South Korean horror thriller The Wailing doesn’t play nice. Directed and written with operatic intensity by Na Hong-Jin (The Chaser), played full tilt by its cast and clocking in at 156 minutes, this thing is so gruesome, atmospheric, emotionally wrenching and genuinely hair-raising that, by comparison, it exposes most American horror movies for the silly frauds they usually are.

The Walling unfolds in an isolated countryside village where gruesomely brutal and bizarre murders are occurring like clockwork. The police invariably find the killers lurking at the scene of the crime, covered in festering sores and bellowing inhuman wails if approached. Is the cause of the bizarre outbreaks the poison mushrooms that grow everywhere in the surrounding woods? Is it a zombie plague? Nothing so corny and routine as that, it turns out. 

When the young schoolgirl daughter (Kim Hwan-hee, flat-out brilliant) of a bumbling, likable policeman (Kwak Do-wan) breaks out in red welts and lets loose obscenities, the cop doggedly investigates a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura), a stranger on whom the locals blame the mysterious occurrences. We wouldn’t dare spoil any of the rest of what happens except to hint—and warn—that Na Hong-Jin continually ratchets up up a sense of dread and evil so thick and clammy that you may find yourself gasping for a letup. There isn’t any, except for some dark, nihilistic satire and humor. Cold comfort, really. 

The Wailing, magnificently shot, composed and edited, features a harrowing exorcism scene (a stunning and highly physical performance by Hwang Jung-min) and the whole movie involves so much animal and avian suffering and sacrifice that somebody should have blown the whistle and called animal protective services. For human viewers, there’s no such protection. The Wailing is a grab-you-by-the-throat stunner, by far the best thrill machine of the year so far.

The Wailing