You may have caught from my review of The Power, which immediately precedes this review, that I am a fan of horror movies in hospitals. I can hedge on that despite being generally inconsistent as a person, proven by how much I enjoyed Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum almost entirely on the principle that it’s set in the most decrepit hospital imaginable. So try to further imagine how joyed I was when I found out it had other things going for it, too.
The title does not mislead, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum does revolve around a haunted asylum named Gonjiam. Following the disappearance of two teenage boys who broke into the abandoned place, Ha-joon (Wi Ha-Joon) seizes the opportunity to prop up his YouTube channel “Horror Times,” enlisting a number of folks to help his venture and explore Gonjiam on a livestream. And since writer/director Beom-sik Jeong and co-writer Sang-min Park are thankfully not under any pretence that this movie is anything more than it is or needs to be, that about sums the plot (in keeping with its title, the movie is efficient), and from there we just watch this group of people get fucked around with for our delight, as these things tend to go.
More delightfully, Gonjiam manages to overcome many faults other found footage movies fall into by understanding an elemental rule in horror: simplicity is gold. This is not a movie with needless arcs or burdensome, contrived plot threads – we know why we’re here, it knows why we’re here, it doesn’t complicate things. Hell, it even understands we’re meant to like the characters – of whom one presumes a significant portion will face death or trauma of some sort – and so spends the first little bit establishing these characters and building their personalities, showing them doing everyday things and just being everyday people. Many a found footage film falls painfully flat when trying to get us to care for its expendable meatsacks, so all the better that such scenes in Gonjiam actually do endear us to this cast. They jive with each other quite pleasantly, and Charlotte (Ye-Won Mun) easily qualifies as a modern horror icon – of this I am certain.
But this isn’t a John Hughes film, we’re not here to see a tale of youthful camaraderie. Gonjiam, keeping in spirit with its aforementioned efficiency, shepherds us right to the namesake asylum and gets things going in earnest, starting us off with some light spooks and gradually getting more unsettling. This is mostly successful, though we get some House on Haunted Hill riffs that are admittedly a tad tired, as if we haven’t been subjected to the grand irony of “these characters are setting up fake scares, but we the viewers know the ghosts are actually real” over the last handful of decades, consequently making it feel like a narratively okay detour, though a detour nonetheless (it’s not the biggest deal, but for a movie so eager to get things going it feels like an unsatisfying cockblock).
When we do get to the ghosts they’re largely excellent – one particular scene with a Silent Hill-esque ghost creature, slowly stalking us through back-and-forth POV shots, is as intense as any horror scene the past decade – and Gonjiam typically opts for steadily mounting dread over outright jump scares. The movie’s nasty abandoned asylum set gives it an easy advantage: it frankly doesn’t have to do a whole lot to be exquisitely creepy, and cinematographer Yoon Byung-ho has an eye for optimal angles within the asylum’s spaces, the best of which being Room 402, warping reality and harbouring the majority of the film’s malevolent entities. The editing’s fairly decent – everyone’s outfitted in cameras and we’re constantly flitting from person to person, yet we maintain a consistent sense of where we and every character is, plus there’s discernible flow to everything. Thank god for this, as found footage movies have a tendency to go bugshit towards the end, usually culminating in an editing catastrophe.
Of course, it’s worth noting that what this all amounts to when said and done is textbook boilerplate. Gonjiam isn’t doing anything particularly novel, although one can argue – and I will – that it has no desire to, and functions more so as a case study on how good production design and a game cast and crew can take common, simple ingredients and present them in a satisfying way. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an annual haunted house: creepy and familiar, a bit of a fleeting memory afterward, yet a pleasure all the same.