Shudder’s latest is a slick but familiar K-horror exercise too thin to land its big narrative twists.
It’s been a while since Kim Jin-won‘s 2008 premiere, the torture-porn splatterfest The Butcher; after helming that found-footage slasher, he disappeared from the horror film landscape. Now, twelve years later, he’s back, this time trafficking another well-worn horror genre of the 2000s: the ghostly girl traveling through haunted media to kill you in increasingly bloody and atmospheric ways. And thus, we have Warning: Do Not Play, a film whose own title invites some distinctly Gene Shalit-esque observations about its quality. While it’s deftly handled and a bit stranger than it could have been, it’s still far too dreadfully dull if you’re looking for something new.
Whereas Sadako from The Ring was a soul trapped in a haunted VHS tape, Warning asks the question, “What if a student film was literally ghost-directed? As in, directed by a literal ghost?” That’s certainly the concern of Mi-jung (Seo Ye-ji), a young film director suffering from a creative block for the horror film she’s been dying to make for the last eight years. However, inspiration strikes when she overhears an urban legend about a banned student film at the nearby university that was allegedly shot by a ghost, and whose cast and crew (including a young actress named Soon-mi) were found dead.
Intrigued, she begins writing her new screenplay while trying to track down the film’s long-lost director (Jin Seon-kyu). But as she grows closer to finding a copy of this lost film (called “Warning”, natch), the lines between reality and cinema start to blur, and her own unexpected connections to the film begin to creep into the margins of her consciousness and Kim’s film itself.
In its neater moments, Warning knows to stay in its rather specific K-horror lane, and in that respect, it manages to eke out some decently effective atmosphere. The film’s opening sequence, where we get our first glimpse of the ghostly, silhouetted Soon-mi’s powers, is packed with chittering sound design (beware watching this with headphones) and a few effective jump scares. Trouble is, Kim can’t get a solid grasp on what to do with Mi-jung when she’s not being haunted by a terrifying video ghost; much of the film’s first half is bogged down with plodding setup, and it doesn’t help that Seo doesn’t get enough room to imbue Mi-jung with much characterization.
Warning acquits itself decently well as a creepy, spine-tingling East Asian horror flick, complete with prolonged silences and oppressive atmospheres.
But of course, you’re not watching a VOD K-horror flick on Shudder for the characterization, are you? And to its credit, Warning acquits itself decently well as a creepy, spine-tingling East Asian horror flick, complete with prolonged silences and oppressive atmospheres, once the second act hits and Mi-jung finds herself actually experiencing the production of “Warning” itself. The results are creepy, though they merge into increasingly murky, metatextual twists that shoot for mysterious but come across as frustratingly enigmatic.
For all the stylistic tricks, Warning: Do Not Play feels more than a little empty, an exercise in jump scares and escalating atmosphere that doesn’t elevate itself beyond its brief. The idea of a haunted film is intriguing, but it doesn’t actually do much with it: there’s little exploration of how that might complicate ideas of authorship, nor does it do much with the mechanics of how that would work apart from letting its protagonist do a bit of spiritual time travel. Instead, there’s a lot of staring at computer screens, holding up cell phone flashlights to peer through darkened hallways, and the occasional splatter of blood.
It’s competently made, and will likely pass the time, but it’s just too disposable to give much consideration in the increasingly bloated horror landscape.
Warning: Do Not Play is currently streaming on Shudder.