Sometimes, when I'm trying to decide what movie I want to watch, I'll play a few minutes of a given movie to get a feel for it - the cinematography, the pacing, the mood, stuff like that. It's not always a predictor of quality or anything - Undocumented starts strong and craps out, Night of the Living Dead starts low-key and keeps ratcheting everything up and up - but I get an idea of what kind of ride I'm about to take.
Gosa (Death Bell) starts with a young girl surveying a blasted ruin, dotted with burning school desks. The girl calls for someone, and then undead schoolgirls, smeared with ash and blood, erupt from the ground and begin attacking her. The schoolgirl wakes up from what we realize is a nightmare, just as her white nightgown blooms with the blood of her menstrual period. And my first thought was "oh shit, I cannot wait to see where this is going from here."
Where Gosa was headed, I would have never seen coming. Which is too bad, because that opening scene promised a lot of weird on which the rest of the movie couldn't deliver.
It's the story of a group of students at an English High School in Korea who are being held over the weekend to drill for some sort of demonstration/competition with their sister school in America. There's some unspecified intra-school drama and weirdness between some of the students, punctuated by real-time reports of academic standings among the top students. Just as the special weekend class begins, the assembled students are confronted with an image on the school monitors: One of the students, suspended in a tank of water, drowning in front of a complex mathematical problem. If they solve the problem in time, the student will not die. They are not successful, and the doors are locked from the outside. In the chaos, another student disappears, only to resurface as the centerpiece of another grisly puzzle.
Someone wants to play a game, and everyone seems to think it's the vengeful spirit of a dead student. So we've got this sort of Saw/Ringu/The Breakfast Club thing going on. The big hook, then, is whether or not what's happening is supernatural or not. Well, that and whether or not the heroes can figure out what's going on before more people die. It's got the problem, then, of being neither fish nor fowl, less a combination of genres than a couple of different approaches to the same story slapped together. As much as I don't like bitching about movie logic, I couldn't stop wondering why a ghost would need to set up elaborate deathtraps when it's a fucking ghost, already in ugly defiance of all that is natural and holy. Can't it draw the life from their bodies? How does it set up the weird puzzle/deathtrap situations?
Apart from an inability to settle on an antagonist, it feels a little off in terms of pacing - the heroes have to solve a puzzle or a student dies, but it's less a race against the clock than sort of a stumble - they try to solve puzzles, but it seems like even when they do solve it, someone still ends up dead, so there's not as much tension as there should be. There are a couple of red herrings, but there's no clear sense that we should be thinking in terms of the red herring, so they're less misleading than confusing. The action isn't so much rising as sloshing around in a bucket.
Which is too bad, because as much as I'm not a fan of slashers, and am pretty much on record as not being a huge fan of the whole Saw-style elaborate deathtrap movie, this would have been a great one with better pacing and no ghost imagery. It manages to wrap up the explanation for what's happening and why pretty nicely - it's believable and internally consistent without being obvious from the word go - and there are some good set pieces amid the desultory murk. For once, I wouldn't mind seeing a remake - not so much because I think an American version could do it better, as because I think American movies of this nature could use a shot in the arm.
Still, that opening scene, with the burning classroom ruin and the zombie students and the menstrual nightmare? Had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. And I still want to see that movie.
Not available on Netflix