No other TV show in 2021 has an opening quite as explosive as Netflix’s new South Korean horror series, Hellbound. A jittery man sits in a cafe, looking anxiously at a ticking clock on his phone. As time runs out, three hulking demonic creatures appear from the ether, shredding and incinerating him in hellish flames, leaving nothing behind but ash – and that’s all within the first few minutes. It’s an appropriately horrifying introduction to a world where angels appear to inform people of their sins, forewarn them of their time of death, before monsters show up at the appointed time to drag them to hell.
In a typical horror narrative, the arrival of malevolent otherworldly entities is the scary part. But what if these demonic killings were captured on camera phones, uploaded on social media and became viral sensations? The threat of actual demons would pale in comparison to the religious zealotry, public panic and media frenzy that would ensue. That’s the premise of this smart, spooky and slow-burning series, which is director Yeon Sang-ho’s (Train To Busan) adaptation of his own popular webtoon The Hell.
Hellbound is part a crime procedural and part exploration of how misinformation can be spread and amplified in the Internet age to manipulate people. The former aspect is anchored by Jin Kyung-hoon (Yang Ik-june), a seasoned police detective who’s still reeling from the murder of his wife six years ago and now the unfortunate officer tasked with investigating these supernatural deaths. Meanwhile, lawyer Min Hey-jin (Kim Hyun-joo) is also looking into the rise of a cult called New Truth, led by its charismatic leader Chairman Jung Jinsu (Yoo Ah-in). The New Truth-ers proclaim the demonic phenomena a revelation from God, gaining power through its legions of newly devoted followers.
To make matters worse, an extremist faction of New Truth called Arrowhead launches a campaign to publicly shame these so-called “sinners”. In episode two, they unveil the next victim as Jungja Park (Kim Shin-rok) online. Shockingly, her only “sin” is that she’s a single mother of two children with different fathers. A raving online pundit even declares this poor woman a symptom of society’s moral decay, before encouraging viewers to doxx her in order so her two children cannot flee the country. Ms. Park is then offered a lucrative payout by New Truth to broadcast her “demonstration” (read: demonic execution) live to the masses.
In this, the series presents a revolting Black Mirror-esque scenario – hundreds of onlookers, streamers and mainstream media assemble to watch a woman die. Hellbound does a great job of depicting the ugliness of a vulnerable society in this new status quo. With proof of the existence of a hell, and the implication of a vengeful god, puritans are given public soapboxes to judge and condemn others, religious organisations stoke fear to gain influence, lunatics spout unfounded conspiracy theories online and fanatical vigilante mobs roam the streets to dispense punishment to secular skeptics – all while the mass media lap it up for ratings.
His quiet demeanour belying an unsettling intensity, Yoo Ah-in’s performance as the show’s pivotal villain is creepily fascinating. He leads a seemingly frugal life, but is perfectly willing to reach into his church’s deep pockets to attain his nefarious goals. Chairman Jung’s plot is the spark that ignites the show’s most fascinating moral quandaries and social commentary, while the investigative threads drive the unraveling of bigger-picture mysteries and surprising character motivations. Though the show can be deliberate in its pacing, Hellbound’s spurts of grisly horror are spaced out to ensure that characters (and viewers) can properly consider the intriguing questions of morality and mortality presented.
Since the dawn of humanity, we have always leapt to convenient interpretations of the unknown – ascribing meaning (divine or otherwise) to random occurrences – and the speed of social media has only exacerbated our tendency toward confirmation bias. Hellbound’s greatest strength is its ability to flesh out its paranormal premise in a real-world context through a variety of frightening and even hilariously satirical ways, with Veep-esque scenes of New Truth deacons flailing to spin events to fit their doctrine offering some of the best moments of comedic levity. Backed by an engaging ensemble, thoughtful themes and top-notch production values, Hellbound is a complex exploration of good and evil for the information age, and certainly has all the ingredients to be Netflix’s latest South Korean hit.
Hellbound premieres on Netflix November 19