Friday, 22 December 2006

Spirit of the Victim ผีคนเป็น (2006)

If the poster looks horrible, don't expect the film to be good?

I remember this film when it was called Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. You know, the movie where a bunch of people making a horror film about Freddy are in fact haunted, hunted, and gutted by the cinematic villain when the cameras stop rolling. The Thai horror industry has definitely come of age when it takes on the horror movie within a horror movie treatment of the last great American horror film and puts on a Thai spin, and ups the ante. Even if the results are mixed (a sign that the filmmakers are challenging themselves), it’s interesting to watch this, admire the concept, and think of how perfect it would be without its flaws.

Now, the horror movie within the horror-movie has Ting (Pitchanart Sakakorn), a mediocre but persistent bit-part actress whose skills nevertheless gain the attention of a local cop who needs someone to play all the female victims in his Crimewatch-style television series. While reenacting all the scenes of murders, it seems the ghosts and spirits of the grievously departed are drawn towards Ting, and the supernatural hauntings of her and her crew really begin in earnest when the Thai Crimewatch plans to film a case involving a traditional dancer turned model. Of course, Ting isn’t really Ting, but an actress playing Ting in a movie, and the ghosts and hauntings of the Crimewatch crew aren’t really ghosts... but it turns out that the actress portraying Ting and her crew are really haunted by ghosts...

Like I said, this makes for one of the best horror movie premises ever, but unlike Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the translation of the idea to a screenplay seems to have suffered, and then injured again in the execution of screenplay to film. When you’re making a double horror movie, the last thing you should do is to spend too much time on the movie within the movie, then reveal that everything that the audience has watched up to that point isn’t the real story at all. That’s what Wes Craven’s New Nightmare deftly avoids. That’s what Method (one of Elizabeth Hurley’s worst films) also avoids, by running both films at the same go, like a reality show. And by intercutting between the movie-within-a-movie and the “real story”, both Method and New Nightmare actually come off as narratively complex and delightfully dense.

With Spirit of the Victim, the story is forced to reboot itself and cast away any reserve of goodwill it builds in the audience. Better yet, because the director and producers know they’re coming about against Wes Craven’s movie, they inject more reboots along the way – the ghost haunting the crew isn’t the real ghost, their story isn’t the real story, and several haunting sequences are actually bad dreams. Done right, it could actually trip you out and spark off some reflections on the shaky foundations of reality. As it stands, the execution of Spirit of the Victim will just make you stop caring about the characters and then stop letting yourself get scared by its fright scenes. Plotwise, the film lacks a unity and economy of purpose that is very crucial for any entry in this movie-within-movie genre to succeed.

Oddly enough, the fright scenes (very polished CGI and setup reminiscent of those in a Pang Brothers spookfest) and even the plot of the movie-within-the-movie are far more entertaining and inspired than those in the ‘real story’ itself – which consist of ghouls dressed up as traditional dancers (in all their headgear and wayang-like poses) creeping up towards their victims while the gongs and cymbal bang increasingly louder. Not that the fright mood music was any better in the movie-within-the-movie: the ‘scary music’ was so blatant loud it made scary scenes lose their impact, and non-scary scenes look comical. Yes, we regret to inform you, the sophisticated horror fan, that the Thais still can’t get the music right.

I can’t say I liked Spirit of the Victim when its horror sequences got more and more banal and less and less creative the more the director reveals the “real story”. What I can say is I like the director for challenging himself with such a convoluted and interesting premise, even though he does fall short of achieving the potential the movie had within it.

First published at incinemas on 4 January 2007

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