There is a slightly old-fashioned feel to House of the Disappeared, a haunted house mystery starring the well-known actress Kim Yun-jin (Shiri, the TV series Lost). In the end that turns out to be both a weakness and a strength. Although not very scary, it is effective at delivering chills, and the overall high quality of its production makes for an engaging watch.
The first time we see the lead character Mi-hee, she is in a panic. Something or someone appears to have broken into her home, and with terrified eyes she looks all over for her son Hyo-je. Going down into the basement, she discovers her husband slowly dying, having been stabbed with a knife. Then for a moment we see her son standing in a dark doorway. Mi-hee calls out to him, and he reaches for her, but then someone we don’t see comes up from behind and snatches him away.
The next scene, when Mi-hee is led away in handcuffs, makes us question what we have just seen. The police say that she killed her family, hiding away the son’s body. Were we just witness to a delusional vision from inside her head? Or was there really something else in the house with her that night? At any rate, she has no alibi, and forensic evidence suggests that she was the murderer, so she goes to jail. It will be 25 years before she is released.
Fast-forward to 2017, and with her hair having turned all white, Mi-hee returns to her empty, dusty house. You might think she would want to start her new life in a different place, but despite the fact that she seems terrified to walk around every corner, she remains stubbornly in her house. A local priest (played by K-pop star Ok Taecyeon of the boy band 2PM) stops by and tries to talk to her. She is reluctant to speak, but she seems to believe that by staying in the house and solving its mysteries, she might be able to find her long-lost son.
Director Lim Dae-woong has focused on horror films since making his debut with the memorable To Sir with Love in 2006. In House of the Disappeared too, he displays a good feel for atmosphere and the mechanics of tension. Mi-hee’s past experiences and the nature of her present obsession is gradually revealed to us in a series of well-structured flashbacks. It’s not only the supernatural elements, but also the unpredictable, violent personality of her husband (Jo Jae-yoon, in a convincing performance) that set the viewer on edge. After a terrible tragedy strikes, everything seems perfectly set up for an intense, bloodcurdling finale.
But screenwriter Jang Jae-hyun seems to have had something else in mind. The film’s ending involves a lot of explanation, and in the process, a lot of its tension slips away. In its place emerges a resolution that is more melodramatic than scary. Although hard-core fans of the horror genre are bound to find it disappointing, perhaps it is better suited to viewers who prefer low-intensity scares. At any rate, this is a capably directed, well-acted movie that ends with a whimper rather than a bang.