These films make you wonder if you’re still afraid of the dark.
Lights flickering in a dark hallway, the door creaking and a faceless phantom moving too fast across the screen. That has to be the most recycled scenes and styles in horror films be it in Asian or Western cinema. However, the approach to horror in the cinemascope of these two regions cannot be any more different. Horror films are usually an echo of culture and the audience’s preference of what they perceive as scary and frightening; for example, it is doubtful that Westerners would know the eerie tale of the female vampiric ghost called ‘pontianak’ which is infamous in Malaysia and Indonesia and has been told through different versions in films. It would be terribly unfair to compare this film genre according to their respective provinces hence, this piece will only focus on their distinguishing panache and interpretations of what amounts as horror.
South East Asia
This part of the globe is more inclined on producing films on folklores, but with their own essence such as the story of the ‘pontianak’ in Malaysian and Indonesian films which has been retold countless of times with settings of period as well as contemporary pictures hence, proving the stance that horror films in these districts are familiar for the local audience. Films like Malaysia’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam and Jangan Pandang Belakang rely on costumes, makeup and the music as key elements to build up suspense as well as a backstory influenced by the significance of religion that will remain with the viewers. Thailand on the other hand is prominent in generating horror on folktales and urban legends and we can see this in two of their classics; Nang Nak and Shutter (which has been remade by Hollywood).
The former is based on the legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong and the film was one of the most memorable accounts on Thailand’s mythologies and it also introduced the film world to a romantic tragedy that is still evoked especially in the shrine that honoured the troubled spirit of Mae Nak. Meanwhile, Shutter makes movie-goers afraid of using cameras and looking at pictures for a while as the film centres on a ghost haunting a couple through images and (spoiler alert!) it is more poignant, as the apparition is not the villain. Another Thailand production which has gained much respect in their method of horror is the underrated 4bia which tells four interconnecting stories by different directors. South East Asian horrors depend highly on the eagerness of the spectators and the kind of story that emphases on just a few characters affected by a haunted medium to unravel the plot instead of making the deaths of many main characters who were eliminated one by one as its development however, the industry keeps on making recycled materials with the exception of a rare gem every now and then.
Japan’s film industry can be considered as the master of horror with masterpieces like Ring, Ju-On, Dark Water and many others which have been repeatedly and shamefully remade in the United States. The similarity of these films is that they are contemporary and have influences of urban myths revolving around technologies and items of everyday use like a video tape (especially during the late 90’s) as well as evocative murders framed so accustomed that it could be inspired by true events. Stories are told as if it had happened or could be inflicted on the audience as the threats of curses and vengeful spirits linger i.e. in Ring, a legend circulates among youths that if one watches a certain video at a particular time of the night, the telephone will ring right afterwards, and one week later, you will die. Easy access of the internet made way for ‘creepypastas’ or ‘copypasta’ which is an internet slang meaning internet horror stories and Japan’s urban legends are greatly circulated to scare internet readers and this is heightened with films on those urban myths. Japan’s neighbour, South Korea has also begun to gain recognition in the horror genre with the accomplishment of White: Melody of Death; a film about a pop-song which caused disruption to those who perform it and the pressure faced by girl groups working in the entertainment industry.
Hollywood is diverse when it comes to horror but, it is usually the same recipe of goriness and blood i.e. Final Destination. The Exorcist is one of the landmarks of American horror and illustrated the primal terrors in society which undeniably became the benchmark for upcoming modern films. The new wave of successful American horrors is led by Malaysian born and Australian citizen, James Wan (the director behind the iconic Saw and the prominent franchises namely Insidious and The Conjuring) who’d incorporated Asian elements such as horrifying satanic demons, silent apparitions in broad daylight and integrating gripping music in the background to highlight the scary scenes. Though, it’s films like Carrie, Rosemary’s Baby and Poltergeist that mirrors the traditional image of American horror e.g. haunted mansions, demons, terrifying possessed children and a questionably amount of bloody carnage. The style of the films is more in-your-face than layered story-telling and isn’t shy in splattering violence to win the audience’s attention.
Experimental, abstract and one of a kind is how Europe tackles their films and horror is not excluded from this formula for example, the Polish film regarding cannibalistic mermaids which is also a musical titled, The Lure. European films are mostly unabashed, fearless and don’t hold back as they don’t simplify a story for the audience and this can be seen in Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian production on the lives of identical twins, Elias and Lukas and their mother. The film is filled with symbolism, clues and a story within a story even though it was set mainly in one isolated location and the film ends with more questions than answers and encourage watchers to explore on what was presented to them hence, ‘cheap scares’ isn’t in their vocabulary.
Horror is a much cherished genre as it can be melancholic like an abandoned house or as mysterious as a series of fading pictures or unexpected like a masked man swinging an axe through a door but, one thing for sure is that any approach to horror will be disturbingly etched in the minds of the spectators who would be left with the dreary feeling of being watched or followed.
Featured image: The poster of Goodnight Mommy.