AUGUST 27, 2011
While trading in some DVDs at Second Spin I noticed that they were having a Buy 2 Get 1 free on used stuff, and as usually is the case I found two movies that I wanted and then couldn’t find the third I’ve been wanting to get (in this case, My Soul To Take). So I looked around for a while and found Ghost Of Mae Nak, a Thai flick from the now defunct US Tartan Extreme label. Now that they are gone I won’t have access to as many Asian horror flicks, as they were a primary source for me – but it’s also rare that any of them are really memorable.
And for the most part Mae Nak fits the bill, as it has a lot of traditional elements you see in these movies: the ghost is female, of course, and seeks revenge. There’s a body that needs to be put to rest properly, a few nightmare scenes, etc. Hell even their house looks like the one from the Ju-On movies. But there are a couple of things that, while not necessarily making the movie better than some of the others, will at least help me remember a little more about it 2-3 years from now when someone leaves a comment on the review asking about some particular plot point.
For starters, it’s actually kind of gory, which is rare for this type of film. It’s like, the scares themselves are pretty typical (the ghost loves to appear and open her mouth really wide to scare people), but the actual deaths are sort of miniature Final Destination sequences. There’s a great decapitation early on, and one guy manages to get himself burned with oil and then immolated on a rotisserie fire! But the best is this one asshole who steals something from our heroine and then runs through the city trying to avoid her. Everything is telegraphed; we see two guys hoisting some big plates of glass up the side of a building, a dog, a garbage truck... and then everything comes together, resulting in the guy being sliced in half by the glass (and that’s vertically sliced; like Wrong Turn 2 but this movie’s actually older), and then the dog eats his sliced off hand. Awesome.
Also: the people who die all pretty much deserve it. In the Grudge or Ring movies, a lot of the victims are just innocent folks who happened to live in the wrong house or watch the wrong movie, but here, all of our victims (and thus an inordinate number of characters) are scumbags. Their real estate agent is planning to screw them over, a couple of thieves steal all of their wedding gifts, the guy that gets sliced scams the bride out of 200 bucks... it’s like a Rob Zombie world where everyone is a degenerate. Oddly, there’s a creepy ex boyfriend who begs her not to get married and go back to him instead, but he survives I think. That dude shoulda gotten dumped into sewage or something.
But it’s not particularly suspenseful, let alone scary. Part of the problem is the back-story; our ghost is a woman who died while her husband, Mak, was off fighting in the war, and when he came back he didn’t realize she was a ghost. So she killed anyone who tried to reveal her true nature to him, because all she wanted was to keep their marriage “alive”. It’s not a bad story (in fact it’s a true one; Mae Nak is a well known Thai story and this is supposedly the 20th film based in whole or part on the legend), but there’s no mystery to it – we learn the entire thing before the halfway point in one long flashback. So now that we know Mae Nak doesn’t seek to harm either of our heroes, there isn’t much to invest us into the story. Something like Shutter (also a revenge story) at least had the good sense to spread the information out over the bulk of the movie, but here it’s too straightforward – Mae Nak is just out to get anyone who might threaten the new marriage of our heroes (also named Nak and Mak, for some weird reason).
To counter this, the script has Mak spend most of the movie in a coma, which isn’t a very successful workaround. On the plus side, this plot point spares us any further cutesy dialogue between the very much in love newlyweds, but it also robs the movie of potential scares. Every now and then they try to build suspense out of his failing medical condition, but we see Mae Nak save him from doctors who were inadvertently about to cause him further harm, so we know she’s looking out for him too and thus he will probably survive. It’s like the movie has some cool/fresh ideas but refuses to apply them in a way that can actually make the movie a little more suspenseful, which is a problem for a horror movie.
Especially one as long as this. Nearly all Asian horror flicks run longer than necessary, but here it’s especially obnoxious since we get all of the answers before the one hour mark (worse, the DVD case says the movie is 103 minutes, it’s actually around 108). The ex boyfriend character is pointless and could have been excised, and we spend so much time with the robbers that I began to wonder if the parts of the movie before they showed up were some Simpsons-esque tangent that only existed to get us to the “real” plot of their story. And the ending! On the commentary, writer/director/DP Mark Duffield says that it originally ended on a particular scene (which is where it should have ended), but he added this extra little epilogue. Well, he shouldn’t have, as it just drags things out even longer and doesn’t add anything of note to the story since all it turns out to be a damn dream anyway. My advice, if you watch the film, shut it off once they are told what will happen at the crematorium.
Back to the commentary, I was surprised that it even existed, since they don’t mention it on the box. Leave it to me to pick the one Asian horror flick directed by an English speaking director who wanted to talk about the film (if you’re new to the site, or just forgot – my OCD keeps me from writing a review until I watch all of the available extras), not to mention one that was even longer than expected. It’s a very dry track; as he was also the DP he talks about lighting certain scenes and other techy stuff that will only interest folks who are strongly interested in that field, as opposed to things that might appeal to everyone, i.e. the development of the story, mishaps on the set, and who was banging who. There are a few good tidbits here and there, but overall I’d only recommend it to die hard fans of the film. Same goes for the making of, which runs 65 minutes or so but contains no direct interviews. Instead it’s just a bunch of random production footage, occasionally given context via on-screen text (I particularly liked that the monk extras “supplied their own shaved heads” – as opposed to providing someone else’s shaved head?), but largely just dull behind the scenes. The best it gets is near the very end when they show how many takes it took to get the dog to eat the dummy hand. Poor pooch.
So it’s got some “outside the box” ideas to separate it from the other Ring wannabes, but it lacks a good mystery or feeling of dread for our heroine, and thus the good is canceled out by the bad, resulting in another average Asian ghost movie. If you love these type of movies it will probably entertain you, but if you’re a newcomer this wouldn’t be an ideal place to start.
What say you?