At the beginning of Kim Ki-young’s seminal The Housemaid (1960), the grim narrative that unfolds is foreshadowed by a simple conversation at the kitchen table between a husband and wife, while their two children play quietly in the background. One of those children will soon die. As the husband reads from his evening paper he comments on a story that catches his eye which reports on a local man who has committed adultery with the maid. His wife is quick to dismiss it as silly, blaming the man involved for weakness. The husband disagrees, pointing out how reliant a family can be on a maid, even his own family. He highlights that the maid brings them their food, washes their clothes, and she is the first to greet him when he comes in from work. The weight of his words echo the warning: she is the cuckoo in the nest, potentially dangerous. This sets the scene for his own seduction by a maid: an act which violently destroys his family in the process.
21 years later Ko Young-nam’s Suddenly in the Dark, aka Suddenly at Midnight (Gipeun bam, gapjagi) (1981) would pick up the baton and take the theme further. Adding in sex, sin, female hysteria and shamanic ritual for good measure, Young-nam takes South Korean genre tradition, subverting convention, playing with expectation, in order to introduce a wonderful sense of sublime ambiguity by which he would reinvent Ki-young’s original dark Gothic tale on his own terms. For a director who only made one horror film during a hugely prolific career, the results are quite remarkable.
Suddenly in the Dark begins, just like The Housemaid, with a snapshot of perfect family life. A family settled and able to enjoy the good things, due to their status as middle class and affluent. They own a gorgeous home set in its own grounds, where they live happily with their beautiful young daughter. Husband Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) is a biology professor, writing a thesis on rare butterflies, which often takes him away on field trips, but clearly pays well. His wife Seon-hee appears content in her domestic role, telling her friend over coffee she never has to worry about her husband cheating because she trusts him implicitly. But this sense of trust is shattered when he arrives with a nubile young girl in tow, Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), who he has brought back to be their new maid. Mi-ok, the daughter of a Shamanic Priestess, left orphaned when her home burned down and her mother perished in the fire. She has no belongings, save for a creepy looking doll—a magical totem left to her by her mother—and seems to know nothing of the world. A true innocent? Or maybe not? Shortly after the newcomer’s arrival, Seon-hee starts to imagine something is going on between Mi-ok and her husband. She sees things, horrible things, like the two of them naked together, wrapped up in the throes of passion. But when she accuses the pair, she is told she has been dreaming or is imagining things. She is haunted by dreams, horrific dreams, which all seem to link to Mi-ok and the doll she carries with her everywhere. The doll that is said to have been sent to protect the girl local villagers call the “granddaughter of the sea spirit”.
Although The Housemaid had no supernatural content, a few of the classic films that took influence from it, did. For instance The Public Cemetery Under the Moon (1967), tells the tale of a woman who, in her position as a maid and cook, poisons her mistress in order to take her place, but finds herself haunted by a vengeful ghost when she tries to kill the young baby she has inherited along with wealth and new husband. A Devilish Homicide (1965) is another story that focuses on a ghost of a murdered woman—sadistically tortured before her death, psychologically at least, and then poisoned with a drug that makes her horribly disfigured, forcing her to commit suicide. The dead woman comes back to wreak vengeance on the maid (her cousin) and evil mother in law, as both orchestrated the plan for her demise. And The Devil’s Stairway (1964) shows a man haunted by the woman he kicked down the stairs to abort their unborn child. After killing her, he then attempts to move on to a more suitable wife, but is not allowed to forget his heinous act when supernatural forces are summoned to make him pay for his crimes.
Suddenly in the Dark borrows heavily from this tradition, introducing the idea vengeful supernatural forces—the female ghost figure typically called a wonhon in Korean tradition. Yet it has an added ingredient that earlier pictures lacked: an overtly erotic edge; including a lot of nudity not previously seen in films of this type. This was due to the change in the production code in the early eighties that allowed for much more sex and violence, from which a new erotic film industry was able to bloom in South Korea.
The film taps into this new found freedom in its display of sexuality; especially the way in which the camera continuously lingers over Mi-ok’s naked form as she showers, bathes, or indulges in sex games with her illicit lover. Yet to dismiss the film as simply an exercise in soft porn is to do it a severe injustice. Director Ko Young-nam uses strong Gothic melodrama as his core narrative; manipulating audience expectation through Seon-hee’s increasing paranoia, until you aren’t really sure what is going on. In this way Suddenly in the Dark stands out from the bulk of the films from the period, which tended to align much more with OTT fantasy flicks coming out of Hong Kong at that time.
Key to the story is the focus on wife Seon-hee and her disintegrating mind. Kim Young-ae was an experienced actress in both the South Korean film and television industry when she undertook the part. Much of the power of the piece is the strong performance she gives for her role, remaining sympathetic even when the story veers into ambiguous territory. The character of Seon-hee is an interesting one. It is almost as if she has existed in her own self-satisfied bubble until the nineteen year old country girl turns up at her house to shatter her world. Kang Yu-jin shows no interest in Mi-ok, to begin with, it is his wife who becomes obsessed with the girl’s youth and beauty. A factor she frequently comments on to both her husband and best friend. Supernatural forces aside, this triggers a personal crisis, as she becomes aware of her own fading youth. There she remains trapped, sliding into madness, taunted by awful visions, paranoid delusions, terrified the maid is trying to kill her. The narrative is stacked with psycho-sexual subtext and occult references. Actress Ki-seon Lee as Mi-Ok, while lacking the experience of her co-star (Lee would only appear in one other film after this, her debut), is equally as compelling. One minute Mi-ok is childlike and innocent, the next evil and leering, which further adds to the tension as the narrative unfolds and makes for a fascinating portrayal that goes against traditional form in many ways. Ko Young-nam moves from convention by taking out clear character motivation to introduce a sense of mystery that remains throughout.
Stylistically Suddenly in the Dark is a feast. The director uses a core primary colour palette drawn from tradition shamanic costumes— bright reds, greens and blues—which are reflected from the hideous doll Mi-ok brings with her into the house. Some interesting editing techniques are utilised as well, often combined with coloured lighting filters, or kaleidoscopic effects, leading an atmosphere of a sexed fuelled fever dream to some of the key scenes; this is further enhanced by the moody electronic score. There are even times when the film wanders into Euro-cult territory, with obvious Western influences popping up here and there; including what appears to be a homage to The Shining (1980), but which sees Jack Nicholson replaced with a life sized evil doll.
To say this is a vital release from Mondo Macabro is an understatement. Unlike Japanese classic horror, its South Korean counterpart remains largely obscure, difficult to find (especially in an English friendly form, with even bootlegs lacking subtitles in many cases), or simply unavailable outside of the Korean film archive, if prints survive at all. Not content with restoring the original master—and it looks gorgeous compared to a previous DVD release, especially the colours and textures, which really shine in HD—Mondo have added a valuable package of extras. The full specs are as follows:
Region-free 1080p presentation
Korean Language with optional English subtitles
Interview with producer Suh Byung-gi
Interview with critic Kim Bong-seok on the history of Korean horror films
K-Horror VHS Cover Art Gallery
Mondo Macabro Promo Reel
Brand New Cover Illustration by Naomi Butterfield
Limited edition booklet with brand new essays on the film by Grady Hendrix and Christopher Koenig
A highlight in the package is the insightful interview with Korean genre expert Kim Bong-seok, who explores the entire Korean horror industry and provides important context on where the film sits alongside its peers. This segment is especially valuable when you consider just how little has been written about classic Korean horror in either straight up critic circles, or academic research (although thankfully that is slowly starting to change).
The Bottom Line.
Irresistible, erotic, compelling, Suddenly in the Dark is a wonderful example of the richness South Korea offers to classic genre film, seen here at its darkest, deepest, and most fascinating. This new release is a vital one, pick it up as soon as you can.
The Limited Edition Red Case version of this release is now sold out, but an unlimited retail version will be available to buy early 2017.