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The Ghost Of Mae Nak
cast: Pataratida Pacharawirapong, Siwat Chotchaicharin, Pornthip Papanai, Jaran Ngamdee, and Kowitt Watthankul

writer and director: Mark Duffield

100 minutes (15) 2005 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan Asia Extreme DVD Region 2 retail
[released 29 January]

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
DVD review copies can come 'time-coded' but reviewers only need five minutes to bypass the counter. Tartan is one label particularly protective of coming releases. Extras are absent, discs time-coded, boxed screen ratio and sub par image quality comparable to a second-generation copy. Still, the compromise remains tenable to accurately assessing the quality of the film under review. In the case of Mark Duffield's The Ghost Of Mae Nak there are more obstacles to ignore than is the usual. The timecode bar is so fat that, at the film's opening, it sits on one character's head like a big hat. The rubbish image in a block ratio is there, this we can handle. The film is eager to go into action and visually in terms of framing and colour it looks good. The sound, too, is creepily effective. Then the name of De Warrene Pictures and the message that this is a preview copy appears on screen to interrupt proceedings. Concentration is repeatedly broken, the message barging in on important scenes, and one wonders what next? (Klaxons on the soundtrack?) This is over the top protection and a good film might have been ruined by the interference. Thankfully, no masterpiece is spoiled on this occasion.

The Ghost Of Mae Nak is a throwback to the silly horrors of the 1970s and 1980s. Nostalgic for the glory days of videocassettes when nonsense supernatural thrillers brought more chuckles than real thrills, are you? Then the new Thai horror film fits the bill. Demonoid, Beyond Evil, The Evil, The Power, Blood Beat, The House Where Evil Dwells, The Horror Star or Mausoleum, they don't make them like that in America any more. The US can still turn out rubbish on a low budget but with consistently bland results. Makers know when a sentence, scene or image sounds or looks stupid and will excise or avoid it or CGI it out. The problem is that clever enough to avoid the guffaws, they are however lacking in the ingenuity to brim their films with anything of interest. B-movie horrors at the turn of the 1980s explored what they could with the available effects, and bemused the viewers with the results. The Thai filmmakers do the same today, and CGI is the experimental medium to fumble around with. The Closet, The Crying Tree, The Commitment, Acacia, The Ghost Of Mae Nak, (I will excuse the better The Doll Master from this company) are the badly told, dodgy effects driven, supernaturally themed movies to turn to for that adverse comical thrill. The British can also revel in a part played in The Ghost Of Mae Nak as, though the cast, the settings and the language are Thai, the production company is British. Tom Waller and Mark Duffield are the duo fascinated with the country (their first film The Butterfly Man was shot in the region).

Nak (Pataratida Pacharawirapong) and Mak (Siwat Chotchaicharin) are young, stupid and in love. They are about to marry and strike a deal with a dodgy estate agent, Mr Angel (Meesak Nakkarat) for a ramshackle property. Amazingly, it is the only property that he possesses and somehow he runs some indeterminate scam on young couples on a regular basis, by having small print allowing him to up the price of the property upon signature of contract. If this sounds flawed, you wonder how he can evade arrest or the property not end up busy with residents or warning graffiti, well then, hey, didn't I tell you we were back in good old illogical horror film territory. You are allowed to scratch your head and chortle a lot. Hurrah! The property is sited where once resided Mae Nak who died in childbirth. Told in flashback, this is, we are told, a classical Thai fable, and, standalone, might have made a fine ghost story. But the makers know not how to elongate the story and maintain interest and relent to the modern setting. The couple marry and have their wedding presents stolen by the neighbourhood thieves, Tick and Tock. Mak later sights the matrimonial gifts as the two villains attempt to offload them in the street, trying to hawk the glossily wrapped and ribboned packages to stallholders. They knock Mak down with their van and he slips into a coma. It is upon Nak to find the grave of Mae Nak and slot back the missing shard of skull and finally put the spirit at rest in order to release her husband from his sleep.

Despite the preview copy quality, the cinematography, sound effects and musical soundtrack are very good. The haunted house is of a suitably distressed appearance but the makers clearly only had access to the building for a few days. They return to do some light redressing and then the house is forgotten. Given the quality in certain technical aspects it is astonishing how else-ways awful the film is. The subtitles are occasionally slightly off and it could be that a cleverer script has been lost in translation. The evidence though is that this is not the case. As Nak turns from one friend or spiritual guide to another in assisting her find an answer to this mystery, it is clear that the plot has nowhere to go. A séance, doctor's offices, the deaths, are filler. The character is trapped in a space rebounding until someone finally calls cut. Characters constantly fill you in. They may as well be making asides to camera, "She's been by his bedside all night" ... "When people steal, the police become involved and they try to find the thieves, so we must not keep the stolen items otherwise they will know it is us." The makers assume the viewers are stupid. The mentally deficient leads are no pair to get behind either. As if stupidity was not off-putting enough, their acting drives you further back. Nak, in particular, wears the same blank expression whether she has been informed of a remarkable coincidence or just witnessed a man sliced into two by a sheet of plate glass. Her face is immobile as she removes the girdle brooch from the severed hand of the unfortunate conman who tries to make off with it.

The bizarre death set pieces are influenced by the Final Destination series. Simple computer package effects are used to superimpose the faces of actors over a prosthetic decapitated head or replacing the face of a stuntman. When a thief is boiled, then hit by a vehicle and knocked onto the fiery grill of a barbecue, the effect is seen at its disturbing best. But Mr Angel's decapitation by the doors of a moving train prompts many reasons for hilarity. The villain and his vehicle in the scrapyard are crushed into a block and yet his intact arm still protrudes from the square of metal. Doctor Grid is worried that Mak's brain might be damaged. I'm worried that the brains of the entire population of Bangkok are damaged, including Doctor Grid's. When surgeons attempt to perform an operation, the ghost causes all manner of chaos in the operating theatre. The electrocardiogram monitor is overridden in red with the word 'CRITICAL' just in case the three members of staff in the operating theatre are unable to read the blips (who needs an anaesthetist anyway? Don't tell Patricia Hewitt, she will insist all surgical procedures get by with three members of surgical staff). What happens next is worth the rental price alone. If you get a kick out of Herman Cohen era daftness you might well want to see this. If, however, you want intelligent horror, The Ghost Of Mae Nak is not it.
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