“What do you want to watch tonight?”
That is the familiar nightly refrain in my household during Halloween season. From every-single-year classics to buzzy new stuff to ongoing horror series (like this year’s Midnight Mass – check it out), when it comes to Halloween viewing, there’s almost too much to get through. So when the question inevitably came up again last night, my answer was, “I want to watch Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, a Korean found footage haunted mental asylum movie.” My wife’s reply to that was “You lost me”.
I picked this one because I’d seen the name come up in a number of forum topics revolving around horror movies that are “really scary”, and lo and behold, it was recently added to Shudder. So does it live up to the hype? Well, actually, yes! You just have to invest a little time to get there.
That one sentence elevator pitch I provided above is all you need to know. There’s an extremely creepy abandoned mental asylum in South Korea (a real building, it turns out), and a group of YouTubers decide to sneak in and live stream their exploration of the place hoping to capture some footage of real paranormal activity. Standard fare, to be honest, with all the tropes and trappings you’d expect from such things. As I’ve said before, found footage has real advantages in terms of enhancing the authenticity of scary movies, but it also forces filmmakers to jump through annoying hurdles to justify the format. Often, it means establishing that the characters filming everything happen to be in possession of dozens of different cameras and audio equipment (so they don’t miss any spookies). That’s the case here.
By roughly the halfway point of this movie, I started to grow concerned that I’d been duped. It’s mostly typical ghost hunter stuff you’d see on Discovery these days – occasional random noises and vague background movements drowned out by the gasping and prostrations of the main characters. The location is undeniably creepy, one of the best aspects of the movie. It’s not the real Gonjiam Asylum but they obviously invested a ton of money and effort into set design. It feels like a real crumbling building. They just withhold the actual scares for longer than you expect.
But once it finally lets loose… my lord. Korean ghost horror has a reputation for being especially aggressive and horrifying, and I can see why. This one unleashes some truly ghastly imagery in the final third. Things that – honest to god – made me tempted to cover my eyes (I did not). Since this movie takes place almost entirely in darkness pierced by nothing but flashlights, you’re forced to squint at the screen looking for recognizable shapes, which ups the intensity. If paranormal-type horror does it for you, this is your jam.
At a brisk 95 minutes, you don’t have to sit through that much setup to get to the good stuff. Rest assured that the tropey first half is just lulling you into a false sense of security before the bonkers second half.