This Thai horror flick resurrects a format that's seldom seen in the genre these days: the Portmanteau movie - more familiar to horror fans from the heyday of Amicus in the 1970s. Though "Phobia" presents the work of four directors who take very different approaches to their subject matter, the stories mostly take on a rather conservative 'morality tale' structure, despite there being no overarching framework story binding them together (although there are subtle links between the episodes if you pay close attention). In its desperation to appeal to a modern, worldly and International audience the film does convey a glossiness and a slickness that might actually be quite off-putting to many Western Horror fans; though several segments display a lush, colourful aesthetic with stylish production design bringing a fantastical, comic book element to proceedings. The recipe seems to have gone down well with Thai audiences, and a sequel has since been made with the same directors returning.
Director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon ("Iron Ladies") is first up with an intensely visual tale that falls into a subgenre developed by the Japanese during the Country's great horror boom of the early noughties: the haunted technology tale. In this story we meet a teenage girl, stuck in an upper-storey flat at the foot of a crossroads in a teeming Thai metropolis; she is housebound after a near-fatal car accident that has left her with a massive, cumbersome plaster cast on one leg. Left alone inside her dimly lit and somewhat shabby apartment, she relies on the Internet and on text conversations with her friends on her mobile phone for company. But when a stranger contacts her via SMS, her initial weariness eventually gives way to curiosity born out of loneliness, and she strikes up a flirtatious, text-based conversation with this mysterious interlocutor. But soon the young girl begins to suspect that her new friend is not of this world, and may be a great deal closer to home than she was previously aware ...
Thongkongtoon's film foregoes dialogue to tell a short but still quite effective little tale that conveys most of its information through subtle visual cues. The young protagonist's isolation is nicely conveyed by emphasising the gaudy, colourful nightlife surging around her apartment building while all the while she remains cut off from it all, stranded high up in the air in what is by contrast a messy and somewhat fuggy-looking set of small rooms. As the tension mounts, the camera closes in on the increasingly darkened environment, and the sense of claustrophobia rises. The pay-off and the final 'twist' wont be that difficult to see coming for most viewers, but the material is nicely handled and the film is visually attractive throughout, making this something of a low-key yet effective opener.
TIT FOR TAT
This is a 'supernatural revenge' tale directed by Paween Purikitpanya ("Body") which centres on the activities of a group of teenage school bullies who take it upon themselves to torment a particularly gangly and defenseless weakling in their class, generally making his life a living hell (as bullies are apt to do). Usually watching from the sidelines are several pretty schoolgirls, who indulge these nasty boys' behaviour and make themselves culpable by refusing to challenge their despicable and increasingly violent treatment of the tortured youth in question. However, unknown to these miscreants and their circle of friends, said victim takes it upon himself to fight back with the aid of Black Magic; he concocts a spell which soon brings inventively wrought, supernaturally derived death (in the style and spirit of the "Final Destination" franchise) to anyone who looks at it. Gory mayhem predictably ensues!
This was my least favourite of the four tales, mainly because of Purikitpanya's fidgety, hyperbolic directorial style. It's ridiculously over the top, with a constant barrage of unnecessary technique battering the viewer into submission with its stream of stuttery editing, flashes, zooms, audio stings - in general, the full ADD works! This occurs literally all the way through. It doesn't matter what is happening on screen at any particular moment - someone could be clipping their toenails, and it's still edited as though it were a huge action movie sequence. This inevitably makes the whole thing blur into one big incoherent mess of noise and flashing imagery; and there is a laughably primitive CGI-based apparition which looks little better than a video game graphic from ten years ago and which no amount of gloss was going to make look frightening. Thus, all atmosphere or potential scariness is banished in a welter of directorial 'look-at-me' willy waving and bluster. The story takes a fairly predictable, mainstream course although it is notable that even the bullied victim gets done in by his own curse, perhaps as a lesson for messing with the forces of the unknown?
IN THE MIDDLE
Four nerdy youths go off an a camping holiday in some remote jungle at the start of this initially light-hearted escapade from "Shutter" co-director Banjong Pisanthanakun. Anyone expecting a similar piece of work to the director's previous outing will be surprised to find a very different style in play here. The four youths go on a white water rafting expedition, during which one of their number goes missing after their dinghy capsizes. The previous night, the guys had squabbled over who should get to sleep in the middle sleeping bag inside their cramped and rather damp tent - and one of them joked that he would come back and haunt anyone who slept in his place after he died. Unfortunately, it was the member of the group who's now missing believed drowned! Naturally enough, a dripping wet, zombified ghoul version of their former friend is soon stalking the three through the dark jungle, with a further nasty surprise laid in store for the pals at the end of this unpleasant development in their holiday.
This is shot in a much more conventional manner than "Tit for Tat" and director Pisanthanakun seems much keener on essaying an exercise in teen comedy than he is in making another horror vehicle. The reliance on self-referential humour, in which various horror movies, such as the director's own "Shutter" , "The Sixth Sense" and "The Others" are referenced for laughs, gets increasingly strained though - not least because of the blandness of the chosen reference points. The joke at the expense of all those Japanese movies that rely on ghosts which are: 'always females with white faces and long, straight dark hair' is about ten years too late to elicit much of a giggle. Having said that, when the film goes for horror thrills rather than comedy hokum, Pisanthanakun proves himself still able to produce effective fright sequences and, although the twist ending is hardly innovative, this is quite an enjoyable little exercise in mainstream horror-comedy.
Parkpoom Wongpoom also deviates from the tense, gritty Japanese-style horror of "Shutter", the film he co-directed with Banjong Pisanthanakun, although the final ten minutes is a beautifully orchestrated exercise in the typical pale-faced, long haired ghostly haunting genre so derided in his partner's previous film. "Last Fright" goes all out to produce a glossy, stylishly rendered mise-en-scene though, that gives the film a colourful Fellini-esque quality. Most of it takes place onboard a plush, eerily empty airliner with one seat occupied by a corpse - scenes highly reminiscent in their style to the final sequence in Mario Bava's "Lisa and the Devil".
The story revolves around a pretty stewardess who is assigned to look after a beautiful and glamorous princess on a long haul flight. Unfortunately, matters are complicated by the fact that the stewardess happens to be conducting an affair with the princess's husband - and, even worse, she evidently knows all about it! The ill-fated assignment takes rather a drastic turn for the worse when the stewardess accidentally poisons her charge and she dies from an allergic reaction to a shrimp lunch!
As if that wasn't bad enough, the stewardess is then assigned a mission to fly back with the body. Wongpoom ratchets up the eerie horror elements, here, after the laboured melodrama of the opening section of the film. A body wrapped in bandages, with the traditional cascading black hair, becomes a foreboding image as air turbulence first knocks it from its seat and then pitches it ever nearer the startled stewardess's seat! The director implements at least one innovation in his meticulously rendered version of Japanese curse horror - the vomiting ghost! As the gruesome spirit pursues its victim, it endlessly regurgitates that unfortunate shrimp-based meal, providing rather a messy, if extremely effective, exercise in vengeance haunting!
"Phobia" comes to UK DVD with a nice looking transfer and robust 5.1 and DTS audio options. There is a theatrical trailer and a short twelve minute 'making of' featurette included as an extra which features short interviews with the directors and various cast members and includes brief behind the scenes sequences from several episodes.