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Phobia (2008)
Directors: Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, Banjong Pisanthanakun, Paween Puyiritpanya, and Parkpoon Wongpoon

review by Paul Higson
SPOILER ALERT!
What makes for a good portmanteau horror film? I would suggest that balance here is a core essential. Each segment should be as good as the last if not improving slightly. The tone and the style should also be maintained throughout the succession of tales. Let's take as examples three of the best anthology horror films: Dr Terror's House Of Horrors (1965), Tales From The Crypt (1972), and From A Whisper To A Scream (1986), the first two directed by Freddie Francis and the latter Jeff Burr. Dr Terror's House Of Horrors has five tales, playful throughout, the third, hence the middle tale, the most comic, the film recovering and building to close on the scariest tale. Tales From The Crypt also features five tales but here they graduate slightly in horror from one tale to the next. From A Whisper To A Scream has four stories which are equally graphic and atmospheric in their horror effectiveness.

In each respective film the stories are approximately the same in length. Each movie has only the one director and crew. Balance is also in evidence in other ways, and in the first Dr Terror's House Of Horrors and From A Whisper To A Scream every tale is supernatural in content, with only the first segment of Tales From The Crypt bucking the trend as a stark tale of terror featuring one premeditated murder and a coincidental visit by a psychopath in a Santa Claus outfit. Tales From The Crypt however does back-pay into the supernatural through its connecting story in which the protagonist is involved and in which fantasy is in the outcome. The linking device is also of some importance, and a thread that is distinct and imaginative can only add to a film. Having said that, in the case of the examples here Tales From The Crypt and From A Whisper To A Scream have two of the weakest linking devices in the history of the compendium horror film; the strength of the miniature masterpieces they connect is the important thing.

This is all worth bearing in mind when explaining where the new Thai anthology horror Phobia (aka: See prang) wrong steps. It contains four stories each from a different director and each of which is supernatural in content. I entered the first story ignorant of these two facts. The first story is Happiness, directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, and it's an evocative little tale of spooky intervention. Pin (Maneerat Kamaoun) lives in an upper floor apartment of a worker's project building and she is housebound with her leg still in plaster three months after an accident in which she was nearly killed. Her inability to make a living means that the bills are stacking up and she is three months behind on the rent and utilities. She still has access to the Internet and a mobile phone, and the story follows the Japanese trend for infesting technology with the occult. Her friends are few and unable to maintain regular contact so she is delighted when a mystery caller text messages her.

She is further pleased when he identifies himself as male and she enjoys the correspondence through the night but finds that the number is mysteriously unavailable during the daylight hours. The mystery texter admits that he is not on the Internet: "I don't have a computer. The place I live in is very cramped." This message is clearly ominous, and the thrills and chills escalate from there. This is a formidable start to the collection and is conducted without any dialogue, related entirely through text speak, email, Internet pages and other mundane printed material (final demands, piling up on a side table). The cinematography is beautiful and relaxed, and this is a small tale with small gestures until it nears its climax. When sharper movement occurs there is a slight blur which mars the quality slightly. This is otherwise very assured both technically and in the storytelling. The spectre is ultimately disappointing but forgivable, particularly as the tale moves to a explanatory note, a retrospective twist that satisfies.

Story two is the fast moving Tit For Tat directed by Paween Pujiritponya. Its pace is set by the fact that it is based on a comicbook by a Ekkasit Trairath, a colleague of Pujiritponya's. It is a comicbook that Pujiritponya had wanted to film previously but did not consider long enough to constitute a feature-length movie. A group of friends are expelled from school and blame the caricature geek Ngid who they claim shopped them over drugs found in the satchel. They abduct Ngid and exact a violent revenge before accidentally losing him off the back of their pick-up truck. While speculating as to Ngid's whereabouts, though most of them really believe him dead, Ngid, the son of an undertaker, shows up at the gang's high school hidey-hole and lands a curse on them which not only immediately leads to the death of one of the girls but in the scramble refracts the curse back on him too, leading to his own bloody demise.

The remaining five gang members, led by Deawo (Ball-Vitthawat Singhalampong), have seen enough to suggest a powerful supernatural force is at play and try to fathom if the threat continues and what might trigger it. The secret is in the open pages of a book, or maybe more than one book, if not any sheet of paper. The deaths continue and are sudden and violent until only one of the group remains. She (Saiparn-Apinya Sakoolchaloensuk) is the only one to have questioned their behaviour towards Ngid, and her opportunity to beat the invoked demon could not be more unpleasant. The hurtling storyline and frenetic camerawork could not be more different from the technique and mindset behind the first film and it is obvious that we are looking at the work of a different director. The supernatural entities, when they appear, come in freaky, creepy CGI effects that are crude but effective. Two for two and this is looking immensely promising.

But already there is a question. Where is the framing device? Or are these tales going to be lazily stacked, one on top of another? The third tale is called In The Middle and concerns four friends on a rafting adventure, scaring one another in the tent with urban myths and making references to genre films including, rather sadly, Shutter. Sadly, because both that feature film and this episode come from the same director, Banjong Pisanthanakun. In The Middle is prone to chatter, is plain in its set-up and begins initially very light-hearted and comic. The story darkens following a bit of white-water mischief which leaves one of the quartet lost in the rapids of the river after their dinghy overturns.

The night before the lost friend had jested how if he was to die he would come back and haunt the one in the middle, a reference to a dispute over the sleeping arrangements and who sleeps in the middle away from the sides of the tent where a phantom or an animal might enter and take them. There could have been a lot of interesting play with this premise but Pisanthanakun, having identified a concept with some potential, clearly sees this as too difficult an endeavour and rather than explore it settles for a different rug-pulling exercise instead. Some amusement is achieved but it suffers by comparison to the first two stories and its attempts at frights are weak.

Last Fright is the final tale and there is the first hint of a link between the stories, directed by Parkpoom Wongpoom. A flight crew are asked to repeat their role at the service of a royal princess for her return flight to Phuket airport. They are reduced to the one stewardess when a second stewardess is granted compassionate leave having learned only that morning of the death of her brother in a drowning accident. The remaining stewardess, Pim (Ploy-Cherman Boonyasak) has committed adultery with the prince following that previous flight and it becomes quickly apparent that the princess is well aware of the affair and the demand for the same crew is either out of curiosity or with revenge in mind.

It is not immediately apparent that the supernatural is in play but it might just be that the princess is evil enough to have sacrificed the other stewardess' brother to ensure the exclusive services of Pim. The interplay at this stage is intriguing but there is a second stage to the story which sees yet another flight take place and this time with full vent to supernatural terrors, though, as in the third story, the horrors are botched or less effective. So departs this collection of stories on an unsatisfactory note.

Balance is lost in quality. Balance is lost in film technique. Balance is lost in one story divesting itself of the spoken word. Balance is lost in an offside allowance to a comedic tone in story three. Then there is the absence of a linking episode or device, or the existence of one that is not quite clear enough on this first viewing... or a partial linking device which leaves the film like a broken necklace with some beads on the string and some on the floor.

The impression given is one of an ad hoc pact in the Thai horror filmmaking fraternity but unfortunately signed by a coterie of directors too off-balance in their abilities, in turn talented, lesser talented or a novice given a break. The two clear talents here, and very distinct ones at that, are Yongyoot Thongkongtoon and Banjong Pisanthanakun, and in the future they should be more discerning about their projects and involvements and leave the others to their mediocre play.

Phobia



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