A couple of weeks ago, I made a really stupid mistake. You see, there was a new local horror film out, called Badi. It had a great tagline – “Yang mati belum tentu pergi.” And the trailer was surprisingly very understated, quite unusual for a Metrowealth film. Also, I’d heard that the director Eyra Rahman had previously worked with Osman Ali. All this made me think that maybe, just maybe, this could be local horror’s little glimmer of hope.
Unfortunately it is still very much a Metrowealth movie, and after the first 10 minutes, I knew I’d made a big mistake. But my RM16 was gone, so I stayed on to see the whole thing and thought I’d write about it.
Giving credit where due, Metrowealth was the first production company to capitalise on the lifting of the very silly ban on horror movies which, believe it or not, had gone on for 30 years. Mistik came out in 2003, directed by “that professor guy,” and despite it being a banal run-and-scream horror movie, a local reviewer called it “the scariest Malaysian horror movie ever made.” I don’t know what that guy was smoking.
We can probably call Mistik a trial run, since our filmmakers had not had any experience making horror films for the last three decades prior to Mistik. We can probably forgive its shortcomings because of that. But after 12 years, it doesn’t seem like our filmmakers have learnt anything about how to make a good horror film. Badi is still full of cheap jump-scares, badly-written characters, mediocre photography, and run-and-scream hollowness.
The story is about four medical students whose encounter with the corpse of a village black magician results in them being haunted by a spirit. The main premise is already problematic – I don’t think anyone allows a murder victim’s body – with the case still under police investigation – to be handled by medical students, and for people to go freely in and out of the room where it is placed.
Secondly, the “hero” Joe takes one look at the victim’s daughter, and is smitten enough to offer to go to her home for the night vigil, because, he says, he was the one who handled the body. Are there really hospital-morgue staff who do that?
There’s more, but we’ll get to them.
They scream, you scream
I’m of the opinion that anyone who wants to make a horror film should read Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror, or Paradoxes of the Heart, a great book that examines why we love horror and why we are frightened by things we know do not exist.
In the first few pages, Carroll identifies the fact that the protagonist of a horror story or film is us, the reader or audience. In a film, we see what the protagonist sees, feel what she or he feels. In short, the characters are our proxy.
This is the biggest reason why you can’t have stock characters in your horror movie. You need characters that feel real, characters the audience can identify and connect with. And most importantly, you cannot have the characters servicing the story. There has to be an organic relationship between the story and the characters.
This is where Badi fails completely. Here you have four stock characters in the guise of medical students. But they could be anything – hospital janitors, for instance – and the story would remain the same. One of the characters steals a ring from the body, which triggers the horror events of the story. But there’s no indication why that character would steal a ring from a dead person. This is an example of how a character is made to service the story. The storyteller needed to someone to trigger the horror events, and the character was called to service.
Take another example, where a character suddenly gets a stomachache for no reason, just so a scare could be set up in a toilet.
The result is that films like Mistik and Badi become just a series of scare set-ups, with characters spewing filler dialogue and becoming mere fodder for the evil spirits. You are not invested in the characters’ survival.
And even worse is that the films are not memorable or resonant. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Attack of the Sadako clones
Years ago, when I started hearing about a certain infamous Japanese horror movie making its rounds, generating word-of-mouth not unlike The Exorcist‘s, I knew I had to have a look. But those were the days before DVDs were easily available, and all I could get was a cheap-ass VCD copy of Ringu with only Chinese subtitles.
Now, I can hardly read Chinese, so I didn’t know what was going on half the time. But by the time of the shocker of an ending, I was left shaken and couldn’t get up to switch on the lights. For two weeks after that, I kept glancing at my TV set suspiciously. A few years later, I got a proper DVD copy with English subtitles, and the effect of the movie was even more pronounced.
To me, Ringu is one of the most perfect symbiosis of character and story. The protagonist has a solid reason for getting herself into trouble – first is to solve the mystery surrounding her niece’s macabre death, and second is to save her son’s life after he watched the cursed video. Things move organically, and never once do you feel that the protagonist is doing something out of character.
Contrast that to the ring-stealing medical student in Badi. And in fact, all four of the main characters who keep going back to the haunted house in the village even though they’re supposedly already scared out of their wits, and when they have absolutely no valid reason to do so.
But what Ringu has done is also spawn a bunch of Sadako clones in other horror movies. Especially in Malaysia, we have countless movies with long-haired female ghosts dressed in white. And ours have something extra – dark rings around their eyes that make them look like horror pandas.
The thing is, Ringu isn’t even about a long-haired ghost. Sadako doesn’t even appear until the very end (well, technically she does, but only in quick glimpses). The story is really about a mother who is also an aunt and a journalist, who discovers an urban legend that turns out to be true, and which eventually affects her loved ones. More essentially, it’s about the media as a source of our horrors and the conduit for the echoes of our past horrors. It’s much more than just about a vengeful spirit that climbs out of a TV set.
And reportedly, when asked which parts of Ringu they found to be scariest, most people said it was the chilling moment when the protagonist decided to sacrifice her own father for her son’s survival, not when Sadako appeared.
O good local horror, where art thou?
This 2012 AFP story has some interesting numbers. It’s true that it was the Mahathir era that saw the VHSC rule (Violence, Horror, Sex, Counter-culture) come into effect, and it was after Mahathir retired that the ban on horror movies was lifted. Says the 2012 article:
Three of Malaysia’s six top-grossing films are fright flicks made in the past two years, and the genre made up more than a third of domestic movies in 2011.
This growth, along with popular action films and comedies, has helped fuel a burgeoning industry.
The number of local films in cinemas grew from just eight in 2000 to 49 in 2011 and ticket sales have quintupled in the past six years.
If you look at the list of local films – released and to be released – this year, you’ll see that horror is still a viable genre for local filmmakers. There are Villa Nabila, Puaka Balai Gombak, Gudang Kubur, Penunggu Jengka, Jalan Puncak Alam, Gamatisme, CCTV, Jwanita, Banglo Berkunci … and the list goes on and on till next year.
But how many are actually good horror films? I haven’t seen Osman Ali’s Jwanita, but I loved his Puaka Tebing Biru, which I consider to be one of the best local horror films, even though it was reportedly mangled by other hands in editing. (Will there ever be a director’s cut on DVD?) CCTV has a very intriguing premise (guy goes to fix a CCTV in an old hospital, has a fall, and becomes a patient at the creepy hospital), but I also haven’t seen it. All this will, of course, be rectified with the DVD releases. The one that I did see was Elly Suriarty’s Penanggal, which was just utterly confusing, but mildly subtextually interesting (something about the death of traditional myths and superstitions in the face of growing religiosity). Close, but no cigar.
(Meanwhile, does anybody want to chime in on the missing Dukun?)
I’ve not been seeing many local horror films, because I’d pretty much given up on them after the dismal output of the last few years. You can read my review of Jangan Tegur from 2009 here, probably one of the last local horror films I saw. This was back when I was still reviewing films for The Star. Coincidentally, Jangan Tegur was also a Metrowealth production. Surprisingly, in hindsight, I must have seen a lot of Metrowealth’s horror productions!
Because I’m a huge fan of horror, I still hold out hope for a good Malaysian horror movie. Many of my fellow Malaysian movie lovers in the Movie Addict Facebook group in which I participate, swear by a Turkish horror flick called Dabbe: Cin Çarpmasi, or Dabbe: Curse of the Jinn, a 2013 found-footage movie. I haven’t seen that, but judging by the stuff they discuss in that group, it seems Malaysian moviegoers have pretty damn good taste in horror films. Woe is the filmmaker who thinks otherwise and tries to dumb things down.
There is almost no one talking about Badi in that group, but more about Jwanita, surely a sign that more discerning tastes have taken over. So, filmmakers, take note.