Village horror heightened with mystery

REVIEW / HORROR

REVENGE OF THE PONTIANAK (PG13)

93 minutes/Opens today/ 3 stars

The story: In a small village in 1965, the wedding of Khalid (Remy Ishak) and Siti (Shenty Feliziana) is taking place. Old friends are reunited but the event also stirs troubling memories. Guests meet with a horrific aftermath and soon, one by one, the villagers face the wrath of a mysterious and beautiful woman, Mina (Nur Fazura).

From time to time, cinematic monsters from decades past are pulled from the crypt, freshened with modern computer graphics and reintroduced into the wild.

The list includes Frankenstein's creature and the Wolfman. The most ambitious attempt yet happened in 2017, with The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise.

Co-writers and directors, Singaporean Glen Goei and Malaysian Gavin Yap, are doing the same with an Asian favourite, the pontianak. In one popular version of the folk tale, she is a woman who dies giving birth and thus seen as unfulfilled and incomplete, so she commits murder while consumed with rage, shame and grief. In Korea, a man who dies without marrying is liable to come back because, like the pontianak, he has unfinished business.

The scolding morality of the tales - a person is a failure, doomed to haunt the earth, if he or she dies without performing their reproductive duty - is passed over here in favour of a more direct motivation.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this version enriches the standard 1960s story by weaving into it a mystery-thriller element . The audience knows who the killer is (the clue is in the title), but the reason and need for the revenge is the suspense hook.

That hook does sustain interest, helped along by shock killings at the hands of the ghoul, who remains mostly model-beautiful throughout. It is an ambitious horror technique - the uncannily beautiful can be as unnerving as any monstrous creature, if the context is right.

And the team mostly scores on this account, thanks to the creative use of practical effects, such as dramatic lighting that throws the jungle into silhouette and the use of fog effects.

In what feels like a post-production rejig, the film tries to inject scares with shock reveals and speaker-rattling bursts of soundtrack, intrusions that break the tone of creepy melancholy that the film-makers have clearly taken pains to establish.

This is by no means a realistic take on folklore. The camera work is deliberately old-school steady and surfaces look buffed and pristine. The make-up and wardrobe design mimic the pomaded and corseted look of the 1960s originals. The team does not let its chance at the use of colour go to waste - the original movies were monochrome - so things that need to pop, pop. These include the verdant jungle and Mina's (Nur Fazura) figure-hugging kebayas.

The mixed bag of acting styles from the supporting players, which range from the understatedly naturalistic to the overtly theatrical, causes the weak pacing to become more apparent, but the depth of sincerity of this tribute to the classics and its loving adherence to the form cannot be doubted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2019, with the headline 'Village horror heightened with mystery'. Print Edition | Subscribe