This 2000 release is the work of South Korean writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, who went on to make the excellent PHONE, but it is not quite up to the level of that subsequent work. NIGHTMARE (whose Korean title translates as “Scissors”) plays out like a supernatural-slasher-film murder-mystery, with lots of flashbacks, little detective work, and some unconvincing red herrings. The result is an interesting (though unsatisfactory) hybrid of Asian horror motifs (as in 1998’s RING), combined with giallo-style gore of the Dario Argento variety. The result, like oil and vinegar, has its appeal, but the elements do not necessarily mix well.
NIGHTMARE starts with a wonderfully eerie sequence in a morgue, with a body that refuses to keep its eyes closed. In a few moments, the tone is clearly established: moody atmosphere mixed with gross-out gore (the corpse’s eyes are sewn shut in close-up, but they pop back open anyway). There is also a brief flash of nudity (a rarity in these films), which sets up some of the sexual undertones that permeate the rest of the film. Two years later, the story begins with Sun-ae returning to her friends after a stay in a mental hospital. She makes ominous pronouncements about Kyung-ah (the corpse seen in the opening), suggesting that the dead girl’s restless ghost is looking for revenge.
Revenge for what? That emerges in a series of flashbacks that take place in two time frames: one that leads up to the Kyung-ah’s death, and an earlier one that shows her childhood back story with Sun-ae and Lee Hye-Jin, who thought she was witch when they grew up together in a small village. In between all this exposition, Kyung-ah’s restless spirit appears to her former friends, first as a child, then as a young woman (looking a bit like Winona Ryder and/or Christina Ricci).
Is she real, or is she an embodiment of her former friends’ collective guilt? Byeong-ki Ah wants to keep us guessing: for instance, an early lecture about serial killers, driven by guilt to enact increasingly horrible crimes, seems to suggest that Sun-ae may be the killer (which would explain why the murders start two years after Kyung-ah’s death: Sun-ae’s been away all that time). Unfortunately, the script isn’t quite clever enough to make this interpretation credible.
The violent, protracted rooftop finale (which is overdone and frankly overlong) even leaves the ghost on the sidelines while the humans fight it out. Sun-ae tries to kill the person most culpable in Kyung-ah’s death, while the guilty party brags that he murdered the others in order to cover up evidence. It’s a desperate and futile piece of writing that is supposed to make us think the mystery has been solved. This sets up an allegedly “surprise” ending, which is all too predictable because we never believe the “rational” explanation.
This is the kind of film in which the police arrive ridiculously late in the story (it seems to take half a dozen bodies to get them to show up), and many unanswered questions remain after the final fade-out. There is a gratuitous “spooky” moment when a computer monitor that one character has been watching turns out to be unplugged: what was the point, if any? As an adult, Kyung-ah uses a phony name when she reacquaints herself with her childhood friends: we can understand her desire for a new identity (she wants to be liked, not feared as a witch), so why does she keep her childhood doll in her locker (where Sun-ae can discover it and thus confirm her true identity)? Is Sun-ae possessed by Kyung-ah, or is she acting as a medium that allows Kyung-ah to achieve her revenge? A black cat is seen several times: is it Kyung-ah’s familiar or just an innocent pet? In another scene, a potential victim is nearly run over by a car while Kyung-ah stares on: did she cause the near collision — or prevent it?
Part of the problem may arise for an excess of ambition. The film works hard to maintain some sympathy for Kyung-ah: is she perpetrator or victim? Unfortunately, the effect is often confusing rather than charged with ambiguity. Actually, there is one sexually charged ambiguity that fires up the movie: it turns out that a profound homoerotic longing motivates the plot. Is this just another example of filmmakers equating homosexuality with homicide, or are we supposed to see it as a symptom of an estranged character pushed to to the extremes of desperation by the cruel treatment of those around her?
Whatever the story’s shortcomings, the director knows his stuff when it comes to staging the scare scenes. For instance, our first sight of the ghost occurs when Hye-jin lets her pencil roll off a table, but there is no sound of it hitting the floor. What caught it? We find out when the unseen ghost first lifts her doll above the table’s edge, then reveals herself a second later — a malevolent looking undead girl, who stabs the pencil into her victim’s hand, precipitating a chase to an elevator, where she suddenly takes on adult proportions. All the subsequent scares are handled with equal effectiveness: the ghost briefly glimpsed in the strobe lights of a discotheque; a face submerged in blue-tinted water; a virtuoso overhead tracking shot of one victim bleeding to death in a shower stall.
Interestingly, the film is as much inspired by the work of Brian DePalma and Dario Argento as it is by RING-director Hideo Nakata: one character goes crashing through a jagged glass window like the unfortunate psychic in Argento’s DEEP RED; and the twist ending has a nicely done, over-lit, too-good-to-be true quality like the ending of DePalma’s CARRIE. Moments like these keep the film suspenseful and genuinely frightening throughout its running time, in spite of the plot holes. The film may not work as a violent mystery-thriller, but when it focuses on the haunting, it is an excellent piece of supernatural horror.
NIGHTMARE (a.k.a. “Gawi,” 2000). Written & directed by Byeong-ki Ahn. Cast: Gyu-ri Kim, Ji-won Ha, Jeong-yun Choi, Ji-tae Yiu, Jun-Sang Yu, Jun Jeong Hye-yeong Jo