Forbidden (to make a movie that looks like horror but isn't scary) ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Friday, April 15, 2011

Forbidden (to make a movie that looks like horror but isn't scary)

Dilarang Masuk
My rating:

Our local filmmakers clearly have a problem with fresh and original ideas - namely, no one has any. Which isn't unique to Malaysia actually; Hollywood plays the bandwagon-jumping game aaaall the tiiiime, as does any reasonably-sized entertainment industry. The thing is, most countries' film industries are much bigger than ours, so they usually have several bandwagons to jump on. But here, there are only two: horror movies and horror-comedy movies. (Which isn't exactly two, more like one and a variant.) And whether serious-scary or funny-scary, they'll always have the same old same old: the long-haired jembalang with bad skin, the evil black magic practitioner, the wise old imam who busts ghosts with the Power of Islam, and the lesson for all good Muslims that this amalan syirik stuff is totally not cool. (But watching movies about it is. Keep watching!)

So along comes Dilarang Masuk, a movie that tries to be fresh and original - and unfortunately, turns out mediocre.

Fatia (Shiqin Kamal), Ronnie (Azma Aizal Yusoof), Juli (Isma Hanum Hussein) and Bad (Muniff Isa) are four friends who get lost on a hike, and find an old abandoned house in which they take shelter. But inside, they find some very foreboding things: a pair of long-dead bodies, a very large stash of money, and a still-loaded gun. It soon becomes clear that something very bad has taken place in this house, and its echoes are returning to haunt the four, whose friendships hide simmering tensions of their own.

Well, that's a very short synopsis. That's 'cos it's a very simple premise. And really, that's one of the good things about it; four characters, one spooky location, lots of interpersonal tension, throw it all in a pot and let it stew. It's also a much more universal horror story, involving the ghosts of those who have suffered and were wronged, and those wrongs coming home to roost. I say universal, because there's not a hint of Malay traditional black magic about it - no bomohs or pendatangs or sakas here. And I also say this is a good thing, because ghost stories of this sort are fundamentally moral stories; sinners pay the price for their sins, and victims find peace when justice is done. Your typical Malay horror movie, for all the lip service it pays to "ajaran agama", rarely has anything moral about it.

Unfortunately, it's not scary. I don't know what writer-director Jeffrey Chiang was thinking, because he made a movie with a spooky abandoned house and two gory dead bodies and it's not scary. It's not because he's a bad director, because he isn't; he knows how to shoot that house to maximum atmospheric effect, and his production designer knows how to dress the place up too. It's that there just aren't enough scary scenes in his script. There's plenty of exploring-the-spooky-house-in-the-dark scenes, but they rarely ever build up to anything horrifying. I'm not a big fan of jump-scares - heck, I'm very much a non-fan of jump-scares - but a few of them were exactly what this movie needed. Yet it seemed like Chiang very deliberately chose not to go to that well. The film is not scary by design.

Dude, that's totally gonna kill your box-office chances. The Malay viewers I watched this movie with were all restless and hooting with derision at every other scene. And honestly, if this were a genuinely good movie, I'd defend it to the ends of the earth - I do that, you know. But there's no excuse for making a dull movie - not even if you've got an Important Issue to talk about and a Message that you want People To Hear. I won't reveal what they are since it's a bit of a spoiler, but it is heavy-handed and po-faced and cheesy as hell. I appreciate that you have noble intentions, but... what was that philosophical discussion between Fatia and [mystery character played by Esma Daniel] all about? None of that dialogue meant anything. It was just a boring scene, and the audience's reaction? Hoots. Of derision.

Y'know what else they were hoots-of-derision-ing about? The characters. They start out as nothing more than stereotypes: The Jock (Ronnie is Fatiah's boyfriend, and an asshole), The Bimbo (Juli is Fatiah's BFF, but she's having an affair with Ronnie), The Nerd (Bad is in love with Fatiah) and The Good Girl (Fatiah is... a nice person). The fact that their characterizations are so shallow makes them all downright annoying; Fatiah is a moron for dating a jerk like Ronnie, Bad is creepy and pathetic in his affections for Fatiah, and Ronnie and Juli can barely keep their pants on long enough to hide it from Fatiah. Worst of all is that they engage in that most reviled of horror clich├ęs: going off alone in the dark. Derision-filled hoots! Even Malaysians know this is stupid!

The sad part is that later on, some of these characters developed in unexpected ways. Because of that stash of ill-gotten cash, which of course presents a moral challenge to these four knuckleheads. This is neat, it's definitely something that Malay movies don't do enough of, and it's too bad the derisively-hooting audience didn't appreciate it - but really, it was too little too late. Even if the cast was generally up to the task; seriously, Azma Yusoof, Isma Hanum and Muniff Isa were all decent-to-good, and if they were annoying it was because of the way their characters were written. Except for Shiqin Kamal. Not that Fatiah is written any better (protip: having a character that doesn't do anything bad does not automatically make him/her admirable. Or even interesting), but Shiqin is decidedly not up to the task. She was a charisma-free block of wood in Lagenda Budak Setan, and she's no better here.

So that's this movie in a nutshell. It does a few things right: it has solid production values (including original music, hallelujah!), it makes a decent attempt at character-based drama, it has a functioning moral compass, it genuinely has something to say, and its story is downright innovative for a Malay horror film. But it gets one fundamental thing wrong, which is failing to give its audience what it promises. So I reckon 2-½ stars is right, although I seriously considered giving it just two. See, I don't want to be too harsh on Chiang and his crew, most of whom I'm guessing are fresh names in the local film industry (at least, I've never heard of them before). I'm guessing local audiences - who'd probably like it better if it had a long-haired jembalang with bad skin - are being harsh enough on them already.

NEXT REVIEW: Limitless
Expectations: well, the premise looks good...


Nizam said...

I left halfway while watching the movie. And there are only two Malaysian movies where I actually walked halfway and refused to watch the movie.

So. No further comments by me. Again, I have to agree with your assessment of the movie.

Nizam Zakaria

fadz said...

nizam keluar? haha, itu hanya berlaku dalam 2 buah filem yg aku pernah tonton, Duhai si Pari2 dan Antoo Fighter.. aku tak sanggup nak tgk RATU..