‘The Wailing’
Nia Hong-jin
Stars: Kwak Do-won, Hwang Jung-min
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

The South Korean shocker “The Wailing” is the kind of horror movie you wish more horror movies would be like. Perhaps you watch a ghost movie, even something as beautifully constructed as “The Conjuring,” and long for a version that’s less mechanical, where the rules don’t seem like they were made up on the spot. “The Wailing” has its share of byzantine plotting and obscure curses that need to be untangled. But it’s smart about it. It bakes the characters’ lack of knowing into the film’s DNA, showing people who act recklessly and foolishly because they’ve been confronted with the unknown. It knows that human behavior can be as scary as scary ghosts, or scarier.

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Even calling it a horror movie is something of a disservice. Over a slow-burn 2 ½ hours, it takes its time revealing its true face — that it is, in fact, a horror movie about supernatural jingle-jangle. It starts as a comedic police procedural. In a sleepy backwater town, a bumbling police sergeant, Jong-wu (Kwak Do-won), awakes to a mad crime scene, featuring a double murder and a shellshocked alleged assailant who appears to be high on really potent drugs. Turns out there are more slayings to come, all of them suggesting the killers have been possessed by something not of this earth. Then Jong-wu’s young daughter starts acting weird, too.

Jong-wu, along with the rest of the town, are in way over their head dealing with something even badass professionals couldn’t handle. Like “Green Room,” it’s an extreme genre piece where the heroes are regular folks, who aren’t equipped to handle something irregular. As such they’re prone to sloppiness and dumb mistakes. The characters in “The Wailing” fare even worse. Flailing about to find the source of this otherworldly hoo-ha, Jong-wu and company turn to a mysterious Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura), who has suddenly popped up in a cabin in the woods. Referring to him only as “The Jap,” they let their fear of Others get the better of them, and soon a problem has gone from bad to worse.

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“The Wailing” doesn’t try too hard to make this into a political statement. It’s sprawling and inclusive, able to juggle multiple tones and make it seem smooth. It’s frequently funny, mostly in the opening stretch. But the humor isn’t there to relieve tension, as in so many horror-comedies. It’s there to increase it. It lulls you into thinking it’s a dramedy about small town life. It takes the time to soak in country life and make actual jokes, even when things get hairy. 

When the scares and shaman rituals and occasional flesh-tearing arrive in earnest, they’re not jarring simply because one genre turned into another. They’re jarring because this seemed like a world just like ours. It offers a place to get lost in, then confidently destroys it, bit by bit. In its final stretch, things succumb to knotty plotting and surprise twists — the kind you see when a complex horror movie has to tie everything into a neat bow. But it remains hypnotic and menacing. It knows that a slow pace and a keen understanding of how people work are even more unsettling than cheap boos and cheeks being torn off with teeth.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge