Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Hantu Jeruk Purut (2006)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Three friends are visiting an old cemetery by night. It is said that if an odd number of people circles the cemetery seven times, they will see the beheaded ghost of a priest who is supposed to haunt this place.

The legend turns out to be true. For some reason, it has missed the part about the ghost then slaughtering the odd number of people in a Final Destination-like semi-accident.

Romance writer Anna is trying to branch out by writing a non-fiction book about the supernatural. Unfortunately, she has decided on the same cursed cemetery as base for her book. After a short visit there of her own, the ghost starts to follow her around threateningly, or rather, the ghosts do - apart from the beheaded guy picturesquely carrying his head in his hand, there is also a rotting and pale female ghost and a ghostly dog. Most active of them is the woman. She warns Anna that she'd better stop writing lies about them, but doesn't give her much time to reconsider her writing or bothers to explain what exactly she is talking about.

Instead, the headless kills Anna in another strange semi-accident. While she's bleeding to death (or is already dead - the film is never making this clear), Anna calls the student Rin (Angie Virgin), an acquaintance and aspiring writer herself, to beg her to finish the book for her.

Even after discovering the corpse of her idol, Rin decides to respect the dead woman's wish. It's not as if she hadn't enough problems of her own, living with a mother who has become clinically depressed after divorce and Valen, the assholish boyfriend of her best friend Nadine trying to creep himself into her heart. The new writing project however grabs the girl at her ambition.

Together with Nadine and Valen, Rin visits the cemetery, does her seven rounds and is from then on haunted by the ghosts herself. The girl isn't dissuaded from her course by spooky visions, though, and soon the ghosts put their energy into harassing her friends and her mother whose fragile state of mind seems to make her quite attractive to unfriendly spooks.

Koya Pagayo's Hantu Jeruk Purut is an extremely competent effort in the seemingly never-ending struggle of a handful of Indonesian production houses to mix the more international version of the still popular Japanese ghost horror genre no reasonable person will call "J-horror" with typical teen horror and Indonesian ghosts and spooks. Describing it as "Final Destination meets Ju-On" wouldn't be too wrong, but is also meaner than the film deserves.

My first impression on watching the film was one of craftsmanship and competence. I don't know if this is typical of the films of Koya Pagayo, or if this one is an island of competence in the cheap mire that seems to make up about half of contemporary Indonesian horror (which is of course still a much better quota than we get from US horror), or if he is always this confident a director, but I am bound to find out sooner rather than later.

As is typical for films I praise with the less than enthusiastic word "competent", Hantu Jeruk Purut impresses mostly through the avoidance of certain mistakes which too many other films seem to be seeking out with a true enthusiasm for wrong artistic choices.

Here, you won't see supposedly ultra-hip young characters, nor experience the special kind of annoyance that comes with supposedly scary sequences only based on jump scares, nor will you have trouble parsing what happens on screen because the camera shakes as if held by an epileptic in the throes of a fit.

The young protagonists may be prettier than is realistic (not that I'm complaining, mind you) and have to deal with some soap operatic problems, but the film does not seem interested in glamour - something which usually is a bad fit for horror - and times its moments of melodrama quite well, never falling in the "too much boyfriend and not enough ghosts" trap. It does of course help that the actors playing them aren't half bad.

When it comes to the scares, Pagayo prefers the long shot of a ghost behind or floating over one of his protagonists to shouting "boo!" into his viewers' faces, at first trying to build a mood before escalating the horror. This isn't to say that there are no jump scares at all here, but rather that Pagayo uses other techniques in the horror book as well, which makes the few jump scares a bit more unexpected again. It's also nice to have a relatively good look at the rather neat looking ghosts.

I really liked the way the film at first jumps into the horror action, but then decelerates for a slow build up and slow escalation to its plot until the loud and fast finale in a hospital. It's an old-fashioned yet satisfying sort of structure.

Also worth mentioning, especially for people who know and dread the often clunky and ill-fitting way Indonesian horror uses comic relief, is that the film eschews humour completely apart from a moment in the introduction and one in the outro, which aren't even all that painful.

The film's big weakness and the point that could very well make you enjoy the film a lot less than I did is that it is not original at all in the elements it contains. We all have seen these kind of ghosts, these sorts of deaths and these characters a hundred times before in other films, screaming, running, dying and making creepy noises while crawling around on the floor. However, I can't say that I mind much, or rather, I like many of the elements that make up the genre called "horror" and am watching horror films not necessarily for completely new experiences (although I'm fine with those), but for the way any given film mixes and matches the familiar elements, sometimes giving them unexpected twists, sometimes just repeating them in hopefully satisfying ways.

"Satisfying" is a good word for the way Hantu Jerak Purut turned out for me, and while it isn't as brilliant as Rizal Mantovani's Kuntilanak trilogy, it is a more than worthy part of the Indonesian horror boom.

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