Asian horror movies have always been popular here, and even local film The Maid by Kelvin Tong managed to strike gold at the box office, here and overseas as well, going against the grain of thought that local movies do not make money. However, in the recent surge of local movie making, there was another Singapore horror movie made, Return to Pontianak, which seemed to hold some promise with its reimagining / retelling of the legendary Malay female spirit. There were signs that it was bad - a friend's warning, and the turnout for the screening was a paltry 10-15 persons, but I just had to watch it for myself.
The verdict? This made in 2001 movie reeks, and reminds you of failed attempts by filmmakers around the world in taking something quite established, and then giving their own creative spin on it. While some might work, most of them will go the way of the Hollywood Godzilla. If this Pontianak were to go head long with the original Pontianak in a one on one, director Djinn's version will be made to wash the original's flowing white garbs. While the originals made in the 50s and 60s (I watched Sumpah Pontianak starring Maria Menado) were cheesy and lacking in grand special effects, they had a lot of heart. This one absolutely doesn't.
Made after the highly successful Blair Witch Project (1999), this is one movie which should be seen, as a lesson learnt in how NOT to make a horror film. It's strange that much of it emulated Blair Witch, with its forest setting, characters roaming around getting routinely lost, and its highly puke inducing jerky camera motions. While Blair Witch had a reason for it, Return to Pontianak's boils down to budget. Neither has it any scary moments or atmosphere, aside from some mumbo-jumbo recitings and the awful soundtrack which is a horror in itself.
While characters in most horror movies are throwaways, and only in established classics that you have a tinge of development, the characters developed for Return to Pontianak are those that happen to be of the irritating kind. They don't look good (Hollywood compensates for the lack of story with awesome eye candy), and neither do they spout interesting lines. Dialogue is awful and contrived, and the bad sound design makes things worse. Caricatures abound, you have a group of five, led by the protagonist called Charity (Hiep Thi Le) (the last time I heard this name was in Hong Kong's StormRiders), who developed a sudden urge to seek out her biological parents in the jungles of Pontianak (hence the title, other than the reference to the "hantu"). Joining her are a fugly man-girl called Uzi (Eleanor Lee), whose mouth is automatically set to spout vulgarities like a sub-machine gun, an ignorant slacker ang mo Luke (Steve Banks), the boring techno-geek Raymond (Victor Khong), and a pretty useless and incompetent local guide called Eye (Fadali).
For the first hour, nothing much happens, and you have to endure bad bitching, bad acting, bad acting, bad sound, bad cinematography. That is until a mysterious couples appear, and the cliches associated with horror movie making come out in some force, although bad makeup, and more bad acting continue to plague the movie. Thankfully, the sound design improved in the last 30 minutes, but that's because most of the time the movie is silent, save for the rustling sounds of a tropical rainforest.
And what of Pontianak herself? Well, she comes out in the day. Which is preposterous. And she's totally lacking in prowess that made her infamous. Worse yet, this Pontianak is totally devoid of motivations and origins, and doesn't differentiate herself with any other ordinary ghost and goblin out there. For anyone not versed in the Pontianak lore, you might wonder what's the big deal. All in all, an extremely poor retelling.
But if there is any consolation, it's that perhaps the filmmakers learnt from this bad episode, and given Djinn's Perth (2005), you can see a fairly large jump in terms of storytelling craft. A better budget probably helped, and maybe the realization that something more rooted to earth is the better path for him?
Retitled Voodoo Nightmare for the overseas market, this movie has not much voodoo magic, but plenty of nightmares. Nightmares of a movie gone totally wrong.