The Wailing proves to be an apt title for this grisly, dense, visceral supernatural horror film from South Korea, which opens Friday at the Capitol Theatre as part of its Capitol Selects series. It's apt because The Wailing's characters are forever howling and crying and wailing in terror as families in their rural village are gruesomely killed.
Just how they're being killed is unclear — some combination of supernatural forces and spectacular human violence. Jong Gu (Do Wan Kwak) is a policeman in the idyllic region of Goksung. He is awakened early one morning to the news of a death. When he arrives on scene, (not before he's had a hearty breakfast!), he discovers a bloodbath. The perpetrator sits at the doorstep, lesioned, white-eyed and catatonic.
Another incident rocks the town shortly thereafter. Same drill. A family is horribly killed — note well that knives are the murder weapon of choice, so these scenes are nothing if not Pollock-esque — and the perpetrator appears afflicted with the same not-quite-natural ailment, an ailment that apparently begins with a rash.
When Jong Gu's daughter Hyo-Jin (the remarkable Kim Hwan-Hee) develops said rash, she begins exhibiting traits not seen since Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Jong Gu knows what awaits his daughter and his family if he doesn't solve the mystery, and so the pressure is on to catch the killer or, as the case may be, banish the responsible demon or ghost. This is a task for which Jong Gu is woefully unequipped, because unlike in American cop dramas, the cops in Korea are largely rendered as hapless, scaredy cats. (This makes for some terrific [un]intentional comedy when the zombie-like creatures attack the cops and they basically cover their heads and scream.)
A bizarre array of encounters transpires — a shaman is enlisted to attempt an elaborate exorcism of Hyo-Jin; Jong-Gu and his buddies attempt to ambush a fisherman in the nearby valley who they're convinced is a ghost wreaking havoc on the town — and though the twists and turns of the supernatural elements remain elusive, as do the various creatures and traditions whence they sprang, the tension never stops.
At nearly two hours and 40 minutes, it's a long sit. But think of it as a Korean True Detective analog, chock-full of violence, mystery, and supernatural influence. The visual tone is striking as well, with the pouring rain and late-night mist creating auras of horror in the mountains.