I shall simply cut to the chase: The Wailing is all that I could possibly ask of a horror movie. The Korean import isn't perfect, of course, particularly with an ending that goes through at least one too many switchbacks (though the concluding pair of scenes are exquisite), and a distinct over-reliance on "scary dream makes the sleeping person jolt awake" jump scares. Be that as it may, this is still damn great - as great as any horror movie of the 2010s to date, and it's been an unusually strong decade for such things.

It's not just a horror film, is part of it. Writer-director Na Hong-jin's screenplay contains at least three distinct genres: it's a cop movie, a demonic possession movie, and a family drama. Never in a systematic or schematic way: all three of those styles are kind of the same thing in the movie's formulation. Here's what we've got, anyway: the setting is a small town in the mountains called Goksung (the town's name is the film's original title), which is suffering from a peculiar sickness in which the locals are growing inexplicably violent. A local cop, Jong-goo (Kwak Do-wan) is investigating, and he's being pushed gently in the direction of assuming that this has something to do with an old man (Kunamura Jun), who has recently moved into the woods outside of town from Japan. There are stories about the man's peculiar behavior, which possibly includes stalking through the forest wearing naught but a ratty loincloth, with his eyes gone blood red. That's enough for Jong-goo to go investigating, but this onion has many layers indeed, involving a mysterious woman whose name translates as "No-Name" (Chun Woo-hee), and a hipster shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jun-min); eventually Jong-goo's daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) gets tangled up in the mystery, which is when the film and Jong-goo's desperate investigation both shift into overdrive.

I freely admit that following every twist and turn that The Wailing makes in its remarkably long running time (156 minutes!) was beyond me, particularly as it starts to grow ever more explicitly mired in Christian symbolism. This latter part comes as little surprise, given that the movie opens with a passage from the Gospel of Luke describing the resurrected Christ appearing to his apostles (this image comes back in a singular, deliciously shocking way near the end of the film), but it still leaves us with a whole lot of material to unpack. So when I said that there are three movies inside The Wailing, I missed the fourth: religious allegory. Oh, make that five: it's also a Ford/Capra-ish satire on judgmental small town folk.

There is, anyway, a lot going on, though the most satisfying and meaningful is probably the story of Jong-goo and his ineffectual attempts to protect Hyo-jin. Even trying to remain sensitive to spoilers, I think I can safely state that the film is cribbing heavily from The Exorcist in plenty of ways, but allegorising the parent/child relationship is the thing I'm happiest to see ported over from that film. This is, in all its guises, ultimately Jong-goo's film, and his increasing despair over his daughter's infection with the evil plaguing the town is the most interesting, effective, emotionally rigorous aspect of his character. Kwak is absolutely great in the role, swinging from deadpan non-reactions to hearing overwrought ghost stories, to his wails of absolute despair near the end, and while I don't think any of us could accuse him of being subtle, he brings to the movie precisely what it needs. Heck, even just his visual appearance is an aid to the film: Kwak's face is round and, well, funny-looking; he's the kind of person you inherently expect to be a bit flippant and silly. Which is great for The Wailing when it is openly pursuing its sardonic black humor - and oh, how very black the humor is, but also how genuinely funny - and great as well when it stops, and Kwak's appearance starts to play as horribly ironic.

With all that going on, The Wailing takes its damn time to establish all of its plot, and its themes, and its visual schemes, and that brings me back to that 156-minute running time. This is powerful long for a demonic possession movie (for that is exactly what this turns out to be), but Na uses time in a focused, intentional way. This is, simply put, an epic horror film. Much of that comes from the setting in the Korean mountains, and the visual presentation that Na and cinematographer Hong Kyung-po bring to that setting. It is a feverishly beautiful movie, using extreme exaggerations of colors to give the mountains and forest a primeval quality: it's not just foggy rain, but staggering fields of blue; not just a forest but a kaleidoscope of lush greens. And the compositions have a generally unerring tendency to be pretty marvelous too: the film uses depth with great intelligence, building the world fully in three dimensions, and there's just enough baroque horror imagery (the body hanging from a tree is the one that really knocked me over with its vile beauty) to make the visuals really pop with nervy energy.

It's not a scary film, really: but it is heavy with dread and a distinct measure of increasing despair. This is also part of its epic nature: The Wailing is a very earnest depiction of good and evil in a cosmic, religious sense, and that fact gives it considerable gravity and weight. It is consequential in ways that I wasn't anticipating: the profound, profoundly upsetting story of father and daughter, but also the absorption and perversion of Christian iconography. The film telegraphs that it's drawing on traditions deeper than itself, and that gives it a whole lot of weight as the embodiment of those traditions; I know that other horror movies have carried abiding moral philosophical questions, but it's not so common that I'd be inclined to ignore such questions when they crop up, and anyway, The Wailing does it unusually well.

It does everything well. It's a very well-made movie. This is true in the cinematography, in the layered writing, in the extremely ambitious cross-cutting at multiple points in the film, but especially the dueling exorcism sequence somewhere in the middle of the film: the film cuts between the image, but also between different lighting styles, color palettes, and even sound levels. The extravagant range between the very quiet and the very loud gives the sequence a jarring, almost physically sickening power, leading to one of the boldest, most exciting sequences of 2016.

Whatever else it does with its complex story, it's important not to lose sight of that one thing: this is a viscerally powerful movie. Its sounds, its images, and its hypnotic pacing all contribute to making it an extraordinary spectating experience, one felt rather than watched, almost. It's a tough but exhilarating sit (its downbeat ending makes it even tougher), and easily the most engaging, and actively creepy horror film I've seen in, at this point, literally years.