If the song ‘Heathens’ by Twenty One Pilots were a show, this would be it. Strangers From Hell/Hell is Other People is a 2019 South Korean psychological-crime-horror short series. Being a fan of psychological thrillers, this show quickly became one of my favourites, as I binge-watched the ten-episode series over a weekend. The series revolves around Yoon Jong-Woo, an aspiring crime fiction writer in his twenties who moves to Seoul in search of a better life. Cash-strapped, he resorts to living in a tiny communal residence or goshiwon named Eden Studio, alongside some eerie tenants. Though not thrilled about either the quality of the place or its residents, and despite many red flags, he decides to put up with the rundown place for a couple of months until he can save enough money to move out. However, incongruous occurrences keep happening, making him paranoid, anxious and scared.
Jong-Woo is the typical underdog. He comes from a humble background, lacks a father figure to rely on, and has a sick brother and single mother to look after. He moves to an unfamiliar city to realise his dreams. His senior, who offered him a job, continually looks down on him, berating him, to boost his own ego; his girlfriend is too caught up in her own miserable job to take his worries seriously; and he has very peculiar and suspicious people for neighbours, people who make him feel unsafe. Overall, everything and everyone around him makes him feel alone. The show does a great job portraying the harsh realities of someone financially straitened, moving out of the safety and comfort of their homes to live closer to work and take a shot at fulfilling their dreams.
Strangers From Hell is the whole package. It has stylish cinematography that intensifies the tone of the narrative, a stunning soundtrack, resplendent acting and, most importantly, very crisp writing. You know the writing is good because it commands your continuous attention, rewarding you for it as well. The writers tell you everything you need to know but do not spell it out. The camerawork is excellent, making shots look creepy and disturbing when they need to be. It makes you feel the claustrophobia, the voyeurism, the terror and the heat. You feel the rage, frustration and paranoia that Jong-Woo experiences. While in the horror genre, the show does not resort to cheap jump scares. It is entirely the human psyche and the setting that are enough to chill your blood. Each episode leaves you wanting more. Be warned, the show is a dark and disturbing one, to say the least.
One of the great things about the show is that it feels very real. It has no mystical element in it. The show is all about humans, their psyche and how they can be at times. Psychological thrillers always provide a rich playground for creators to play in, and they made full use of it. Almost all the characters on the show are obnoxious, whether they are in the residence or not. It feels like an intentional move to give the viewers, like the main character, the feeling of isolation, of being misunderstood and of being on your own in every battle. Any good psychological thriller keeps the audience on shifting sand, never letting them be sure of where they are, and this show achieves that brilliantly. You distrust every character, even if they show no negative traits.
While Jong-Woo remains the narrator throughout, he is also an unreliable narrator. He shows definite signs of PTSD from his time in the army and is on the verge of a mental collapse. At the beginning of the show, he says, “This is a novel I began to write while I lived in this residence.” blurring the lines between what is real and what is imagined, changing your experience of what you see. The show debates whether humans are born evil or made evil. Most people do not act on their violent impulses unless pushed excessively far. It portrays humans as secretly having an impulse to hurt violently anyone who stresses us out. We just do not act on these urges because of the consequences. Nevertheless, when pushed over the edge, the barriers that prevent us from lashing out break. We see Jong-Woo demonstrate this multiple times. He wanted to lash out at people who disparage him, throughout the show: his senior, his colleague, and his neighbours. However, he controls his impulse each time. A passive person his whole life, he keeps pretending that life makes sense, that there is some point to all this struggling.
Moon-Jo, the main antagonist, sees this animalistic side of him, something Jong-Woo has been suppressing ever since he beat up his superior during his army days, and gets fixated. By the finale, Moon-Jo successfully sets the beast within Jong-Woo free, making him succumb to this urge, turning the violent version of him ,who lived mostly in his mind, into a reality. The show brilliantly portrays the emotional and mental trajectory, the psychological free fall, of a person who had been trying his best to be genuinely decent but got dealt the worst hand in terms of the people around him: psychopaths, backstabbing friends, an unsupportive partner and a discouraging society. The dynamics between Jong-Woo and Moon-Jo are also worth noting. The show is also a good reminder of being careful about who we surround ourselves with as they have incredible influence over our mental state.
Moon-Jo is shown reading Metamorphosis by Kafka in a few instances, a book that explores the absurdity of life, the difficulties of living in modern society, the struggle for acceptance in a time of need and the human condition, while also probing the themes of alienation and compassion. We see all these themes emerge in the show as well: Jong-Woo is trapped and isolated in his own subjective reality and within others’ perception of him. He is dismissed by people he relied on for support, hearing words like “There is no point in being nice to people” and “Being a kind person isn’t a compliment anymore” in return.
Strangers From Hell is thoroughly immersive. The show really got me hyped, making me scream at my laptop screen (as if the characters could hear me). If you are new to Korean shows or are looking for a refreshing change in your streaming habit, moving into dark, gritty content, this show is the perfect fit for you. It only has ten episodes, with none running over an hour, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat from the beginning to the twisted end. It streams on Netflix.