Monster by Moonlight
P takes a stab at one of my favorite directorial challenges: working out of one's element. This Thai horror picture is reportedly the first made by a Westerner -- British filmmaker Paul Spurrier. I can't tell you whether his exploration of native mysticism is a load of baloney or not, but I'm always interested in how outsiders react to other cultures. What I can say is that while there's much about P I grooved to, its crummy production values and all-round stilted performances sink what could have been one of the strongest Asian horror flicks in years.
Dau (Suangporn Jaturaphut) wasn't always in the predicament she's in. In fact, Dau's not even her real name; she grew up as Aaw in rural Thailand, where she was picked on for her family's ties with magic. Years later, a grown-up Dau tends to her sickly grandmother, though outstanding debts force her to seek work in Bangkok. There, she's hired on as a go-go dancer, though the real money lies in the unsavory deeds she's expected to perform offstage. It's at this point Dau turns to the spells she's learned throughout her life, casting enchantments to increase her beauty and take revenge on those who would do her wrong. But the more she abuses her talents, the more a great evil brews within her, emerging to feast on flesh and threatening to consume her from the inside out as well.
Pronounced the correct way, P is the Thai word for "ghost," though this movie's spirit appears much more fierce than your usual A-horror phantoms. To begin with, I have to give P credit for going so long without even feeling like a horror film. The first 30 minutes or so come across as straightforward drama, with sweet little lamb Dau being pounced upon by the big bad wolf, Bangkok. As her clientele consists mainly of foreigners (with Spurrier himself playing a lecherous patron), P definitely has something to say about the country's exploitation and does so very effectively. It's not until Dau's innocence is first corrupted that the supernatural comes into play, from which the picture transitions nicely into incorporating more of the red stuff. Though a subplot or two gets summoned pretty late in the game, the story seems paced well and never feels like it's struggling for material.
However, despite what your mom told you on prom night, looks really are everything, and P's ungainly assembly sends it soaring off the rails. It's not so bad when centered on Dau's home life or goings-on at her club, but you'll notice an increase in chuckles when special effects show her demonic side on the prowl. Be it the production's limited resources or Spurrier's debatable experience (having helmed but one film prior), P can look downright terrible at times. There's also a certain stiffness that clutches the entire cast in its awkward, mood-shattering grip. Jaturaphut herself is afflicted, though not as badly as her fellow performers. She has many hats to don as Dau (wounded waif, alluring temptress, Linda Blair understudy), but each one is convincingly executed, and viewers reach the finish line with their sympathy intact.
Though the thought of remakes gives the voices in my head a microphone, an updating of P would actually be welcome. So long as its commitment to character is preserved, the story could do with an improved budget and a director with a less cheesy eye for staging scares. P will find its audience, though it won't be among Asian horror's most jaded aficionados.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Palisades Tartan; not rated by MPAA.)
Review also posted at www.passportcinema.com .