 

Compounded with the young woman’s carefree attitude towards her scantily clad appearance and Seon-hee’s own increasing jealousies and paranoia over the girl, Suddenly in the Dark soon charges full steam ahead into a phantasmagorical odyssey into…madness?  The supernatural?  The psychosexual?  One can never really tell.  What is apparent onscreen is that the film shares with viewers an almost total commitment to Seon-hee’s state of mind with every projected perceived fantasy/reality playing out onscreen.

While the fear of shamanism doesn’t come off as harrowing as, say, The Wailing, Suddenly in the Dark does however prove to be a kaleidoscopic cacophony of psychedelic horror through the perspective of a terrified middle-aged woman.  Featuring lush vistas of the Korean countryside, innovative cinematographic techniques thanks to Jeong Pil-si and rapid-fire editing by Hyeon Dong-chun, Suddenly in the Dark gradually transforms into one viscerally arresting ride.

Sonically, the film’s soundtrack is just as unhinged, thanks to a wacky electronic score by Choi Jong-hyuk that would make the likes of Cliff Martinez proud.  With weird, off-kilter Theremin sounds and preexisting tracks sneakily repurposed from other movies including but not limited to Flash Gordon, the soundscape creates an uneasy tone of what could simply be a fragile psyche unraveling or something much more sinister and implacable.

Almost completely unknown in the West until now thanks to Mondo Macabro’s blu-ray disc, this forgotten little South Korean gem is an early example of 1980s East Asian horror that grows increasingly spooky as it presses on and manages to offer some colorful thrills not seen since the funky psychedelia of, say, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s utterly insane Hausu.  Both frightening and a lot of offbeat fun, Suddenly in the Dark is one of the best South Korean slices of horror you’ve never heard of!

--Andrew Kotwicki