Saturday, October 30, 2010

HALLOWEEN OMNIBUS HORROR PART 2: PHOBIA 2 (Ha Prang, 2009. Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkoom Wongpoom, Paween Purikitpanya, Songyos Sugmakanan, Visute Poolvoralaks)

Because Trick R’ Treat did not quite live up to my expectations, I’ve decided some films could benefit from a more modest word of mouth. A film like Phobia 2, for example. There was some buzz surrounding this film after it was shown at the 2009 San Diego Comic Con and this year’s FanTasia Film Festival. But not the kind surrounding flicks like REC, Paranormal Activity or even Trick R’ Treat. But from what I read, it was enough to peak my interest. Apparently, Phobia 2 is the sequel to a film ingeniously called 4BIA (as in “Four-bia” since the original contained four segments). There is no framing device. Basically five short films comprise one movie. And each segment is directed by a notable, genre director from Thailand.

And like most anthology films, some segments work better than others. But even the weaker contributions are backed by really strong direction. It’s almost an antithesis to the Showtime series Masters Of Horror. The promise of that series never really lived up to its potential because (with few exceptions) most of the “great” directors didn’t seem to bring their A-game. Where as with Phobia 2 each director puts his heart and soul on that screen (even if some of the scripts might be lacking). There are some breathless visuals here. And some very effective, very spooky moments. While I enjoyed Trick R’ Treat, I never felt spooked or creeped out. My reaction to the events as they unfolded was “okay. That was kinda’ cool.” With Phobia 2 I kept thinking “wow. Each one of these guys could potentially make an authentically frightening full length feature.” There’s something about Phobia 2 that reminds me of Bava’s Black Sabbath. I guess it might have something to do with the emphasis on mood and strong cinematography. While the finale for each segment is hardly surprising, it’s the getting there that counts.

(I should mention that each director HAS made a full length, horror feature film. Both Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkoom Wongpoom directed the original Shutter, Paween Purikitpanya directed something called Body and Songyos Sugmakanan directed Hormones. However, Visute Poolvoralaks  -- producer of Shutter and Alone -- makes his directing debut)

The other plus is that Asian perspective. The Asian Horror thing has become somewhat cliché at this point what with the look, the washed out tones, the impending dread, the creepy ghost girls with really bad hair… But within all the tropes that are associated with what has become a genre onto itself, there exists a compelling, nihilistic vision that Western horror films have a hard time tapping into (with rare exception).

The most forgettable of the segments involves a guy who winds up in a hospital after a motorcycle accident. And the ensuing is-he-or-is-he-not being haunted by the dying cult leader convalescing next to him. But it has some good shock scare moments. The opening segment involves a delinquent teenager who is sent by his parents to what seems to be a Buddhist retreat. To help him lay low after a questionable incident. The payoff to this segment is rather weak (and bleak) but there are some stunning effects and eerie atmosphere to spare. And the exotic nature of the story’s cultural backdrop adds another interesting dimension (to this Westerner’s eyes at least). The third story is probably my favorite – a young, Japanese couple hitchhiking across Thailand get picked up by two seedy characters driving a truck. What I loved about this tale was in how it starts off as one kind of horror story then takes a complete left turn and becomes something else. The fourth story probably has the strongest payoff of all the segments and feels the least “exotic.” A woman owns a business that repurposes cars destroyed in accidents only to sell them as new later on. And the cars are haunted by the spirits of their original owners. This might be the “scariest” of the segments as the owner’s toddler disappears after running off to play in the car lot. What follows is the attempt on the owner’s part to find that son, at night, through shadows and dark spaces accentuated by the rows and rows of automobiles packed alongside one another.

While the final story is the goofiest, it may also be the most fun. A sick, overworked actress dies on a film shoot. And she comes back to haunt the set. But here is the twist: this segment stands out as both a horror story and a satire on Asian horror in general. And a satire on the single mindedness of getting a film done. For one thing, the actress’ ghost is intentionally made up to look like the creepy, long-haired ghost girls of the Ring movies and god-knows-what-else. Second, although she’s there to haunt the set (and in Asian horror that can’t be a good thing), this doesn’t mean she can end her obligation to playing her role. The show must go on, right? And so it does. So what you have is a bit of a mini, meta-horror movie. You see: the filmmakers are shooting what appears to be a cliché Asian horror flick. But the set is being haunted by a variation of the Asian evil spirit seen in all of those movies. And that spirit is playing the standard evil spirit in that film within the film. And… well, ‘nuff said.

When I spoke earlier of watching Trick R’ Treat as a part of a double feature, I remarked on how my feelings might have been affected by having viewed a better film before that. However, I do like Trick R’ Treat and think it would make a perfect double feature with Phobia 2. Both films have their strengths and weaknesses. And where one film may succeed, the other fails and vice versa (Treat is better scripted, better constructed. Phobia 2 is better shot and the strongest with atmospherics). But they should complement each other nicely. In any case, they are recent, perfectly capable examples of the omnibus horror subgenre and well worth seeking out.

Happy Halloween.

Trailer for Phobia 2

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