The Best Horror Movie of 2010: I Saw the Devil

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The Best Horror Movie of 2010: <i>I Saw the Devil</i>

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

This is an interesting year, with a few entries near the top that are most comfortable in the realm of prestige drama or psychological thriller, and yet both the likes of Black Swan and Shutter Island also hang on the periphery of horror. Unlike some of the other cases in which I’ve argued that of course ____ or ____ movie obviously deserves the “horror” title, this strikes me as a year of more genuinely subjective choices. On some level, whether one deems each of these films horror is likely dependent upon the subjective interpretation of each.

Black Swan, one can certainly argue, has a certain strain of almost Cronenbergian body/identity horror running through it, seemingly drawing on some of the same loss of the self present in our 1997 selection, Perfect Blue. As experienced by poor Mima in that film, Natalie Portman’s Nina is a woman made to bend over backward to suit the needs of others in her life, until the point that her very essence seems to be eroding away, and she sees herself as stalked by another, better, more vivacious version of herself. At the same time, the film remains more easily accessible than Aronofsky’s biblically minded projects that followed it, Noah and mother!, existing on one side of a stylistic gulf but hinting at its director’s willingness to cross over that gulf in the near future.

Requiring far less thought, but bringing tremendous appeal to the table this year is Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, which hilariously turned Deliverance-esque tropes on their head by portraying the titular Tucker and Dale as kind-hearted but dim-witted protagonists who are misunderstood and unfairly maligned by a group of snooty college kids who believe the “good old boys” to be homicidal killers. And as the misunderstandings and rural prejudices pile up, so do the bodies, in a series of incredibly unlikely and spectacularly bloody mistakes. As strong as the concept and screenplay are, the film could easily have faltered without its two outstanding performances by Tyler Labine and especially Alan Tudyk, whose exasperation at a seemingly suicidal gang of college kids “killing themselves all over my property” make the pair an instantly iconic horror duo. Take it from me: There are still a lot of Tucker & Dale fans out there waiting for Craig’s long-delayed follow-up.

This is also a strong year for world-building in indie horror, as evidenced by Jim Mickle’s low-budget but wonderfully evocative Stake Land, which imagines an apocalyptic U.S. landscape where barricaded towns trade vampire fangs for goods and services, and Trollhunter, a faux documentary about a man dedicated to exterminating the giant (but surprisingly stealthy) trolls who live among us. Other notables include the American remake of Let the Right One In, which we previously noted is a far more faithful and compelling adaptation than anyone could reasonably have expected, and the big-budget, but sadly dispassionate remake of The Wolfman, which presaged many of the difficulties Universal would have at the end of the decade in re-launching their movie monster “Dark Universe.”

2010 Honorable Mentions: Black Swan, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, Shutter Island, Let Me In, Trollhunter, Stake Land, Insidious, The Crazies, We Are What We Are, Wake Wood, Monsters, The Wolfman

The Film: I Saw the Devil

Director: Jee-woon Kim

There’s arguably no more primal or instantly gratifying movie plot than the simple idea of “man seeks revenge.” The elemental power of vengeance as a motivator and story structure has powered innumerable thrillers and horror films to their bloody conclusions since the very beginning of cinema, but rarely has a film gone through such sadistic pains to communicate the ultimate futility of vengeance as I Saw the Devil. This film is nothing short of an exhortation of what can happen when the all-consuming need for personal satisfaction eclipses the more noble drive for justice—all parties come to ruin, and no one is spared from destruction, regardless of innocence. Especially regardless of innocence, in fact.

South Korea has a particular penchant for these vengeance-driven thrillers, with specialists such as Park Chan-wook using the genre to deliver some of the country’s most famous films, with Oldboy as perhaps the most prominent example. I Saw the Devil immediately evokes the former, not because it’s directed by Chan-wook (rather, it’s A Tale of Two Sisters’ Kim Jee-woon), but because it stars the very same actor, Choi Min-sik. This time, however, you really can’t get away with simply labeling one character as “hero” and another as “villain.” Although one is ostensibly an agent of the law attempting to catch the other, a serial killer, I Saw the Devil examines what happens when those in the societal “hero” role falter in the purity of their motivation and aren’t able to put the needs of the many above their own need for satisfaction.

Min-sik is playing Jang Kyung-chul, a bus driver who harbors a dark compulsion to kill and dismember young women. After abducting and killing the fiance of an agent in the National Intelligence Service, he is hunted by agent Kim Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), who is driven beyond the line of duty to avenge his would-be wife, both for himself and his commanding officer, the dead woman’s father. In most films of this type, the runtime would concern itself with the challenges of this hunt, but I Saw the Devil differs by making the finding of Jang Kyung-chul elementary. It’s not about whether Kim Soo-hyun will be able to find the killer; it’s about what he’ll choose to do to him once he’s located.

Suffice to say, seeing the killer receive his day in court isn’t what Kim Soo-hyun has in mind, but neither is a quick death, delivered as harsh (but understandable) vigilante justice. Rather, our “protagonist” is intent on seeing Jang Kyung-chul suffer both mentally and physically, breaking him psychologically with an elaborate game of catch and release. After ambushing the killer, Kim Soo-hyun beats him unconscious and inserts a tracking transmitter into his body before letting him go free … only to return again and again in repeated ambushes, inflicting further abuse each time. Slowly, this serves to invert the audience’s perception of the two men, generating unexpected empathy for a character we watched dismember a woman in the film’s opening, even as the viewer is made to confront the satisfaction they experienced in watching the initial acts of revenge. Like a crowd turning against a public flogging halfway through, the mantra becomes “enough is enough.”

Of course, this being a horror film about the destructive power of obsession, enough is never truly enough. Kim Soo-hyun falls from grace via the strength of his need to punish the wicked, and by reveling in the personal enjoyment of seeing the roles of predator and prey reversed. Ultimately, as in any good parable, it costs him everything, as the film drives home the depths of his failure in a spectacular conclusion that is equal parts chilling and hollow, the triumph he likely expected to feel entirely absent. It’s one of the great, empty victories of horror cinema in the 2010s, and should be seen by a larger audience.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.