Ah, Korean horror films. Surely they’re all about some ghostly female figure with long black hair crawling around the floor, killing people by just looking at them, for some complicated reason involving an overly melodramatic back-story. Well, if you’re bored of that, don’t worry – director Im Dae-Woong clearly is too, throwing away the book of Ringu/Ju-on clones to take a page out of Evil Dead Trap’s manual, in order to fashion a full-blooded slasher epic, which comes on like Korea’s answer to Haute Tension.
A group of twenty-something’s meet for a reunion at the house of one of their old teachers, who is now wheelchair-bound. However, tensions & resentments within the group start to surface as the evening progresses, and before long a mysterious figure wearing a rabbit mask starts violently killing the group one by one.
If it’s full-on blood and violence you like in your horror films, To Sir with Love is only too happy to oblige, boasting a couple of nasty Hostel-style torture scenes and some good old-fashioned gory murder set-pieces. Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension is an apt comparison for both its leeringly cathartic approach to the bloodletting, but also to some of its tricky plotting, where final reel revelations imbue hitherto by-the-number slasher plotting with a surprising emotional core. Whilst personally I still prefer the Aja film (it doesn’t take so long to get into the horror and is tense throughout, while To Sir… has some relatively mundane moments between the set-pieces), I can see a whole lot of people marking To Sir… as the superior film. Why? Well, it doesn’t borrow wholesale from a book without crediting it, and it presents its plot-twists without leaving the audience feeling cheated (though it’s much more guessable) – which are by far the two biggest complaints I’ve heard against Haute Tension.
Although (not unlike Wolf Creek) it does take a little while for To Sir, With Love to start its bloody rampage it is at least fairly interesting in its subject matter. While the teacher/pupil relationship is one often seen in inspirational fare like Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society, it’s rarely seen in the horror genre, giving the film a much-needed refreshing edge. The film takes quite a bleak view on the amount of psychological damage a bad teacher is capable of inflicting, and at times you’re left wondering exactly where the film is heading; with seemingly every character self-obsessed and blindingly resentful of their wheelchair-bound teacher, a captivatingly bleak worldview becomes apparent. And since I’ve been spending most of this review rather lazily comparing this film to others, I’m now going to invoke Bava’s Bay of Blood, Argento’s Opera, and Soavi’s Stagefright, all for no particular reason, other than the fact that watching this film made me think of all of them in terms of tone, violent content, and visual élan.
Indeed, once the carnage starts, slasher fans are unlikely to be disappointed, with dismemberments, staplings, razor-blade force-feeding and sundry other vicious, nasty goodies a-plenty. Visually, it’s pretty good-looking stuff too (something that seems to be pretty much a given on any Korean production nowadays), with some lovely off-kilter framing, and zoom-tastic movements (yeah, baby!) meaning that the eyes are always entertained even if occasionally the brain has to switch off. Whilst it’s by no means a perfect film, it’s one that can sit quite happily between Hatchet and See No Evil for quality, as proof that the good ol’ slasher film is indeed still alive and well. More than that, it also proves that Korean horror can do more than just the long-haired-ghost trick, and even if it ultimately does little more than rework US and Italian slasher-movie conventions through a distinctly Korean sensibility, it does do it surprisingly well and with a bloody mean streak.
The Korean DVD is R3/NTSC and boasts a wonderful anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer, Korean audio in DTS or Dolby 5.1, with optional Korean or English subtitles. The 2-disc Limited Edition set comes in a beautiful foldout packaging, but sadly (as is often the case with these pricey Korean editions) all of the extras are Korean language only. Even if you decide to wait for a more generously priced release (or one with features you can understand!), this little gem of a slasher flick is well worth a watch.