The heyday of the Asian supernatural horror boom born of the early noughties has long since been and gone, yet examples of the form have continued to dribble out of the Asian continent at a steady rate ever since. Little seems to have changed in the general approach taken since Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” kicked off a new trend for all things traditional in the depiction of vengeful spirits, back in the late-nineties -- invariably casting them in the spectral image of ghostly, pale, long-haired female creepers entwined in and unleashed by the modern technology of the day (weird to think modern technology back then was symbolised by the now near-obsolete video cassette). Thailand always seemed to lag somewhat behind its Japanese and Korean neighbours, yet the Pang Brothers’ “The Eye” kicked off its own franchise and was for some time considered one of the scariest exemplars of the J-Horror boom by those invested in the sub-genre. Thailand has periodically unleashed notable scare-fests such as “Shutter” on audiences every few years or so since then, and “The House” (the follow-up to director Monthon Arayangkoon’s “The Victim”) clearly aims for similar high profile notoriety with a serial killer twist on the usual vengeful spirit formula. Released back in 2007, only now does this rather over-played attempt to reproduce the fright factor conjured by Asia’s lurking spirit entities and malevolent supernatural forces find its way onto DVD in the UK; but it’s approach will be familiar to all -- if ramped up too much with CGI work and splatter to succeed on the insidious levels that made the original Japanese classics so effective.
Thailand’s approach to its version of the supernatural horror film has often been hedged by its insistence on centring the genre on young, good-looking twenty-something ensemble casts; and a certain cinematic gloss often leverages its depiction of the malign presences of spirit entities in a manner which diverts and plays against the moody, crepuscular nature traditionally inherent to such subject matter. “The House” exemplifies all such infatuations and features glamorous Taiwanese pop superstar Inthira Chaloenpura as a TV news reporter Shalinee, who gets sick of her hard hitting and worthwhile Exposés of child abuse and prostitution and such-like and decides to look into reports of a haunted house where a murder was committed six years previously, instead: a doctor was convicted of brutally killing his wife in the house behind a local hospital, apparently out of jealousy; and while interviewing neighbours of the now-semi-derelict ruin surrounded by overgrown grounds, which was formerly used to house medical students, Shalinee hears stories of continued sightings of a woman in a blue blouse – a figure that Shalinee’s camcorder seems to catch a glimpse of just as she’s being shooed off the premises by a bad tempered caretaker. It seems the region has recently been overrun by an epidemic of doctors suddenly turning into unhinged murderers: intrigued by the phenomenon Shalinee digs deeper for a planned documentary on the subject, discovering that in each case the doctors at one time or another lived in the same house before they murdered their respective wives, and that the cases go back as far as the 1940s. Shalinee, armed with her trusty camcorder, ill-advisedly ventures inside the house and thereafter is assailed by vivid hallucinations and spectral sightings of increased graphicness, which make it more than plain that supernatural intervention has played an integral role in these crimes. But with the insidious Hannibal Lecter-like intervention and manipulations (from his prison cell) of one of the present day mad doctors who’s awaiting execution for his crime, and the increasing frailty of Shalinee’s relationship with her up-and-coming lawyer boyfriend -- who wants her to give up her job, have his baby and become a stay at home mother – the reporter finds she’s becoming embroiled in the events of the past in a way that leaves her vulnerable to the evil forces which continue to infest the residence at the centre of the case.
Near the start of Shalinee’s investigation, one of her reporter colleagues astutely comments on how strange it is that no one is surprised anymore at the idea of a doctor becoming a killer: ‘if something happens often enough, it starts to seem normal,’ he says. This is something director Monthon Arayangkoon and his co-writer Sompope Vejchapipat should perhaps have kept in mind during the conception of this compromised attempt at a ghost story-cum-serial killer gore-fest. With its cinemascope-wide aspect ratio and the atmospheric use of nicely rendered deep focus photography within it, the film often proves itself able to create interestingly evocative and subtle scare sequences early on that leave us unable to pin-point from exactly whence in the frame any spectral manifestation will be most likely to emerge; while the protagonist is shown dwarfed in an environment that comes to seem inherently threatening. While presenting nothing essentially new in the depiction of Asia’s host of lurking female spirit entities and their close kin -- with their de rigueur long black hair and death-pallor complexions -- the film nonetheless manages to create eerie, suggestive images that utilise the well-worn scare tactics of Asian supernatural horror to good effect.
Unfortunately, Arayangkoon just can’t leave it alone, and it soon becomes clear that subtlety and restraint – so vital in the delicate balancing act required by the ghost story in order to make the impossible seem all too real – are qualities sorely lacking in the approach being taken here, especially once the film’s over-involved and slightly confused plot machinations kick in. Frankly, there’s just too much supernatural jiggery-pokery going on for one film: after the short, effective build-up, which employs only glimpsed shadows and blurred figures in the dark, the beleaguered but always photogenic heroine starts to experience a succession of ghoulish, dead-eyed, bloated-corpse entities lunging at her from all quarters – apparently all too eager to make their existences known about, and abetting their bang-crash hauntings by such heightened devices as scrawling out messages in front of her on walls in three-foot high lettering, or transfiguring her surroundings so that she suddenly finds herself witnessing bloody crime scenes from the past in all their most hideous, graphically violent glory. After a while, it becomes just too much to be truly effective or indeed all that scary anymore: such images quite literally become the norm in this world, as CGI-achieved ghostly manifestations are shown thrusting themselves into clear view in scene after scene after scene, until the viewer is only surprised if a sequence plays out without the aid of a grimacing, straggly-haired demonic presence belching green slime into the protagonist’s face!
There is also a question of psychological believability attached to this issue: even a relatively subtle example of a supernatural intrusion into the rational ordered world can be enough to make a protagonist who experiences such a thing question their sanity under the normal conditions of the traditional ghost story, here though Shalinee is subjected to a series of apparitions and altered states so graphic and impossible to ignore that by rights she should be reduced to a gibbering psych ward case twenty-minutes into the film. Instead, Inthira Chaloenpura is required to react with abject terror to each of these individual encounters with often brutally malevolent entities, yet pop up again each time in the following scenes unaffected, continuing her investigations as though nothing untoward has just happened to her. This would be all well and good in a heightened film such as Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell”, which has an irresistible comic book tone to it, but “The House” aims for a gritty visual and psychological realism at odds with such pronounced and overblown happenings. The character of Shalinee comes to seem flimsy and hard to identify with because of a cumulative lack of psychological internalisation of her bizarre situation, and also because of an oddly stubborn inability to interpret signs and warnings that are made clear enough to the viewer, but which she never picks up on until well into the film – surely not a trait that’s very useful in the career of an investigative news reporter. Indeed, one starts to wonder how she’s managed in the job for so long given her apparent inability to interpret a ghoulish white-faced spectre drooling blood while screaming ‘DON’T’ GO INSIDE’ into your face as suggestive of the idea that it perhaps might just be the best thing not to venture across the threshold of this site which has already been established as the location of a number of brutal murders in the past. In fact, by the end, there are so many varieties of spectre which have been shown to us seemingly co-habiting side by side inside the premises, that the most uncanny thing about the film is how they all manage to exist in such crowded conditions without tripping over each-others’ ghostly feet!
“The House” attempts to bring serial killer chic, graphic gore and ghostly manifestations all under the same umbrella, but the plot ends up becoming rather a muddle in the attempt, although individual set-pieces are effective enough in isolation. There is also an obvious subtext to the story which is based on the idea of male uneasiness at female career independence, which (we are led to believe) is still an issue in Taiwanese culture and a potential cause of the failure of many a relationship (Shalinee is worried about the prospect of her boyfriend’s mother coming to stay at one point, in case it is discovered that she can’t cook and her partner does all the housework). Building to an admittedly unpredictable twist and a sequence in which one of the apparitions sits with the protagonist and methodically explains what has been going on (it surely would have helped if it had tried this simple tactic to begin with!) “The House” then trundles on for another twenty minutes of plot unravellings and there is the inevitable coda in which the same events threaten to repeat themselves all over again with new occupants, setting up the sequel should this first effort have proved a hit. This is not a bad or poorly made film: just too in your face to get under the skin in the way the best J-Horror has often managed to do when the genre was at its height. This DVD from MVM features a nice enough transfer but only a trailer as an extra. Dedicated Asian horror aficionados will find plenty of irresistible ghost girl imagery to enjoy but “The House” is not destined for the kind of iconic status it craves, ironically a little less would have seen it go a lot further in viewer appreciation.
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