Driven by powerful performances in both the protagonist and antagonist roles — and bolstered by the equally as memorable cinematography and a beautiful score — Korean director Jee-Woon Kim’s 2010 horror/thriller masterpiece, I Saw The Devil, is perhaps one of the scariest films of the 21st century.
I Saw The Devil isn’t necessarily a horror movie in the traditional sense. It’s not trying to get you with jump scares, there are no ghosts or monsters or undead creatures, nor is its sole purpose to be a gore-fest with no interesting, discernible characters or memorable meaning to it not unlike some recent horror series.
I Saw The Devil is more closely related to films like Gone Girl or Se7en than it is the horror staples like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween. I Saw The Devil is, in the most basic of terms, a murder mystery. All of that being said, I Saw The Devil is still one of the most effective horror movies to come out in recent years.
I Saw The Devil starts with a hell of an opening that effectively sets the stage for what’s to come in the following two hours. The first character we are introduced to, a 20-to-30-year-old woman named Joo-yun, is brutally murdered within the first ten minutes, with most of the murder shown on-screen. From here on out, the elongated sequences of murder and torture that occur become grislier and harder to watch. The special effects work that was put forth in this movie for the gore is flawlessly executed, and some of the most realistic effects work to date in the horror genre.
Earlier, I compared I Saw The Devil to fellow standouts of the murder-mystery subgenre of horror, Gone Girl and Se7en, but where I Saw The Devil stands out is in the fact that the audience is aware of who the killer is from the first scene. This allows for the director to show us scenes from the killer’s viewpoint, and this clues us in on how the killer reacts to his acts of violence, and gives us insight into how his mind works. Though the killer is a realistic portrayal of a murderer and is, in the end, just a regular human being, he ends up being much scarier than the supernatural silver screen killers Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. It’s the idea that a man like this could actually exist that sends shivers down my spine.
SPOILERS FOR I SAW THE DEVIL AHEAD
The killer in question is Kyung-chul, played spectacularly by a terrifyingly merciless Choi Min-sik (whom you may be aware of for his main role in 2003’s Oldboy, among other things). Though Kyung-chul is the co-main character of this story, you will feel no sympathy for him. Usually you would expect some sort of arc for a character — perhaps a revelatory moment that makes him more human than monster, thus making us feel sympathetic for him — but not with Kyung-chul.
When he’s at his most fearful, and even begging for his own life to be spared, I still couldn’t feel remorse for a character that enacted such brutal, senseless murders beforehand. You begin to feel excited that he might die, and it’s amazing that the filmmakers were able to impart this merciless feeling on the viewer, because it’s almost like we are enacting our own revenge for the brutality we were exposed to because of him.
I Saw The Devil is a beautiful film that is trapped in an ugly story. The direction, cinematography, score — it’s all fantastic. Along with cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, Kim has crafted a marvelously visual film that he shoots with much elegance and craft.
For a horror film, I Saw The Devil has some truly interesting and exciting fight scenes that are expertly choreographed and shot in a way where we see all of the action. In a time where many action movies are shot at such breakneck speeds that result in the viewer hardly being able to tell what’s going on on-screen, I have to give props to Jee-woon Kim for making these scenes easily comprehensive.
It’s worth noting, too, that not that many movies have orchestral scores that really make me recognize how good they are, but I Saw The Devil is definitely one of those movies. The score that’s crafted fits the mood of every scene perfectly, and it even enhances the overall effect of the film.
The reason why I Saw The Devil is so scary is not only because of the actions of its characters, but also due to how realistic the movie is. It may be even more frightening that the “heroic” protagonist of the story, Soo-hyun (the husband of the woman murdered in the opening scene), played elegantly by a reserved Lee Byung-hun, goes to the lengths he does to exact his revenge. Instead of just offing the killer when he has the chance — not even an hour into the film’s running time — Soo-hyun goes to great lengths to release him, only to hunt him over and over again, almost making the act of revenge into some demented game.
The trauma that Soo-hyun faces upon the news of his wife’s death quickly pulls him over the edge to become a deranged sociopath of his own. It’s very sad watching him degrade himself to this point. You feel awful for him in the beginning. But in the end, it’s almost sort of hard to feel so bad for Soo-hyun. After all, it’s because he didn’t stop Kyung-chul when he first had the chance to (or the second or the third time) that Kyung-chul is able to outwit him and subsequently murder countless others along the way.
Like I mentioned before, the realism of the events that occur in the movie really makes it stand out as a truly terrifying movie. “Modern horror” differentiated itself from “classical horror” by bringing the horrific events happening on-screen into the “here and now,” but unlike most horror flicks, I Saw The Devil feels like something that can actually happen in real life (and unfortunately does happen), and from there it even differentiates itself from most modern classics of the horror genre.
There’s no Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees who simply won’t die for good here. In I Saw The Devil, we have just some really sick people who have no sympathy for the lives of others. These people exist in our world, and that is why I Saw The Devil is, at it’s core, such an effective horror movie that will stick with you for a long time to come.
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor