The history of Korean horror movies (K-Horror) is complicated. Split into two countries as a result of the Cold War, Korea has a unique cinematic history. North Korea doesn’t have a “film industry” at all, only an official propaganda arm of the communist government, which shows no interest in producing horror movies. South Korea was under a military dictatorship from 1973 to 1992 which severely repressed artistic expression and anything that was considered critical of the government.
Despite early masterpieces such as 1960’s The Housemaid, it wasn’t until the early 1990s and the lifting of official military censorship that South Korean horror finally began to find its way. Unlike horror films in most other countries, K-horror often goes light on the gore and instead focuses on the characters’ psychological anguish and themes of revenge.
This vengeful spirit is most often found in the form of the wonhon, who is either a ghost or a living being but most often a woman. Early examples of the wonhon appear in The Housemaid (1960), The Devil’s Stairway (1964), and A Public Cemetery Under the Sun (1967). The wonton persists in more recent offerings such as Bedevilled and I Saw the Devil (both 2010).
Here, then, are some of the finest examples of K-horror from 1960 all the way through 2020. Let’s get into all the best Korean horror movies out there.
Considered one of the greatest cinematic achievements in South Korean history, this black-and-white psychological thriller by director Kim Ki-Young tells the story of a beautiful but sexually predatory young maid who disrupts the domestic tranquility of a piano teacher and his materialistic wife. The film would also set a template for K-horror by focusing on psychological terror rather than explicit bloodletting. This would be the first in Kim’s “Housemaid” trilogy, followed by Woman of Fire and Woman of Fire ’82.
A hospital’s chief surgeon has a love affair with a nurse, who becomes a hindrance to his career aspirations when the surgeon gets engaged to the hospital director’s daughter. He kills the nurse and dumps her body in a lake. But her vengeful spirit (wonhon) returns to torment him psychologically—no matter what person he’s dealing with or whose face he sees, they all turn into her. Driven to the point of madness, he also kills his fiancee—accidentally, or so it seems. Modern Korean Cinema calls the film “a strikingly sinister psychological horror that, even after all these years, possesses the ability to frighten even the most devoted fans of the genre.” Also released as The Evil Stairs (Maeui gyedan).
In yet another variation on the wonhon theme, a former kisaeng (the Korean version of a Japanese geisha girl) returns from the dead to avenge the woman who stole her husband, made her commit suicide, and is attempting to kill her son. According to a review at IMDb, “There’s murder, revenge, adultery, drug addiction, a girl driven to become an ‘entertainer,’ a prison break, eye-gouging, acid to the face, and a vengeful ghost whose grave splits in two so she can ascend to heaven when she’s done.”
East Asian folklore teaches that foxes have magical abilities, including the power to turn into a human at will—provided they eat a human’s organ. In other Asian cultures the fox is often benign, but the Korean version is always malevolent. A Thousand Year-Old Fox (Cheonnyeon ho) is set in Korea’s Three Kingdoms period tells the story of a woman involves who attempts to seduce a Buddhist priest, who is unaware she’s actually a thousand-year-old fox seeking to reincarnate as a human—if only she can bring herself to eat his liver.
Also released as Killer Butterfly and A Woman Chasing A Killer Butterfly (Salin nabireul jjonneun yeoja), this strange melodrama involves an archeologist who survives an attempted suicide, then goes butterfly hunting in a cave where he finds an ancient skeleton. The skeleton’s spirit appears to him in a dream—it the form of a female fox who seeks to become human again by eating his liver. But after they have sex, she realizes she loves him and would rather die than kill him.
In another twist on the “disruptive maid” theme first explored in 1960’s The Housemaid, Suddenly in the Dark (Gipeun bam gabjagi) involves a pretty young housekeeper who throws a middle-class household into turmoil when the man’s wife suspects he is having sex with her. The fact that the housemaid always totes around an odd little wooden doll eventually causes the housewife to lose the ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
Phone (Pon) tells the story of a female journalist who has recently finished a serial expose on pedophiles begins receiving threatening phone calls, causing her to change her number. She moves in with a pair of friends whose daughter suddenly develops an odd sexual attraction for her own father after receiving a strange phone call. After a murderous fight between two women, things become even more complicated when it’s revealed that the young girl with the Oedipus complex is actually someone else’s daughter.
The highest-grossing Korean horror film of all time, A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon) tells the tale of a teenage girl who is released from an asylum and returns home to live with her sister and mother, only to realize that the latter is involved in a life-or-death struggle with the ghosts who inhabit her house. But are there really ghosts, or is it all a result of her institutionalization? An 2009 American remake was called The Uninvited.
A couple who’ve failed at their attempts to conceive a child visit an orphanage and adopt a six-year-old boy who has a fondness for drawing pictures of trees. The boy develops a fondness for an old acacia tree on the next-door neighbor’s lawn. When his adoptive mother finally becomes pregnant, her mother suggests returning the boy to the orphanage—but by this time, the boy is certain that the acacia tree is his true mother. The family starts losing their minds after the boy disappears, revealing that he might not have been so innocent and helpless as he seemed.
The “R-Point” in the title refers to an abandoned patch of war-torn land during the Vietnam War in 1972. A South Korean army base starts receiving strange radio transmissions from the area, causing them to send soldiers in to investigate—only to find something so terrifying, they wind up wishing they’d never bothered.
Generations ago, a man who made dolls for a living fell in love with a woman wearing a red kimono. He was later blamed for her murder and hunted down by vigilantes, who killed him in the woods. But one of his dolls keeps a vigil by sitting near his grave forever. Far East Films said that “Hardened horror fans and those of a more serious critical persuasion may find it all a little silly but those who appreciate a good spooky story will find much to enjoy in this creepy Korean chiller.”
A remote island in 1808 suffers a string of grisly, sadistic murders. An investigator discovers that the killings may be linked to the murder of a Christian man seven years earlier—and that his spirit may have returned to wreak vengeance. Or maybe the truth is even worse than that. Released in Korea as Hyeol-eui-noo.
Inspired by the 1845 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Red Shoes,” this film involves a woman who leaves her cheating husband and moves into an apartment with her daughter. On the way to the apartment, she finds a pair of pink shoes on a subway car. The problem is that the shoes are cursed, and anyone who finds them winds up dead and with their feet chopped off. Released in South Korea as Bunhongshin.
A strange series of murders involves victims who die as a result of acid eating their bodies from the inside-out. A female detective starts to realize that the killings may be connected to a young girl’s death that occurred a decade earlier in a salt house. She starts having nightmares where the young girl speaks to her. It turns out that the young girl is yet another wonhon seeking revenge for her abrupt and painful death.
A salesman gets into an argument with his pregnant girlfriend while driving along a highway, causing him to crash. When he wakes up in the forest, a young girl takes him to the “House of Happy Children.” There is cannibalism, a woman who turns into a doll, and a man who gets burned alive in an oven—which recalls the witch’s death in the original “Hansel and Gretel” story.
The Korean title, Gosa, means “exam,” and advanced-placement high-school examinations play a pivotal role in this film. An elite group of students at a high school are persuaded to stay behind at the school during holiday break, only to find themselves being tortured and killed one-by-one based on their exam results. If students fail to answer exam questions on time, they get killed. Korean Grindhouse refers to the film as “K-horror torture porn.”
A magical horror thriller revolving around three girls who read Tarot cards, which reveal that great fortunes will be theirs if they chant thier own names. Also released as Ghost (Gwi), the film is split into four stories, each with a different director: Tell Me Your Name, Ghost Boy, Attached, and The Unseen.
Based on an Emile Zola novel, Thirst (released in South Korea as Bakjwi, meaning “bat”) tells the tale of a brave Catholic priest who offers himself as a guinea pig for receiving an experimental vaccine to combat the dreaded pandemic caused by the Emmanuel Virus. The vaccine doesn’t work, and the priest becomes infected. But a blood transfusion cures him—although it also gives him a taste for human blood.
I Saw the Devil is a violent drama about a serial killer, with a cat-and-mouse game at the heart of its plot. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, film critic Mark Olson said: “there is all the violent mayhem, for certain, but the thing that sets I Saw the Devil apart is its undercurrent of real emotion and how unrelentingly sad it can be.” Indeed, it is a shocking and interesting film with great cinematography.
An overworked and overstressed female banker accepts an offer to take a vacation on a remote island where she’d spent part of her youth. She befriends another female who suffers from an abusive husband, but the woman doesn’t want her friendship—she seeks to kill her instead. Korean Grindhouse says that Bedevilled (Kim Bok-nam salinsageonui jeonmal) “is ultimately a political allegory, in this case a cautionary feminist tale that encourages the manicured hand to reach out to the rough-skinned one with dirt under the nails. Hear the message as you scream.”
Two families discover codes written inside their homes, only to realize that the mysterious codes indicate that strangers are living and hiding inside their homes without their knowledge. Cinema Blitz enthuses that Hide and Seek (Sum-bakk-og-jil) “layers creepiness on creepiness. It starts out vaguely unsettling, and then turns up the dial until you begin itching uncontrollably and start craving a shower.”
Horror Stories (Museoun Iyagi) is an omnibus film containing four separate stories by five different directors. “Don’t Answer the Door” involves a brother and sister who wait for their mother inside a house where all sorts of creepy things start happening; “Endless Flight” is the terrifying tale of a flight attendant whose sole passenger is a iller; “Secret Recipe” tells the story of two sisters who compete to marry a man with a taste for human flesh; and “Ambulance to the Death Zone” is a zombie-pandemic thriller.
Based loosely on the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, The Piper (released in South Korea as Sonnim, AKA The Guest) is set in the post-Korean War area. A mildly disabled piper and his ailing son are headed toward Seoul but wind up in a remote village that is plagued by rats—who torment the town to the same degree that birds did in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds. Screen Anarchy says the film “comes to life through striking images and which boasts a powerful and emotional climax.”
A stranger comes to a small village, bringing a strange disease—and a string of mysterious killings—along with him. A policeman is forced to investigate because his daughter’s life depends on it. The Wailing (Hanja) received a glowing review on Salon.com: “At the end of this haunting, provocative and masterful thriller, you may not be sure whether Jong-gu and his fellow villagers have really been visited by demons — or whether the demons are always here, in all of us.”
A blockbuster hit in Korea and elsewhere, Train to Busan (Busanhaeng) involves a father’s attempts to take his daughter to spend her birthday with her mother in the town of Busan. But this is all taking place during a zombie pandemic, and zombies have broken into the train, where the infection rapidly spreads. Along the way, the train’s inhabitants must decide between selfish behavior and collective action.
In The Mimic (Jangsanbeom), Mt. Jang is a legendary place that supposedly is the home of an exotic tiger that is able to mimic human voices and fool them into its lair. One by one, people who wander too near to the tiger’s cave wind up missing. Screen Anarchy describes it as “probably the best commercial Korean horror film in years.”
A found-footage horror film involving a horror web series crew that visits an allegedly haunted asylum to do a livestream that they hope will result in publicity for their project. But once inside the creepy old building, things rapidly go from bad to worse. In keeping with the tradition of found-footage horror, all actors play characters using their real names. Film Daily described it as “a masterclass in Korean scares.”
Described by South China Morning Post as “The Exorcist meets mixed martial arts in limp Korean thriller,” the film’s strange premise involves exactly that—an MMA artist helps an exorcists fight evil forces. It turns out, though, that the fighter is himself possessed by demons because he’s hated God ever since his parents died when he was a child. The Divine Fury received almost universally negative reviews.
Parasite is the most famous movie from South Korea, particularly in North America circles because it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2020. Is Parasite scary, though? Should it be included in our best Korean horror movie list? While not scary in the traditional sense, it is an incredibly creepy thriller that confronts the metaphorical monster of society in a way that many of the other Korean horror films do on this list.
After getting divorced, a man grows estranged from his young daughter. Then the girl goes missing in their new home, forming the latest in a string of missing children from the area. Then a stranger tells the man to take a peek in their closet. A reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes describes The Closet as “A rare combination of horror beats and emotionally affecting turns.”