Monday, October 15, 2018

The Halloween List: Office (Korean), Calibre, & Unfriended: Dark Web

Previously: Ghoul and Erased

Office (2015)

From now on whenever someone asks me whether I prefer the British or American Office, I’ll answer, “The Korean.”

Hong Won-chan’s Office is a movie holding a massive beef with corporate culture. Before the title card we get a deliberate pairing of scenes: a mentally shattered office manager going home for the evening and murdering his family, followed by a temp worker breathlessly sprinting to work the next morning to check in on time. That’s Office’s thesis statement: fear for your job is stronger than fear for your life.

Detectives can’t figure out why Park killed his family; he seemed like such a mild-mannered man. He was the only person in the office who was ever kind to Lee Mi-rye, a put-upon temp worker and our heroine. She can’t reconcile why he went mad either, though as she tidies up his desk out of habit, she starts to have visions of her own. Everyone in the office is shaken, although that’s more from the corporate managers demanding they increase sales and refusing they take even an hour off to deal with what happened with Park. It feels like someone else might snap, but we can’t tell if a haunting presence has settled over the office, or if it’s the pure dehumanizing cruelty of capitalism.

It’s remarkably effective, never veering into satire, rather playing it straight that one invisible force or another is putting everyone on edge. Go Ah-sung carries the movie as Mi-rye, who increasingly suffers visions and violent temptations, almost like what was in Park has infected her now. The actress pulls this off with something that’s so unlike American lead roles: she is a disturbed woman trying to hold her socially acceptable mask on.

If Office was a Hollywood movie, Mi-rye would be wrestling against the external pressure to save her true self. By instead defending this socially necessary role and prizing it above everything, she pulls the oppression of the whole movie together. Her performance only gets stronger as the office space gets worse.

Go Ah-sung has an excellent setting to work off of, as more than half the movie is set in the titular office. We get plenty of wide shots of this cubicle farm, built out of soulless white, gray, and glass. The occasional potted plant or personalized purple cup doesn’t detract from this being an environment that drives people to the edge. It’s a constant visual explanation, and one that is perfect for a Horror movie to hit. When things go wrong in the last act, every single thing that’s visually wrong matters like it doesn’t in most settings.

Office is a heck of a movie. I’m going to have to look up more of Hong Won-chan’s work.

Unfriended: Dark Web (2018)

One of my greatest frustrations with modern Horror – and particularly modern Horror in film – is the aversion to technology. The old story of being isolated and unable to contact help doesn’t work as well when teens are livestreaming themselves on the toilet. The present is uniquely frightening because anyone with a little drive can collect vast amounts of information about you. It has never been easier for a vengeful ghost to find your new address. Yet too many creators only want to tell the old stories, which only work if you don’t have cell phone reception.

I’m fond of those old stories. I still want new ones.

That’s why the original Unfriended was so refreshing. It’s a trashy movie that comprehends modern technology better than all the Paranormal Activities and Saws combined. Its terror was built out of a live webcam, Facebook feed, direct messages, and Skype. These weren’t things that blipped off so a ghost could attack. They were things hijacked by a haunting.

Unfriended wasn’t ahead of its time. It was of its time in a way most movies still aren’t.

Unfriended: Dark Web’s only similarity to the original is the premise of being told entirely through screens. We still have Skype and Facebook, and have added an app to live-translate ASL. Matias has a new laptop – new to him, anyway, although it’s clearly used, the hard drive full of data he can’t access. As he tries to argue with his girlfriend and do a hangout with friends, the laptop keeps trying to log him into someone else’s accounts. After a little while, the original owner finds out, and starts following him – and his friends.

Matias has stumbled onto the “dark web,” which is as nebulous here as it is in every obnoxious conversation about the allegedly untraceable second internet. Instead of a haunting, this group of twenty-somethings have angered a society of techno-criminals who know everything about them, and can arrange for someone to be anywhere. There’s a lot of yelling at webcams, and lying to friends because someone up the chain will kill them all if they deviate from “the plan.”

About mid-movie, Dark Web throws an excellent twist on who the laptop really belongs to and their relationship with the criminal underworld. Without spoiling it, I’ll say from there on it becomes much more creative than I expected. It could have coasted on cheap thrills and its screen-capture gimmick. Instead the stakes rise into personal territory that is clever and vicious.

That makes it a movie that is more of its time than it has to be, and smarter than it has to be. Go the distance with it. If you want to see it, rent it on your laptop and watch it off a proper screen.

Calibre (2018)

Calibre reminds me of the era of film-making that today is viewed as Horror’s history, but at the time was crowbarred away from monster movies under the term “Suspense.” Hitchcock didn’t make Horror; he made Suspense. It’s easy to sweep these toward the nebulous “Thriller” category, as though Horror and Thrillers aren’t basically one town with two angry zoning boards. But movies like this don’t traffic in thrills. They live up the Hitchockian mantra, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” That’s the fearful suspense at the heart of Calibre.

Marcus and Vaughn are two old friends on a vacation in the Scottish highlands, carrying permits that will let them hunt without a guide. This is a terrible idea for anyone new to an area, and it guarantees us a tragic plot. Vaughn hasn’t even fired a gun since his school days. The locals clearly hate outsiders coming in, but their town is shrinking and needs tourism money. There are almost no hunters out here anymore. On their first day out hunting they don’t see another person for hours… Not until they accidentally shoot someone.

Events get away from them painfully and plausibly fast. Vaughn goes into shock, while Marcus is sure this is the end of their lives. Unless they cover it up.

What spills out from the wound of the inciting incident is pure human anxiety. I spent half this movie arguing with me friend over whether they should turn themselves – and whether there was a smarter way to cover their tracks. The duo are so isolated and vulnerable that it’s hard not be sucked in.

It’s all filmed on location in Scotland, in authentic taverns, houses, and woodland, and you’ve probably met angry men like those who come looking for Vaughn and Marcus. You’re as alert to other people catching on as they are. Their cascading mistakes palpable.

The movie is convinced if they’re discovered, they’ll be lucky to survive long enough to go to prison. Where they already felt unwelcome, now their being standoffish is the grounds for rumors. Some locals are easy enough to rile up over an accusation that the men have been sleeping around; if those same people learned about the shooting, it would be over.

There aren’t enough movies about sympathetic yet guilty people twisting in the ramifications of bad fate. Calibre is a sweet agony.

Coming Wednesday: the bizarre worlds of The Lobster and The Killing of the Sacred Deer


  1. I haven't seen Unfriended yet and will track that down first.
    I bet the cinematography in the last one is spectacular. Scotland is a beautiful and haunting place to see in person.
    I'll look for the Office as well. Now I wonder - what would've happened if Michael had snapped and killed? We can only hope he would've taken out Dwight.

    1. Office is on U.S. Netflix, which makes it super convenient to watch this October. There's one character who is a total Michael.


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