Expectant mothers and those with heart conditions take note. Santau is not for you, so says the cliche warning (used to drum up curiosity no less), and in some ways I found it quite true, because it's one heck of a guilt trip down the old school horror lane, except that this one starts with a bang and never quite take a breather, opting for a thrilling roller coaster ride of scares and inevitable comedy that go down best with a jumpy, vocal audience.
The story is a fairly simple one, and given that this is probably my first proper, theatrical viewing of a contemporary Malaysian horror film, I do find some parallels between the black magic genre of the Malaysian film, to that of the Thai counterparts, with witch doctors being heavily involved in hexing and the setting of curses to fulfill their own miserable wants against another human being. The chief difference is of course how religious rites (I'm not expert here by the way) in Islam are involved in exorcism, through the chanting of religious verses (available in CD too!) which due to my limited experience with this genre, I cannot go beyond the surface, and the lack of subtitles to check on the authenticity of what's being chanted.
But i digress. Essentially it tells on how negative behaviour like envy and spite can cause someone to curse another man and his family, wishing them anything but being well, and to seek the help of wandering spirits to wreck havoc in their seemingly perfect lives. Halim (Esma Daniel) throws a celebration for this neighbours as he had won a lucrative tender, but there's someone in the village who sees green, and decides to hex him, his wife Nina (Putri Mardiana) and child Ecah (Farisha Fatin). Talk about being vicious and cowardly at the same time, as that unknown entity starts to channel the spooking onto the wife and child, playing on the notion that kids can see things that adults don't.
While the usual bag of scare tactics doesn't get exploited beyond boredom, you still get your fair share of worm infested food being guzzled down with gusto, appearances and disappearances of people and spirits, and credit to Putri Mardiana for entering the Hall of Fame for actresses who can contort their bodies while speaking in weird tongues and controlling the amount of icky, foamy goo coming out of their mouths. Being the unfortunate, primary victim here, she has enough scenes to matriculate herself into scream queendom, chomping down fried eggs and chicken.
There are a number of points here that one shouldn't start to think too much of, such as the varying degrees of tactics the spirits use, from scaring others from within the confines of a physical body, to getting out of the human vessel and doing so from the outside. They're a fickle bunch these spirits here. And it seemed that every one religious in the kampung has supernatural abilities in dealing with ghouls (quite an awesome skill to possess), save for disbelievers like Halim, who through the course of the story, would reaffirm his faith (well, it was made to look that way). A cursory lesson that one shouldn't be losing one's religion perhaps?
The last half hour was where the most fun was, beginning with an unintentionally comedic episode that took place within the confines of a vehicle. There was wife-bashing (I kid you not!) and the playing of a prayer CD while en route to seek the help of more powerful bomohs, which of course heightened the opportunities to showcase some nifty special effects besides having humongous fans blow strong winds on everyone. And if there's a formula in the genre, it's the unwritten rule that bomohs get visited in ascending order of ability, so that you allow the less powerful ones to gain some field experience, before proceeding onto someone who can solve the issue together with a support team.
It's nothing fancy but it works, especially when writer-director Azhari Mohd Zain has formulated the film to allow you to expect something to happen at almost every corner and turn, literally and otherwise, and then delivering it when you least expected it. The only way not to walk out of this disappointed, would be to pick the right crowd to watch this with - the vocal and the jittery, who will amplify both the bad (you'll get laughs) and the good, scary parts to perfection.
Santau opens on 28 Jan 10.