The Grotesque Mansion

Korea (2021) Dir. Jo Ba-Reun

Nobody really wants to live in haunted house unless they are ghost hunters or gluttons for punishment. It is usually much later when a building being cursed becomes known -after all, an estate agent isn’t going to say anything! Still, it makes for some fun stories to tell, right?

Jung Ji-Woo (Sung Joon) is a webtoon artist whose first creation failed to set the world alight, so to ensure his next work is a hit, he follows up on rumours that the apartment block Gwang-Lim Mansion is cursed, leading to the disappearances or deaths of some of its tenants. Ji-Woo is granted an interview with the mansion’s former caretaker (Kim Hong-pa), who regales him with tales of five spooky incidents.

Also known as Ghost Mansion, this directorial debut from Jo Ba-Reun is an anthology with a difference – that being the individual segments are part of an overarching plot, rather than skits based on a theme. This gives the story some direction, but the problem is many are standalone issues with little to connect them other than location and the supernatural occurrences.

The first story revolves around an author (Lee Chang Hoon) who lived in room 504. He is struggling with the writing of his next work and moves into the apartment for fewer distractions. But he is out of luck – if it isn’t his angry wife harassing him over the phone for leaving her with their newborn child, it is the noisy people he can hear in the other flats, yet can never see.

Over in room 907, a young pharmacist Sun-Hwa (Park So-Jin) is visited by her married lover Ho-Joon (Lee Dong-Ha) in a state, saying his wife had found them out. When she says this means he can divorce his wife and they can be together, Ho-Joon is defensive. The next day the police question Sun-Hwa about Ho-Joon’s whereabouts after his wife and daughter are found murdered. When Sun-Hwa gets home she finds Ho-Joon in the shower – then Ho-Joon shows up at the front door!

Meanwhile in room 708, an estate agent (Seo Hyun-Woo) responsible for renting room 504 to the author, acts like a big shot at work but in fact lives alone – well not quite: his companion is a doll dressed as a woman with which he converses as if she was real. One night his sink overflows and a plumber reveals the blockage was caused by clumps of female hair. Despite being unblocked the problem persists, but is not the only odd thing happening in the apartment.

Down a floor to room 604, student Tae-Hoon (Kang Yoo-Seok) returns to Korea having failed in his studies abroad and keen to avoid his parents, moves in with his friend Jae-Suk (Lee Suk-Hyeong). Tae-Hoon notices an outbreak of spots over Jae-Suk’s face and worse, the food he eats is stale and there is festering mould all over the flat. With time on his hands, Tae-Hoon cleans the flat, but Jae-Suk is not impressed and lashes out at Tae-Hoon in a terrifying manner.

By this point in the film, Ji-Woo is becoming obsessed with the mansion and the stories he is told, upsetting his girlfriend Da-Hye (Kim Bo-Ra) by missing his own birthday to investigate further. When alone one day, Da-Hye finds the tapes of the recordings of the interviews and listens to them, realising the severity of what Ji-Woo is getting into and rushes off to find him before it is too late.

For the final story, the caretaker himself is the subject, finally deciding to reveal to Ji-Woo the truth about the mansion being built by a group of cultists from a nearby church, and the secrets of what lies in room 1504. As this provides the conclusion to the story, this is the segment that goes all out in the terror stakes, but also observes the many traditions and conventions of the horror genre more than the others.

Whether this is a satisfactory ending or not will be up to individual judgement but I can say it definitely ends on a creepy – albeit blink and you miss it – note. It is also the only segment that feels directly related to the central premise given the nature of its plot with the implications of the actions being wholly congruent. The other skits feel like disjointed adjuncts offering no explanation for the paranormal phenomenon other than the fabled curse, which hitherto had no foundation beyond a quick mention as a rumour.

Usually, anthology films featured a number of different directors submitting a segment, in turn offering a variety of ideas and approaches to its main theme. As this is the work of Jo alone, this format doesn’t feel entirely justified, and would have served better as a singular piece, using the flashback method. This is a minor issue though, depending on whether you actually view this as an omnibus and not a whole piece.

Conversely, the attempt to create an overlap between the characters seems cute, with the author buying painkillers in Sun-Hwa’s pharmacy, interrupted briefly by Tae-Hoon, whilst we saw the author being sold his flat by the estate agent. The problem is that these events as recalled by the caretaker supposedly happened at different times – or at least that is the inference – so how are they in the same place at the same time?

Production values are high, employing touches of CGI and practical effects, the latter responsible for the most discomfort and unsettling moments, and that is not limited to the zits on Jae-Suk’s face! Jo relies a lot on in camera techniques and lighting to create an eerie atmosphere, bolstered by the cast’s best efforts with their roles.

There is a nice idea behind The Grotesque Mansion and Jo nearly pulls it off, which for a debut is impressive but a more experienced hand would have brought it all together with more coherence. A decent watch with some nice scares nonetheless.

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