Being trapped in your own home, by choice or by outside forces, is a horror mainstay without a real identity of its own. It’s a trope more than a plot unless the creative team chooses to commit to a one room/one set horror film. South Korean horror film Loner tries to do something different with this concept, hitching a vengeful ghost story on the back of this isolation.
A bullied high school student fails to reach her one friend when her bullies demand she shoplift from a lingerie store. The owner catches her, humiliates her in public, and leaves her so damaged she refuses to leave her bedroom. The only person who is able to get into the bedroom is her bully. That bully accidentally unleashes a curse on anyone and everyone who ever interacted with the bullied teen, forcing out tightly held family secrets and spreading pain among everyone whoever interacted with the victim.
The spin on the formula is the chain reaction of bullying and pain. After the curse is released, the girl’s best friend also becomes a loner. She locks herself in her room and starts to look just like her late best friend. She even has an almost identical grey dress to the one her friend wore, living in it night and day just like her friend’s final days. The guilt of abandoning her friend without her knowledge leads her to the same level of desperation as her friend in a heartbeat. If she leaves the room, something worse happens, so she stays in those four walls.
The concept is great. It just doesn’t go far enough. It takes way too long to introduce the loner/voluntary isolation angle into the story. The bullied girl’s isolation is glossed over for a quick burst of gross out and gore effects, putting far too much weight on the best friend’s reaction to the curse. That means the best friend is the focus of the film at the expense of really exploring the themes.
Even worse, the film steps outside for most of the running time. What works so well in the few pure trapped/isolation films–Repulsion and In My Skin being two of the best–is the commitment to the setting. Once the character decides or is forced to stay in that specific room, neither she nor the camera leave it. The rest of the film stays there. In Loner, the action spreads to new locations with almost every scene. The horror is derived from two girls removing themselves from society; why waste most of the energy on some petty family drama staged miles away from the trapped teenagers?
The terrible English subtitles don’t help any. You get a literal translation of what the characters are saying with very little alteration for grammar and syntax. There is also no attempt to even localize colloquialisms or slang terms, substituting one curse word for all of the insults in the film. They’d probably get away with it, too, if the characters weren’t clearly saying something different each time that word popped up during arguments. Localized translations are difficult, but even a film as bland and unfocused as Loner deserves some level of accuracy and relevance to an international market.
Loner has some interesting ideas and some clever haunting effects, but it never really comes together. It’s a lot of noise signifying nothing and standing for even less. There is a great horror film to be made from this chain reaction isolation horror concept, but the team behind Loner had no desire to even focus on it.