If you’re not seeking out films beyond your own borders, you’re missing out on some of the best, like the wealth of masterful Korean horror.
We are all familiar with media in our own domains, with plenty of commercials and marketing for films produced in the States. However, foreign horror sometimes has the most surprises and nuances to shake up the genre and insert new themes, monsters, or even horror subgenres that take us away from the expected.
Korean horror and thriller films have been steadily gaining steam in the last two decades, with entries from the early 2000s to the present. It seems there is more going on than just K-Pop and K-Beauty; we now have K-Horror. Rounded out with plenty of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and deranged killers, the list of television and film options is at an all-time high, with series in the works and new movies being released each year, whether we hear about it or not.
I’ll take you through a short journey of the television shows and films that seem to have made the biggest splash and pack enough action, story, and, of course, scares into their run time.
Korea’s horror movie moment is here; we just need to keep up.
Kingdom (2019, 2 Seasons)
While zombies may feel like tired creatures to follow, Kingdom takes Game of Thrones-level drama and World War Z action and combines them in a genre-bending period piece in feudal Korea.
The story follows a monarchy that has fallen into a mysterious condition that makes its hosts turn into feral beasts that only seem to abate when the sun rises. The undead Netflix thriller directed by Kim Seong-hun and Park In-Je made its debut in January 2019 and has sky-high ratings from critics and audiences across all rating platforms. With characters dying left and right, don’t get too attached to anyone as this plague engulfs the country, and only a few chosen individuals can seem to avoid or understand this new peril.
Actors Ju Ji-hoon and Bae Doona play the noble Crown Prince Lee Chang and the ever-evolving nurse and whip-smart final girl, Seo Bi, respectively.
The drama and politics are just as interesting as the mysterious plague destroying all who come into contact with it, and while we still await answers on the third season of this chart-topping series, we were given a gift in the form of a special episode during our wait. A film that I’ll discuss later, Kingdom: Ashin of the North, takes great pains and has amazing payoffs while filling in crucial backstories and linking in a brand-new character to the lore, making things all the more juicy while we sift through the carnage.
Seasons one and two of Kingdom are available to stream on Netflix now, along with its partner film.
Hellbound (2021, 1 Season)
With the success of Squid Game, Netflix was on a roll and acquired the rights to another Korean horror fantasy thriller called Hellbound directed by Yeon Sang-ho and based on a webtoon of the same name. In its initial weeks on the platform in 2021, it managed to bump Squid Game from the top ranking and showed what range and creativity was coming out of K television and film.
In this show, a decree is made that someone will be going to hell, and shortly after, be it seconds or days, monstrous beings emerge to incinerate and escort the damned to hell in what is called a “demonstration.” This revelation causes the creation of factions, some militia or gang-like in nature, such as the Arrowhead Group, and others more spiritual in nature, trying to understand the meaning of the decrees and those that receive them, such as the cult-like New Truth Society.
With morality and mortality up for debate, this show just received the green light for its second season and is up in the air with other magical Korean shows just waiting to be released.
All of Us Are Dead (2022, 1 Season)
Another attempt at reinvigorating the zombie genre, All of Us Are Dead is a coming-of-age apocalyptic zombie thriller based in South Korea. Released in 2022, the series did well for itself but is ranked the lowest of all of our television contenders, though still garnering itself a second season.
The story is that of a maniacal science teacher in the South Korean city of Hyosan who unleashes a deadly experiment, causing the school and the city to be overrun with zombies. The tale follows a small group of teenage survivors as they struggle to endure the exploding outbreak.
More personal drama than mindless zombie madness, this series will be returning along with others on our list at a later, unknown date.
Revenant (2023, 1 Season)
For a more supernatural dose of Korean Horror, I bring you Revenant (the literal translation is “Evil Spirit”), a dark tale of phantoms and folklore. Originally airing this year on SBS TV’s Friday and Saturday runs, the show is now available in some regions to stream on Disney+/Hulu.
The story follows a young woman possessed and tormented by an entity and a professor who can see the dead. Together, they unite to try and find the truth behind a shadowy rash of suicides sweeping through their city.
A departure from zombies into spirits, this dark drama directed by Lee Jung-rim and Kim Jae-hong is an eerie and well-earned genre entry that’s gained critical and audience acclaim.
Squid Game (2021, 1 Season)
Anyone with a signal knew about the phenomenon that was Squid Game. Netflix dropped this game-changing series in September 2021 that had viewers hooked for weeks on end.
Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the story follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and other contestants as they compete for an enormous cash prize while playing deadly versions of children’s games. The show garnered mass appeal and enormous numbers, but some scandal has led to the delay of the promised second season of the hit show. Matching the anxiety and peril of living in a world that’s too expensive to survive in versus fighting for your life in a more literal way was a batty way to go about things.
Yet, it spoke to people, especially amid the lockdown, who were struggling to make ends meet and felt we were already living in a dystopian era. With casting being announced and a game show mimicking the original stirring up more fervor, season 2 of Squid Game is possibly one of the most anticipated returns to television we have up in the air at the moment.
A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A psychological horror drama, A Tale of Two Sisters is a heartfelt tale laced with enigma and terror.
The 2003 Korean Horror film written and directed by Kim Jee-woon was adapted from a Joseon-dynasty folktale titled “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon,” it would later receive an American adaptation in the form of the film The Uninvited.
The original film is a tale about a young girl, recently released from a mental institution, returning home to her sister. The pair has an unbreakable bond, and as the sisters try to reconnect, they are haunted by both the tension between them and their stepmother and specters that seem to be stalking the house. All of this leads down dark family bloodlines and heartbreaking secrets to create an altogether remarkable piece of horror.
If you’ve not yet seen either of these films, do yourself a favor and watch the original first; your patience will be rewarded by a well-built story and a shocking mystery to unravel.
The Wailing (2016)
This South Korean Horror film was directed and penned by Na Hong-jin for its 2016 release.
Quite detailed, The Wailing genre mashes some effective elements between aspects of illness, violence, strangers, reanimation, and the demonic while focusing on a police officer who is investigating a rash of strange murders as well as illnesses in a remote Korean village. The goal of braving these terrors, which vary from the madness of the living to the wrath of the dead, is to save his daughter, and this plot is dense with clandestine fiends and mass hysteria that seem to be driving people into a frenzy.
Though it’s quite long and thorough, in spite of its density, it received near-perfect critic scores and incredibly high audience approval.
If you have the time for a true storytelling experience, The Wailing is a furtive and engaging piece that isn’t afraid to experiment but never deviates from its core: a brilliant story.
The Host (2006)
Stepping away from the undead, we take on a behemoth of a monster movie with the 2006 South Korean Horror epic The Host.
Directed and co-written by Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), he began research and development of this film in 2000 with inspiration from a widely-reported scandal involving American commanders and Korean employees improperly disposing of formaldehyde, which ended up in the Han River. The film centers around a small-time snack stand owner, Park Gang-doo (Song Kang-ho), who lives and works by the river with his family, where the water has been stripped of fish from chemical dumping and strange, amphibious creatures have been spotted. These events supposedly take place six years after the illegal disposal, with the result being an enormous monster emerging from the river, causing mass chaos and devastation, killing many that come into contact with it.
When the beast takes Park’s daughter Hyun-seo, she is assumed dead. Anyone who came into contact with the creature, including Park and his family, is quarantined as this host carries an unknown virus.
With plenty going on, intense action to rival the Monsterverse, and a cast of game characters, The Host was a winner for critics and audiences and could be due for a revisit for some fans or a first watch for others.
Kingdom: Ashin of the North (2021)
While Kingdom is still on hold for season three, the second season closed with the introduction to a new, powerful female character, Ashin (Ju Ji-hyun), a tribal heir to a Northern throne and expert archer, the sole survivor of her clan after several attacks against them and mounting tensions with the monarchy ruling in Joseon.
It’s discovered that one of the ruling members of the Cho clan (who installed themselves tactically into the royal family) orchestrated several of these attacks, and Ashin blames the entire monarchy for robbing her of her friends and family. Reinvigorated by rage, Ashin asks for a chance at retribution for her slain tribe but is instead made a prisoner.
Without spoiling much more, Ashin is perhaps the most pivotal character in the lore of Kingdom, and her arrival needed no less than its own feature film-length episode. A survivor and old-time anarchist, Ashin breathes life and much-needed answers into the many tangled loose ends that make up the wonderfully messy but always well-dressed world of Kingdom.
Train to Busan (2016)
Probably the most viewed and overall popular option on this list, Train to Busan earns its hefty fandom with a heartfelt story of father and daughter, combined with the thrill of a high-speed train ride infested with zombies.
The 2016 Korean Horror film from director Yeon Sang-ho chronicles Seok-Woo (Gong Yoo) and his daughter Soo-An (Kim Su-an), a workaholic, separated father who seems more interested in his email than in his persistent, patient daughter. When an infected woman boards the last train to Busan, the ride turns into a fight for the passengers’ lives as they navigate the high-speed vessel and try to avoid becoming infected on and off the train.
Garnering incredible critical and audience appeal, Train to Busan was an undeniable success. Its prequel is titled Seoul Station, and unfortunately, after the popularity of Busan, production tried to recapture lightning in a bottle with the sequel Peninsula, which can only be described as average, to many viewers’ disappointment.
This film stands alone among the trilogy as the strongest section easily and was a fresh play and fast-paced delivery on the usually shambling zombie trope. Turn it on for a refresher if you’re already a fan, or immerse yourself in the drama and action for an enviable first watch.
Project Wolf Hunting (2022)
A science fiction, action, and horror mix-up, 2022’s Project Wolf Hunting offers a punishing look at prison life from writer and director Kim Hong-seon.
After the previous failure of prison transport from the Philippines to Korea due to a bombing, we arrive in the presen