What a strange delight is Whispering Corridors, a movie that haunted my recommendations across multiple online platforms for years. I am so glad, at long last, to have taken time to watch it.

Why I didn’t ever give it a chance until now, I cannot say. I’ve taken a chance on movies with worse reviews, worse looking covers, less interesting blurbs, so on and so forth. For some reason I just left Whispering Corridors behind, stuck in my “Eh, I’ll get around to it eventually” bin. This weekend I finally did indeed get around to it.

Within the first five minutes, I felt a bit of regret. Whispering Corridors might feature one of the weakest openings to an overall good movie–horror or otherwise–that I’ve ever seen. It is a rushed, unimaginative, nonsensical ghost-stalking and murder that instills no faith in what’s to come. Part of me thought I would have been better off never watching the film and always wondering how good it was, instead of seeing and confirming how good it wasn’t.

What a stupid thought.

After some patient buildup and very good character development, the movie fully redeems itself from a horror perspective with another ghost-stalking and murder that is so good and so creative it’s a little hard for me to understand how it was made by the same people.

The opening scene is almost like an embarrassed half-parody of a horror film, and given the considerable care put into the drama that follows, I was getting the impression that the ghost story trappings were something the writers and director added reluctantly. What they really wanted to do was tell a straight story criticizing an exceedingly abrasive educational system, but decided to half-heartedly inject a supernatural element to boost its marketability. That clearly wasn’t the case, but still doesn’t feel entirely untrue, in the sense that the school story is bigger than the ghost story, but that second supernatural slaughter sequence is so, so good that it belies the idea that the filmmakers resent the horror genre. And it’s not even my favorite ghost attack from the film, but I might save my gushing about that for a separate write-up.

First, let’s discuss the film’s true focus: the plight of South Korean students subjected to physical abuse and cruel psychological manipulation by educators in a system that actively fosters an antagonistic environment among classmates. It’s well, well beyond a competitive atmosphere; each student is taught to think of their peers as “enemies” who they should always be seeking to best, which doesn’t even make sense given that, you know, more than one student could get perfect scores on all their tests. In fact, improbable as it may be, every student in a school could end up with 4.0 GPA, or the overwhelming majority could end up with a 2.5 GPA: in the former situation “better than your peers!” would either be an impossible measurable; in the latter it would be a worthless measurable.

Flawed as the system may be, it wouldn’t be so bad if not for teachers punishing students for having a shirt collar… out of place? Imperceptibly wrinkled? I’m still not sure what the infraction was there, but it warranted a blood-letting beating across the knuckles with a ruler, and that’s one of the gentler assaults. In fairness, I can understand a teacher getting upset with a student for painting a gruesome portrait of another teacher hanging from a noose, particularly when the subject of said painting was actually found hanging from a noose on school grounds just a few days prior. Revoking that student’s art class privileges is completely defensible. Smacking them to the ground and continuing to beat them while yelling, “Die! Die!” seems like overstepping a bit.

As far as whether this depiction of the South Korean school system at the time was accurate, most of what I’ve read seems to indicate that it resonated with its target audience. I obviously can’t say one way or another and must defer to people who actually have some familiarity with it. I can say that as a viewer completely ignorant to the topic, as over-the-top as some of it appears to be, none of it struck me as unbelievable as I watched it. I don’t know what to make of that, other than that the filmmakers did a good job of presenting their story.

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It helps that the characters and relationships keep you invested. While the teachers engage in acts of sabotage and humiliation to end friendships and promote ostracism, the students (as well as a new teacher and former student, Hur Eun-young) try to navigate between giving in to these machinations and maintaining human relationships. Interestingly, the only scene to depict actual teaching comes in a conversation between two students; reserved Yoon Jae-yi tells her artist friend Lim Ji-oh that she needs to better her painting skills, but also points out where her work is good, particularly in her use and understanding of light. It would come off as too pointed and preachy were it not embedded in a moment designed to strengthen the important relationship between these two characters.

As great as some of the slices of horror are in this film, the tragedy and acting carry it. I found myself rooting not simply for these characters to make it out alive, but to make it in general. Make the best that they can of their lives, make a difference, make some art, make each other stronger. Sometimes they succeed, but this being a tragedy, those successes cannot last. The pressures are too great, their bonds too immature and thus breakable, and having a ghost stalking the long halls of the school at night committing vengeful homicides surely doesn’t help.

Whispering Corridors is a supernatural horror story that has enough story to stand on if you scrubbed the supernatural horror from it. That’s not something you see too often in the genre, which isn’t a knock on other films that lean harder on the horror, just a point of fact. I love A Nightmare on Elm Street, but if you removed the supernatural horror elements there’d be no story to tell. The same goes for PhantasmOculus, Poltergeist, The Conjuring, Ringu, and many, many other films that I love to pieces. This doesn’t make Whispering Corridors better than any of those movies–in fact, I’d say its shortcomings (odd editing choices; some bad slow-motion decisions; some outdated-even-for-the-time horror “flourishes”; an unnecessarily melodramatic climactic resolution that drags; a “here we go again” ending that feels obligatory) places it below every film named above. But its focus on a story enhanced by horror certainly sets it apart from those movies and most others in the genre.

I started this review expecting to be more critical of Whispering Corridors, but that just didn’t happen, did it? Even my problems with the resolution and final shot couldn’t really dampen my enjoyment of the film as a whole. After all, a few moments before that final shot, this movie left me giddy with the thought, “This is surely the loveliest and most touching display of walls crying blood that I’ll ever see,” and that’s not the type of buzz that’s easily shaken off.

Final Grade: Would highly recommend to any genre fan, or even just fans of high school hardship stories, with a few small warnings about the film’s flaws.