Strangers From Hell
Oh, how I wish I could go back to last summer, back at my childhood home, passing the time with my wonderful dog and my indulging mother, deciding to give this creepy drama a watch just because of one gifset I saw on tumblr… Experiencing Strangers From Hell for the first time will always remain memorable to me, so I want to share this gem with the rest of you as well.
Adapted from a webtoon of the same name, Strangers From Hell follows Jong Woo (Im Si Wan), a guy from a small town who moves for a job in Seoul and ends up living in a goshiwon (box apartment with shared kitchen and bathroom) littered with hellish housemates. Stuck in the goshiwon, Jong Woo begins to lose his mind.
I’ve watched my fair share of horror/thriller dramas, and I’m usually a fan of the stuff OCN puts out, but I have to say they have really outdone themselves with this one.
I’ll cut right to the chase:
1. This show is awful. It tortures Jong Woo and chips away at his psyche until there’s nothing left. The Jong Woo from episode 1 and Jong Woo from episode 16 are completely different people. It’s actually quite horrifying. Although I was sickly fascinated by the story progression, it became more and more terrifying with each episode. The darkness surrounding the goshiwon and its inhabitants (overly sweet landlady who may or may not have murdered a bunch of people, reclusive perv with a penchant for fighting, creepy twins laughing creepily, and of course, a weird-ass dentist who is also a serial killer with an obsession for Jong Woo) just drives you insane, and you don’t even live there, you’re watching it through a screen.
2. From that, the show does a great job of suffocating you at the same time as it suffocates Jong Woo. Although not to the same extreme, I guess. Anyone who’s ever had to flat share knows the pain of living with other people, so you can easily relate to Jong Woo’s trouble. He does try to find a better place, but alas, capitalism is capitalism, and the poor guy can’t afford anything but this creepy-ass goshiwon. You become just as frustrated as Jong Woo when he ends up right back there after trying to escape, and you feel for him when he takes to being isolated in his room in favor of going near the common rooms where he could run into the others. But the state of his “private place” is enough to frustrate you anyway: he’s got no windows, barely has space to turn around, and of course, there’s a hole in his wall he doesn’t know about where the creepy dentist can spy on him. You want to scream at him to look around, you want to get him out of there yourself, but you’re powerless.
3. Although the characters are mostly absolutely horrible, they’re still really cool to watch. Murderous Landlady is played by Lee Jung-Eun, whom you might know from Parasite (where she was equally amazing as the Parks’ former housekeeper). She is friendly and supposedly an ally to Jong Woo, at least in the beginning, but you know there’s more to the story. The actress has a talent of triggering warning signs in your head the moment she shows up, and this time is no different. Unfortunately for Jong Woo, he doesn’t see the signs until it’s too late. Similarly, the creepy dentist, played by Lee Dong Wook, is the main drive of the story and of Jong Woo’s descent into madness. Dong Wook’s done a lot of romantic drama work, so seeing him as a psycho is quite a change, but he nails the role. More on that later. The twins are played by a single actor, Park Jong-Hwan, who somehow manages to be both scary and sweet, and who makes you dislike but also feel for the twins. In my opinion, his job was the hardest, and he absolutely pulled it off.
4. It takes inspiration from Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The Dentist quite literally reads the book and shares it with Jong Woo, which should clue the audience in to what his endgame is. He recognizes something in Jong Woo that he’s only seen in himself, so he decides to push Jong Woo over the edge and transform him into a killer. Their dynamic is quite reminiscent of Will and Hannibal from Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal, and the homoeroticism isn’t missing at all, although it’s slightly toned down. I did feel bad for what was happening to Jong Woo, but the show makes a part of you want to see what would happen if The Dentist succeeds. How would their relationship change? How far can they go?
5. It’s pretty much a character study. Look, there’s plot too, loads of stuff happen. There’s a criminal investigation by a lone cop who knows she’s on to something her superiors refuse to see is there, The Dentist goes on with his killing as do the other inhabitants of the goshiwon, people go missing, but at the end of the day, the biggest part of the show is Jong Woo and his slow descent into madness, and his home isn’t the only factor to consider. The world outside of the goshiwon is just as wicked, and it’s this that tips him over the edge. His relationship with his girlfriend sours, his time at work is packed with disrespect, frustrations, and ignorance, he tries to call out for help and no one listens. He’s pretty much abandoned by everyone he trusted. Despite realizing early on that The Dentist isn’t to be trusted, he is the only one who would listen and understand Jong Woo, so it’s fascinating and bittersweet to see Jong Woo accept that as his fate. Might seem unrealistic, but once you’re made to walk into Jong Woo’s shoes, you’ll feel the pull too.
6. The setting is great. Most of the action happens inside the goshiwon, which might seem limiting. And it is, but that’s the whole point. Jong Woo is stuck, and you’re stuck with him. The place is disgusting, suffocating, and crawling with creeps, which gives the show the feeling it needs to evoke all kinds of stuff from the audience.
7. It doesn’t shy away from horror. Despite the Korean censorship blurring out knives and wounds and the like, you still experience the gruesomeness of the murders and feel the desperation of the victims. It’s hard to pull off when you have a huge chunk of the screen all blurred out, so I feel like that should be applauded. Don’t need explicit visuals to be terrifying.
8. It’s addicting. As mentioned at the beginning, my indulgent mom joined me in watching this. She’s not into horror or thrillers at all, and she was pretty much distressed the entire time, but she was hooked on it just as much as I was. Watching it as it aired, it pained us having to wait a week for the next pair of episodes. Imagine: I went from not knowing what I was getting into and nonchalantly saying “meh I’ll see what this thing is about” to “I need the next episode right now or I will implode”.
9. It’s simple to follow. Although it deals with massive issues such as mental health and psychotic breaks while also tackling philosophical stuff and quoting Kafka, it doesn’t leave you in the dark about anything. It doesn’t expect you to be pretentious and intellectual in order to understand what the hell is going on.
10. Lee Dong Wook is just fantastic. His appearance, charm, and more specifically his smile evoke so much he doesn’t even need to open his mouth to make you feel a million conflicting things. He gave my mom nightmares, so you know he can get to you if you let him. Similarly, Im Si Wan is so good as Jong Woo I had no idea he’s primarily an idol (just like his ZE:A groupmate, Park Hyungsik). His raw portrayal of simple, small town boy with big dreams getting kicked down and tormented by life is incredibly emotional and he really does hammer in the show’s main idea: Hell is other people.
Bonus: The Rose's OST is just... chef's kiss.
In all, this was a really really great drama. The story is fresh, the setting is interesting and relatable and traps you into its story, the set-up makes you want to watch the whole thing, and the characters will leave you pleasantly tormented. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea and it is quite distressing though, so watch at your own discretion.
As always, thank you for reading, and see you next week!