The Thai horror film industry may feel like the younger brother of some of its behemoth rivals out in the Far East, but it’s the sort of younger brother who insists on dealing out unexpected and painful kicks to the shins of his elders on an increasingly frequent basis. It’s fascinating to watch the filmic output emanating from Thailand evolve into an increasingly mature form, and Phobia proves to be an excellent showcase of this evolution, presenting four exciting feature shorts from a clutch of established Thai filmmakers.
The Phobia project (which was also released under the alternative name 4bia) connects four such Thai directors, each delivering mainly disparate stories which share only the most tenuous of linking details.
The copious crimson imagery of the impressive opening credits indicates what a slick release this is; the production immediately looks the part, and the four stories which each own a more or less equal chunk of the 113 minutes playing time do not betray the early promise.
First up is the ironically titled Happiness, directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, in a departure from the tone of his earlier productions such as the successful sport comedy, The Iron Ladies. For all of his newbie status to horror, Thongkongtoon works the hyperventilation-inducing tension like a master craftsman deprived of tools and confined to a tiny workshop, yet still producing a finished article that feels polished and complete. Choosing to locate the filming in a single room for almost the entirety of the piece, eschewing the use of spoken dialogue, and using a minimum of special effects, Thongkongtoon harnesses the modern fusion of technology and the supernatural to produce a horror yarn that sends a shiver down the most desensitised of spines. Pin, a young girl who has been stuck in her apartment for months due to a car accident, communicates with the world via SMS and email, and when a mysterious new ‘friend’ opens SMS communication, Pin is wary but excited. As she probes her unknown text buddy with questions, the sense of trepidation becomes tangible, and the piece builds to a terrifying climax that is all the more impressive given the limited timescale. Happiness takes an angle-grinder to your nerves and is well positioned as a fitting opener to this horror collection.
Paween Purikitpanya, who was responsible for the successful horror vehicle Body, grabs the reins for the brutal bullying and revenge story Tit for Tat, employing a contrasting approach after the delicate subtlety of the opener. Focussing on themes surrounding the cowardice of bullying, the destructive power of revenge, and the inexcusable plea of apathy, the plot surrounds an unpleasant group of young bullies who find themselves on the receiving end of the ultimate revenge from one of their victims. Purikitpanya revels in the use of special effects to generate the horror here, and whilst it is clearly made on a budget, the effects are reasonable enough for a while.
Problems emerge as this feature continues; the use of CGI becomes more and more apparent, and as the story draws to a close, it’s difficult to understand whether some of the later CGI is even meant to look remotely realistic. This certainly spoils any tension amassed before this point, although the eventual conclusion to the revenge piece is rather satisfying. Tit for Tat is a stylish, well-shot, and well-acted addition to the Phobia set of horror shorts, but the overuse of CGI means this is perhaps the weakest link in the chain.
Where Thongkongtoon turned his back on his earlier comedy productions for his entry to the Phobia collection, respected director Banjong Pisanthanakun (he of horror sensation Shutter fame, performing directorial and writing duties alongside fellow compatriot and co-Phobia-submitter, Parkpoom Wongpoom) remains firmly footed within his own generic comfort zone, but incorporates a liberal sprinkling of gentle humour, creating the straightforward forest-based chiller, In the Middle. This often self-referential and somewhat campy (in more than one sense) segment, littered with spoiler-tastic movie references (including a cruelly revealing Shutter reference – ensure you have seen Shutter before hunting this one down) takes a standard horror premise, and delivers it with slick efficiency. The vehicle used to drive the flow of shocks forward centres around four male friends out camping in the middle of…you’ve guessed it, an eerily dark and gloomy forest, and when one of the young men is lost in a rafting accident, Pisanthanakun has laid out all of the necessary tools to leverage a slew of shocks to the unfortunate campers and, ultimately, the vicarious viewers of their agonised trip.
Rounding the horror quartet up is Pisanthanakun’s colleague, Parkpoom Wongpoom, further showcasing his deft touch for creepy and nerve-jangling horror in Last Fright. Harnessing a similar approach to the other directors here by maintaining a necessarily minimalist plot and quickly building a framework within which to unleash some decent scares, this final segment still manages to revel in documenting some enjoyably uncomfortable dynamics, centring around the unfeasibly beautiful flight attendant Pim (played brilliantly by ‘Ploy’ Laila Boonyasak, sister of Thai movie star Sinitta Boonyasak, and a movie star in her own right), and a surly foreign Princess, with the pair locked together in a flight. The Princess abuses her temporary hierarchical position of dominance over the obligation-bound subservient girl, but as the plot develops, we realise that there is a subtext to the Princess’s bullying of the dignified and polite attendant, and a vicious circle of revenge and counter-revenge between the two women provides a delicious method for driving the fear forward.
Wongpoom demonstrates his already considerable pedigree by walking the finest of lines between spine-chilling terror and murky black humour; in one instance, a frankly bizarre situation depicts a bandaged corpse strapped into its own seat on the long flight, yet this most improbable and seemingly immobile entity still manages to deliver some delightful shocks inside the claustrophobic confines of the turbulence-battered plane.
Phobia features four different directors with four different stories, and naturally there is some variance in quality, yet the important elements for successful horror are consistent across the quartet, with the filmmakers employing a shared focus. This focus centres on creating good quality shocks amongst a straightforward framework, and each story benefits from strong performances, thoughtful filming (take the simple aerial shots of the motorway network in Tit for Tat, or the shots of the bustling streets outside of Pin’s contrastingly silent apartment in Happiness), and often beautiful musical accompaniments (especially the stunning piano and violin-ladled themes in Happiness). There are no efforts to run and seek sanctuary using traditionally cynical mechanisms such as controversial production activity or rivers of lumpy viscera - not that rivers of lumpy viscera are a problem per se, of course, providing that they do not constitute the single redeeming feature – since the well structured shorts build discomforting levels of tension, suspense, and dread. As such, Phobia is a visually impressive flag, flying proudly for the exciting Thai horror evolution, and will serve as both an enticing entry point for new viewers, and a useful reminder for the converted.
Phobia is an Icon Home Entertainment release, and is presented with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The disc is encoded for region 2. I have to say that the movie looks absolutely stunning on this transfer. The picture is clean and faultless, with a good balance of colours, and has a definition of detail that continues even into the darker elements of the visuals.
The menu system is straightforward and easy, but the ‘scene selection’ is not split clearly into the separate four features. It surely would have made more sense to provide some sort of obvious segregation between the four features, but the four features are split across a number of pages with no clear definition.
The provided English subtitles are sensibly placed and fully readable. It seems that they are not removable though, which would have been another useful subtlety.
Audio is surprisingly well catered for with the option to listen in 5.1, 5.1 DTS, or traditional 2.0 stereo. The filmmakers make full use of surround sound in the applicable formats, and if you take the forest scenes during In the Middle as an example, the rustling of leaves which move around the sound space are unsettling and convincing indeed!
I did detect a little hiss underneath the intended sounds during opener Happiness, where the often limited sound activity perhaps makes any unintended noise a little more conspicuous, and the levels are occasionally affected when a heavier sound dominates the soundtrack. This is a small criticism though, since the often beautiful music is reproduced clearly and with vibrancy, and there is no evidence of distortion or lack of clarity.
Extras are limited, but we do at least have something here.
The Cast and Crew Interviews offering features some useful insights into the four shorts from the people who put them together, and the only real criticism here is that we only get twelve minutes of material.
There is also a theatrical trailer which, as ever, should be saved until the end of the movie, given the modern bent for revealing just about every important scene during the space of a two minute trail.
Phobia presents the talents of four Thai filmmakers across four horror segments, providing four considerable blasts of short, sharp shock. Lashings of blood and gore are eschewed for a more straightforward approach, and the output is impressive, providing a tense and nervy ride which will thrill newbies and veterans alike. With a great transfer, and a modest extra (plus trailer), there is much to recommend about this release, and the wider Thai horror cinema which Phobia proudly showcases.