Having been so impressed with the weird horror output of Hong Kong and Japan in the early 1980s, when I came across the 1981 Korean genre picture Suddenly in Dark Night, I felt compelled to check out what may have inspired great current South Korean directors like Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho Park Chan-Wook. While it shows little of the aesthetic mastery displayed by today's best Korean directors, Suddenly in Dark Night is a mildly compelling small-scale psychological thriller that does a more-than-decent job wringing suspense out of some familiar tropes.
Kim Young-ae gives a strong lead performance as Seon-hee, a young housewife who becomes increasingly insecure about her marriage when her lepidopterist husband (Yoon Il-bong) returns from a butterfly collecting trip with Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), a pretty orphaned teen, to fill their vacant housekeeping position. Not only does Seon-hee suspect that her husband is having an affair with their new live-in maid, but she becomes convinced that Mi-ok's single earthly possession — an odd doll brandishing a meat cleaver — possesses menacing evil powers.
Suddenly in Dark Night is another in a long line of "person questioning their sanity" potboilers, which isn't genre of which I'm very fond, but it's handled reasonably well, mostly thanks to the tight clampdown on potential hysteria from director Young Nam Ko. Young-ae is allowed to deliver a sensitive performance with minimal full-volume freak-outs, letting her paranoia percolate under the surface for most of the film, and Ki-seon is a disarmingly suspicious simpleton rather than an overtly sinister femme fatale. They dynamic between these two women is effective, if never fresh, and kept me interested throughout this somewhat cliched story. Il-bong's character is a typically obtuse and/or abusive husband, but he also plays his part straight without going to deep into shallow villainy.
Despite his predominantly plain style, Ko strangely indulges too many times in both a patterned kaleidoscope effect and what appears to be filming through the bottom of a soda bottle to suggest altered states of mind. It's kind of neat, at first, but overused, and some of the other more rare special effects are also significantly low-rent, but the ending still packs some punch, mostly thanks to the empathy engendered by the appealing lead performances.