Horror movies that blur the line between fiction and reality are nothing new. John Carpenter pulled it off with In The Mouth of Madness. Before he succeeded with Scream, Wes Craven did meta-horror with his New Nightmare. At the end of the century, The Blair Witch Project blurred lines between reality and entertainment with their early “viral” marketing. And movies like The Ring, The Hills Run Red, and recent Antrum: The Deadliest Film Ever made have exploited the idea of “cursed” or “lost” horror movies within a movie. Now horror streaming platform Shudder has premiered its latest, South Korean meta-horror Warning – Do Not Play. The movie borrows a similar premise, while twisting it something fresh and genuinely scary.
Film student Mi-Jung is under pressure to come up with her next movie. With a deadline looming, the horror movie buff suddenly stumbles on that elusive ‘big idea’. A friend tells her a story about another film student’s project from years earlier. A film festival inexplicably pulled the movie, Warning, just before its screening. Rumours slowly surfaced that a ghost made the movie, which is lost and believed-to-be cursed. Now determined to make a horror movie about the cursed project, Mi-Jung eventually finds the film’s director, Jae-Hyun, who warns her about the dangers of continuing down this path. But Mi-Jung persists and soon finds her grip on reality waning as the lines between her movie and the cursed Warning blur.
Warning – Do Not Play Boasts Haunting Atmosphere and Visuals
Things start a little slowly and plod a bit for Warning – Do Not Play’s first act. Impatient viewers may convince themselves that they’ve seen this story in the past. Fortunately, writer and director Kim Jin-won increasingly ratchets things up. Moreover, the South Korean filmmaker exhibits a firm grasp of atmosphere and mood. Specifically, Warning – Do Not Play feels soaked in tension with several suspenseful scenes weaved into the movie’s second act. Like other Asian horror, vengeful ghosts, or Yurei, play a central role in the narrative. But Warning – Do Not Play’s visuals don’t recycle some of the tired J-horror tropes that Western remakes drove into the ground. There’s several good jump scares built into the movie, though Jin-won doesn’t lean too heavily on them.
…the South Korean filmmaker exhibits a firm grasp of atmosphere and mood.
Where Warning – Do Not Play really stands out is with its stylish final act. Jin-won balances and, ultimately, interweaves different timelines alongside different movie-making styles. Found-footage mingles with traditional filmmaking, bringing the ‘movie-within-a-movie’ conceit to full life. There’s a voyeuristic feeling to the horror unfolding as Mi-Jung (along with the viewer) seemingly finds herself immersed into the movie she’s researching. At some points, Warning – Do Not Play threatens to set itself up for unrealistic expectations as it sets up the cursed “movie” as something truly horrific. Though it may not entirely meet this threshold, Jin-won shocks with some unexpectedly gruesome deaths.
Warning – Do Not Play Boasts Ambiguously Haunting Storytelling
Based on nothing more than its premise, detractors might argue that Warning – Do Not Play treads on familiar ground. While that’s not necessarily untrue, it’s also a very simplistic take on this South Korean horror entry. Jin-won’s story certainly takes cues from what’s come before. And there’s visual callbacks to some great movies, including a clever reference to The Blair Witch Project’s disturbing final scene. Yet Jin-won uses these ideas to spin his own mind-bending story. As Warning – Do Not Play moves past a familiar first act, it slowly twists and turns it premise.
…nothing about the storytelling feels like a cheat. It’s a complex, open-ended conclusion that’s well-earned.
It helps that Jin-won has penned some ambiguous emotional complexity into Mi-Jung. Her reliability as a narrator is questionable early – it’s this psychological element that increasingly hooks you into the story. Lines between Mi-Jung’s ‘movie’ and Jae-Hyun’s earlier ‘movie’ are blurred in fascinating ways. As the climax unfolded, you’re increasingly questioning what came first and who’s really influencing events. Most importantly, Warning – Do Not Play’s ambiguity holds together well. That is, nothing about the storytelling feels like a cheat. It’s a complex, open-ended conclusion that’s well-earned.
Warning – Do Not Play Overcomes Slow First Act To Genuinely Scare
Despite a shaky first act, Warning – Do Not Play pulls it together for what’s a genuinely scary and uniquely crafted story. In addition to some solid jumps, Jin-won seeps his movie in a consistently creepy atmosphere punctuated by some shocking moments of violence. But it’s the movie’s ‘movie-within-a-movie’ story that elevates things. Jin-won avoids falling into the trap of being derivative. Instead, Warning – Do Not Play thoughtfully borrows and re-works ideas from other movies into something wholly unique. If Warning – Do Not Play isn’t a perfect movie, its ending will puzzle and challenge you for days after you’ve watched it. And that’s an impressive feat in and of itself.