Shudder’s latest offering from South Korea is a limp, wooden retread of every exorcism and possession movie you’ve ever seen.
The exorcism genre is one of the oldest and most well-worn in horror history: from The Exorcist to Poltergeist to The Conjuring and everything in between, even the most novice horror fan knows the staples of the possession film by now. Metamorphosis, the latest original from Shudder, innovates somewhat by its setting — South Korea, in a deviation from the ghostly girls that often possess characters in that region of horror — but it’s a shame how little it changes things up outside of that setting.
In the film’s opening minutes, we’re treated to the film’s Father Karras figure, Joong-su (Bae Sung-woo), who fails to exorcise a demon from a young girl before she flings herself out the window. It’s a blow to his faith as well, as he considers leaving the church before called back into service by his own brother Kang-gu (Sung Dong-il), who finds his family — including wife Myung-ju (Jang Young-nam), and children Hyun-joo (Cho yi-hyun), Sun-woo (Kim Hye-jun) and Woo-jong (Kim Kang-hoon) — beset by that same spirit, looking for revenge.
It almost feels unfair to ding Metamorphosis on originality points. After all, there’s only so many ways an exorcism movie can deviate from William Friedkin’s iconic template for 1973. But outside of its regionality, it’s almost shocking just how much the film sticks lazily to The Exorcist‘s structure and central conflicts. There’s the modern family beset by domestic troubles, the conflicted priest on his way out of the clergy, the dramatic consultation with outside priests (more on that later), and so on.
One of the few twists on the tale is that the demon selectively possesses different members of the family at different times: Myung-ji beats Kang-gu before walking on glass, and Woo-jong almost stabs his father’s face with a chef’s knife before waking up. But the script and performances don’t give us much to chew on with this family outside the usual stock squabbles; the notion that a demon can rip a family apart from within is wasted on shock-value gore moments rather than the psychological terror of not recognizing the family member you love.
In concept, the fact that Joong-su is actually connected by blood to the family in peril would lend a new wrinkle to the proceedings; now, things are personal. But that only works if the supernatural proceedings on display are used to, say, pick at healed-over scabs of past familial resentment or shake up existing character dynamics, the demon opening old wounds for everyone. There are no characters here, just demonic cannon fodder; the family just isn’t interesting enough to pick over like this, and so the potential is lost. The only character with anything to lose or regret is Joong-su. Everyone else is just your normal, everyday family. Yawn.
Not only are the characters uninteresting, but director Kim Hong-seon also imbues Metamorphosis with all the creaky terror of a daytime haunted house. Granted, the practical effects are often impressive: the way the demon disfigures and distorts the faces of its host leads to some neat prosthetics, and the film’s most arresting image involves a room filled with upside-down crosses and vivisected animals hanging from the ceiling. But the flat lighting and stock sound effects let those moments of terror down, making the whole thing feel even more like an also-ran for better films of its kind.
There are no characters here, just demonic cannon fodder; the family just isn’t interesting enough to pick over like this, and so the potential is lost.
The moments when Kim leans the most into Metamorphosis’ Catholic setting are its shakiest. As the final act approaches, Joong-su consults with the archdiocese, bringing footage of his family’s possession, leading to a group of international actors for whom English is not their first language having to struggle to emote through unfamiliar lines. To be fair, even the most fluent English speaker couldn’t make dialogue like “Are you sure that’s the real Satan?” work, either.
In the end, there’s just not enough atmosphere or innovation in Metamorphosis to elevate it beyond the dozen or so exorcism movies from which it’s shamelessly cribbing. It’s too cheap to offer effective scares, too ramshackle to explore its more interesting pivots on the premise, and at two entire hours long it’s too boring to justify sitting through, even on a lark.
Metamorphosis is currently streaming on Shudder.
- Criterion Corner: Luis Buñuel, “Minding the Gap”, “Rolling Thunder Revue” - January 24, 2021
- The Expanse Season 5 Episode 8 recap: “Hard Vacuum” - January 21, 2021
- 10 films we can’t wait to see at Sundance 2021 - January 19, 2021