So much for modern-day horror movies. Lets turn our attention away from the little ghost girls, the strange things coming out of the floor, or the inexplicable alien-like noises! Lets instead turn to that good old-fashioned possession of inanimate objects!
Once upon a time (see, were talking really old-fashioned here!) there was a man who loved a woman very much, and they were very happy. He even created a life-sized doll in her likeness, but alas - tragedy awaited. When he returned one day, he found the woman of his dreams strung up, hanging from the ceiling. The man was blamed for the murder, killed by an angry mob and buried in the woods. His demise was witnessed by the very same doll he created. A doll who took on a life of her own. The lifeless glass eyes watched in horror as her love died a gruesome death...
Present day. A beautiful remote mansion, hidden within a green forest. Once this place was suppose to be a church, but now it serves as a museum for an eccentric doll collector.
Five very different people arrive at this house. Theres the open minded sculptor Hae-mi, the carefree high school girl Sun-young and the reserved Young-Ha, a young writer with an unhealthy attachment to her own doll. Theres also a photographer Jung-ki, and the male model Tae-sung, who actually invited himself by mistake. They are welcomed by the curator of the museum Mr. Choi Jin-wan and the wheelchair-bound owner Mrs. Im.
All the dolls produced at the museum are modelled after real people. During the next couple of days the visitors will pose for Jung-ki, and the images will inspire the creation of new doll designs.
The mansion itself is the kind of place that begs to be explored. Each of the visitors rooms has a life-size doll as decoration - seemingly crawling out of the wall - frozen mid-motion in some horrible position, holding a lamp or a mirror. Theres also a large basement, but when Hae-mi attempts an excursion in dark stone corridors, shes stopped by the curator Choi Jin-wan.
The next day the photo shoot begins. When its Young-Has turn she suddenly suffers a full-blown mental breakdown, she screams something about hearing voices and collapses on the spot. This is the first indication that something is not entirely as it should be.
But thats only half of the truth. Strange things are going on in the basement below, theres someone or something down there. A young girl Mina, fascinated with Hae-mi, lurks around the premises, but disappears every time shes approached. Also, lets not forget about the host Mrs. Im, who seems to have a hidden agenda that somehow involves her guests. And what the hell is the story with those creepy dolls everywhere?! This is a madhouse for sure.
And then the first murder occurs...
Theres one moment in Poltergeist that truly freaks me out, more so than the rest of the film. Its the scene where the clown doll attacks the kids. Dolls arent supposed to move, dammit! What the hell!? Come at me with aliens, strange beings or ghost, all things well have to accept and learn to live with, but freaking DOLLS are NOT supposed to move!
I wont mention exactly how or why the dolls play a part in this story, figuring that out is what its all about. But I will say this: If you are particularly opposed to doll oriented violence, please proceed with caution...
The Doll Master goes against the stream. These days Asian horror movies seem to be all about scaring the living hell out of the viewer with bizarre otherworldly images or sounds. Ring, Tale of Two Sisters and recently Face used this approach, but The Doll Master goes for an old-fashioned, more fun kind of creepy. Its the kind of film that would be well suited for a scary movie night with some friends. Theres a lot of good cheap shocks, giving all the girls plenty of excuses to cuddle up in a guys arms.
Its no secret that The Doll Master takes its cue from a film like House on Haunted Hill or that brilliant Agatha Christie novel And Then There Were None. The set-up is certainly familiar. X number of people are gathered at location Y, but suddenly they realize that theres a serial killer/monster/alien/ghost/large insect (pick one) on the loose. One by one they are theyre killed off, until the remaining protagonist(s) finally solve the mystery and survive (or dies, knowing the truth).
Youll be able to see most of the scares coming a mile away, but that's the fun of it! I mean, everybody knows that walking backwards without looking behind you, is a sure way to be attacked by a deranged killer, who will appear just as you realize your mistake and turn around! Its not really scary, but it is thrilling, and it is fun. And with a trembling girl in your arms, its downright fantastic.
Almost the entire film takes place in or around the doll museum. The museum is almost as important as the dolls themselves. Great effort has gone into making this location as vivid as possible. At first the house looks pleasant and inviting, like a cosy winter cabin, with its wood panels and warm color scheme. However, the decorative dolls in the guest-rooms add a sense uneasiness, and undermine the warmness ever so delicately.
When night falls and the moonlight drapes everything in those familiar cool blue hues, the house turns into a true horror movie location. And dont get me started on that basement, or THE most creepy bathroom in the world.
Hae-mi is the lead in the story. Shes the first of the characters we get to know, and shes the least suspicious of them all. As played by Kim You-mi shes sweet, sexy, open minded and good hearted. So the real question is this: How long will it take the film to reduce her to a mumbling basketcase hiding under the bed?! Not long friends, not long...
Kim You-mi plays her characters downward spiral into madness to perfection. Instead of screaming, well
like a girl, she actually goes into shock during the finale. Her change comes courtesy of frustration and helplessness. Quite believable.
As the strange girl Mina, who appears out of nowhere, Im Eun-kyung is the perfect choice. She played the titular role in Resurrection of the Little Match Girl. When she looks straight into the camera, with tears in her eyes, shes so beautiful it hurts. Her part is small, but significant, and a clear indication that she has the potential to bring us some great moments in the future.
You cant have an ensemble horror movie without an overacting element. This time the overacting is delivered by the lustful photographer Jung-ki, who wants nothing more than a private shoot with the youngest member of the party, and the school girl in question, Sun-young, whos almost too perky for her own good. They goof around in an entertaining harmless manner.
My only reservation is regarding the cast of characters is the male model Tae-sung, who has a secret of his own. Hes just too indifferent, I would have liked it if the film had explored a potential attraction between him and Hae-mi, after all its the personal connections in these kind of films that make the deaths that much harder to take.
As The Doll Master works its way towards the inevitable violent finale, the madness kicks into high gear, and the past catches up with the present. People start dropping like flies, and the killer reveals his identity and his master plan.
Naturally this is where the film stretches reality the most. Once again Im forced to keep the details to a minimum, to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say its pointless to try to second-guess the story, because you wont get the final pieces of the puzzle until the very end.
I probably give this film more credit than it really deserves, but I enjoyed the change of pace from recent surge of Asian horror films, and though the core story may be slightly trivial, the overall quality of the film impressed me. It sounds odd, saying this about a horror film, but I had a jolly old time watching it.