In the Korean chiller The Devil’s Stairway (Maeui Gyedan [1964]; AKA The Evil Stairs), director Lee ManHui combines film noir light and shade flourishes with thriller and horror elements, with a bit of melodrama added for good measure. The result is a slow-burning shocker well worth watching.

Dr. Hyeon (Kim JinKyu) is the chief surgeon in an older hospital that has a gothic influence on its architecture. He’s also a cad. When we are first introduced to him, he has just had a romantic rendezvous with Nurse Nam (Moon JeongSuk) at his home and tells her unceremoniously to leave by the back gate so that the security guard doesn’t see her. This type of behavior doesn’t sit well with her, as she has been his secret lover for some time. When she catches wind of his plan to marry the younger daughter (Bang SeongJa) of the hospital director so that he can inherit that coveted post, she informs him that she is pregnant. It is at this point that the film shifts from rather straight melodrama to more sinister tones as Nam and Hyeon are involved in an accident on the titular staircase, and Hyeon goes about attempting to make sure that Nam doesn’t get in the way of his planned future by making their affair public.

The Devil’s Stairway doesn’t bring much new to the table, even considering its year of release. It shows its influences front and center, including the classic Kim KiYoung thriller The Housemaid (1960) and the quintessential French shocker Les Diaboliques (1955). What sets the film apart from being just another movie trying to ride on the success of its genre forebears is how it uses film noir-influenced light and shade, and the fine performances by its two leads.

Lee and cinematographer Seo JeongMin emphasize shadows everywhere possible, to great effect — from the steps to a different but equally deadly staircase conveniently located just outside bedridden Nurse Nam’s hospital room, to the gloomy swamp mere steps away from that staircase, and even at Hyeong’s engagement party. The sense of dread this approach creates is palpable, and the eerie settings outside the hospital — reminiscent of EC horror comics, Universal horror films such as The Wolf Man (1941), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) — escalate those feelings. Seo captures the proceedings splendidly, with many captivating set pieces. 

Lee and screenwriter Lee JongTaek start things off a tad slow as they introduce the one-sided relationship between Dr. Hyeon and Nurse Nam, focusing on the melodrama of the situation. The story then really gets underway when Hyeon begins to show that there is much more to his dark side than simply being a womanizer and opportunist, with Kim showing a wide range of riveting facial expressions as his character silently considers his options on keeping Nam quiet, perhaps permanently. Once things get rolling, Lee wrings every bit of suspense and atmosphere possible from the sets: creaky steps in a state of disrepair, a blinking light bulb, and a reveal initially hidden to audience members but shown to horrified characters.

Kim is terrific as the doctor, who goes from arrogant and self-serving to terrified and paranoid and possibly haunted by a supernatural presence. Moon gives a more reserved but no less powerful performance as a nurse who refuses to be resigned to life as a long-term mistress. The supporting cast is fine as well.

Older Korean genre films are not easy to come by, and The Devil’s Stairway is a wonderful find. There is plenty for classic thriller and horror cinema fans to enjoy here, even if some elements of the film are readily recognizable.

The Devil’s Stairway screened at the London Korean Film Festival, which took place from 1st-14th November in London before embarking on its annual tour 18th-24th November. For more information, visit http://koreanfilm.co.uk/.