A Review by Noah Antwiler
Good horror is hard to find. Good American-made horror even more so. Harder still is finding a bank that's open when you need it. But that's not important right now. With Paris Hilton making House of Wax instead of more sleazy videos filmed in night vision like she ought to, and with Jane Fonda and Jennifer Lopez making a movie that is indeed horrific-- only not intentionally-- once again I find myself raiding my stack of foreign films. It's a crap shoot, but I'll be damned if I plunk down eight bucks for J-Lo. Phone is a relatively new film from Korea made by Toilet Films. I'm not kidding. Toilet Films.
We're talking about a movie where a mobile phone is evil, and wants to kill you. Phones aren't really by themselves scary or physically threatening; what's it going to do, ring at me? Overcharge me two minutes on long-distance calls? That BASTARD! I sometimes wonder how these inspirations come about. I need that special insight to wander through the kitchen and find a random appliance, and think "This egg-beater would be fucking scary if a ghost made it evil." I think I tapped out all my creative juices coming up with the concept for the vampiric llama, Dracullama. Stephen King's probably the best guy to ever to this; he's managed to make me fear corn from Secret Window and laundry steam-press machines from The Mangler. Oh, and that one movie where the car was possessed by some devil or dead girlfriend...man I hate when that happens.
Phone centers on foxy, hard-boiled reporter Ji-won Ha. She's recently broken a hot new story uncovering a pederasty sex scandal, and she's receiving spooky phone calls on her mobile soon after the arraignments start. Ji-won naturally figures that it's one of the accused men that's stalking her, but of course that's a red herring. No matter how many times she changes her number, the calls continue.
It doesn't help that Ji-won's kind of stupid, and she's also receiving creepy e-mails on her laptop. Not just any type of e-mails, oh no no! She's receiving unholy EVIL-mails from the ghost. Most of my unholy devil mail gets filtered into my Junk Mail folder with the rest of the "BIGGER PENIS NOW" advertisements, and I wonder two things out of this: (1) How does the ghost know her e-mail address, and (2) How do the spam people know I have a small penis? Anyway, the EVIL-mails are horrific images of murdered, vivisected women, complete with shrieking sounds. Ji-won still chalks it up to a normal stalker and ignores the messages as a crazy man who knows how to use Shockwave. What kills me is that after she continues to receive these e-mails, she keeps opening them!!!
Naturally, her computer contracts a wicked EVIL virus that locks her system up tighter than WindowsMe usually does, and the laptop is perpetually frozen with an EVIL screen-saver that shrieks and cries and wails, and displays the numbers 6644 as if they're supposed to be scary. They're not.
From this point on, Ji-won's stuck in the web of madness that the ghost spins for her, and she's in for a lot of intense wandering around in the dark and other nightmare and hallucination sequences. Almost all of Phone's scares are of the cheap variety, consisting simply of hands shooting out from the floor to grab people, loud screaming noises, and oddly stealthy roommates violently grabbing people from behind. Why do people do that? If I saw someone in my family creeping around looking frightened in the dark, my first reflex would not be to stalk up behind them, snatch them painfully by the arm and shout "I JUST NOTICED THE LIGHTS WERE OUT!!" Well I might, but only if I was feeling like a real asshole.
I'll just spoil the movie for you, because the odds are there's no chance you'll bother with it. You see, when someone dies in the grip of a powerful rage, they tend to haunt a house and kill everyone who gets anywhere near it. That's Ju-On. But if someone dies in the grip of call waiting, they possess mobile phones and leave menacing text messages. The ghost's power extends to ringing the cell phone at inconvenient times, making screaming and heavy-breathing noises when you answer it, and then forcing you through telepathy to kill yourself. I do hope you can figure out how to solve this little problem on your own, faithful reader. I present you with a hypothetical situation: there is a ghost in your phone that kills you when you answer it. How do manage not to get dead?
That's right! Don't answer the dag blasted phone! Smash it against a wall! Run over it with your car! Switch to Qwest! So what does Ji-won do every blasted time the phone rings? She sets herself up for the Darwin Awards and answers the damn thing every time!!!
And when she's not around to answer the phone, she leaves it out for her 5 year-old niece to pick it up. Of course, the phone-ghost seeps out of the phone and possesses the soul of the little girl, Young-ju, and immediately turns her into a malevolent demon-child. Now, Ji-won's got two problems to deal with: the phone-ghost, and the newborn Antichrist who hides behind a veneer of innocent cuteness by day, and tries to knife her parents to death by night. And I tell you, this kid's got problems that not even Dr. Phil could deal with using his homespun dumb-cracker common sense therapy. Shocking, I know.
The acting in the movie is surprisingly good, considering this is a Toilet Film. The standout performance is the creepy child, reminding one of Dakota Fanning's eerie "old soul." Phone relies on the universal notion that wherever you are, deep down, children scare the shit out of you. I know they scare the willies out of me. The movie also reminds us that thunderstorms are scary, because in every single scene where the tension is being ramped up, it seems like there's a damn hurricane happening outside, with rattling windows, thunder punctuating foreboding statements, the lighting is always bad, and the phones are always out unless the ghost wants to call you. As a result, it's raining for about 90% of the movie.
I haven't really gotten to the meat of the movie yet. The demon child is nice, of course, and the omnipresent thunderstorms are just window dressing. "What about the ghost?" you ask! "That's what we want to hear about! Is it scary?" Oh yes, definitely! For sure! Ji-won manages to catch a glimpse of the nasty spectre during one of her freak-out sessions, in which it turns out that the phone poltergeist is a schoolgirl with absurdly long hair.
ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME WITH THIS SHIT?? Seriously, what is wrong with you?? It turns out that little girls with long hair that obscures their vision isn't just scary to the Japanese, it fills Korea with dread too! I...I...I just don't get it. Long hair? That's it? Why is that scary to you, Korea? What is it? Is it the difficulty in keeping it clean? Maintaining split ends? I know when I had longer hair, tangles were a bitch, but it's not like I feared for my immortal soul or anything. There must be some deep-seated ancestral fear in the Southeast Asian cultural consciousness in which a group of pre-teen Amazon-like schoolgirls invaded as the preceding shock troops to a Mongol horde, slaughtering all in their path indiscriminately (because their hair was in their faces and they couldn't really see who they were killing)! And when I tell you that the ghost has absurdly long hair, I'm not kidding. This hair is really, really long. It's the longest of any movie I've ever seen. This dead bitch has more hair than a French lesbian hippie. Her hair is so long, it literally pools on the floor, travels across the room, goes through the wall, and clogs up the plumbing. There has never been more hair than this.
It turns out that the ghost (Jin-hee) is upset because when she was alive, she was a psychotic schoolgirl with the Innsmouth look, knocking boots with a married man and corresponding with him by mobile phone. The wife found out, sat down with the girl and issued an ultimatum to leave her man alone. If you've watched a second of Jerry Springer, you know that the response was "Bitch, you don't know me! He's my man now!" Jin-hee then attacked the wife, strangled her, and the wife responded by hurling Jin-hee's skinny ass down a staircase. Jin-hee dies with a very, very undignified look on her face and her mobile phone clenched firmly in her hand. It's interesting that the wife actually seems to kill Jin-hee out of self-defense, as the fight was a lot closer than you'd think. Even more interesting is that the wife decides to hide the body, so she bundles Jin-hee up in a plastic sheet, nails her to a wall (!), and then builds a new wall over her! I love Cask of Amontillado references! But wow, I'm really impressed with this lady's do-it-yourself spirit, as we watch for 3 minutes as she constructs a very well-done brick wall over the goofy-expression of Jin-hee. Hell, she even installs electricity and phone lines, and I goddamn guarantee you even Bob Vila wouldn't think of that.
The real enemy here, though, is Beethoven. Yes, Beethoven. It's a well-known fact that really great horror films have some kind of trademark song. It can either be part of the score, such as Michael Myers' theme in Halloween, or an established song by a commercial artist, like the Rolling Stones' "Time is On My Side" in Fallen. "In a Gadda Da Vida" basically made Manhunter. So if you can find a good song that would be certain to fuel your nightmares if a serial killer sang it obsessively, you're on the right track to making a movie heavily steeped in terror. There's a risk, however. You can go overboard on the scary music, quite easily in fact. In Phone, le chanson du jour is Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," a very beautiful piece of music that happens to be one of my favorites. It's a heavy, moving piece with the unique property that, if you play it slowly and in minor chords, it makes you sound like you are the DEVIL. It's actually a good choice. There's just one problem: the movie takes "Moonlight Sonata" rolls it up in a ball, and rams it down your throat for ninety minutes. There's no escaping Beethoven here. Every last excuse they can get to use it, "Moonlight Sonata" is blasting in every variation they can think of. When Ji-won gets in the car, it's playing on a CD. When she gets a call from the ghost, it's the ring tone. When the ghost appears, she's playing it on the piano like the DEVIL. You will be so sick of the song by the end of this movie, you will curse this Toilet Film for making you hate Beethoven.
I'm sorry to say this could be the worst Toilet Film ever, despite their long-standing pedigree of greatness like...uh...
Hey, check it out! I just got a mail advertising cheap Viagra from Mexico!