Friday, August 12, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Haunted Universities (2009)

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.

Haunted Universities is an anthology movie made up by four stories which are mainly connected through the presence of the same volunteer rescue team, as well as a few other details.

The first episode, called "The Toilet" starts out with two gangsters messing up a student and his girlfriend. It looks like the young man is trying his hands at being a junior drug dealer, but is unsuccessful enough to make the gangsters' boss so angry that he wants his drugs back (plus compensation for his troubles, of course). The genius kid pusher has stored his stash in his locker at university, so the quartet makes its way there. After the drugs are safely recovered, one of the gangsters, Cherd, gets awfully interested in the ghost story about the haunting of the toilet on the building's fifth floor the students tell him.

There's certainly nothing problematic at taking a look there, right? And I'm sure the nobody will meet one or more very enthusiastic ghosts on the fifth floor, especially not on the toilet.

The second segment, "The Elevator", is told to Muay (Panward Hemmanee), the youngest and only female member of the rescue crew seen in every episode of the movie, by a student named Nok Noi (Ashiraya Peerapatkunchaya). Nok Noi is the daughter of a general responsible for the shooting of several pro-democratic students during the 70s. One of the older students, whose family has lost some members during the occurrences, doesn't take too kindly to her family connections or her rather unrepentant take on her family's guilt, so the girl has to partake in a very special hazing ritual. Being pushed into the elevator where the students were shot, she has some rather disturbing supernatural experiences. But her troubles don't stop there. Now one of the student ghosts follows her wherever she goes. She becomes convinced that it is her responsibility to reunite "her" ghost with the ghost of his dead girlfriend, but this is not something that can be done as easily as it sounds.

As it turns out, Muay's help will be quite indispensable.

The third story, "Morgue" is the mandatory comedy segment about a student of dentistry (Pangsit Piseesotgan) with a terrible fear of the dead having to survive one working night in a hospital morgue. You know what will happen.

The last segment, "The Stairway", is a flashback into Muay's past that explains why she has the special ability which enabled her to help Nok Noi solve her problem.

Her roommate Sa (Anna Reese) meets a rather excitable young man on an Internet chat. It's all fun and games until he threatens to kill her, but who is afraid of random weirdoes on the 'net? Instead of getting nervous, Sa decides to go and buy dinner for herself and Muay. While Sa is out, Muay learns that the "random weirdo" is in fact their neighbour. Still, he seems more nerdy than dangerous and is easily dissuaded from whatever he was planning. Alas, while Muay talks with him, Sa has met a more suave example of the psycho species.

It turns out that Sa's new acquaintance is a friend of their neighbour, whom he has also met on the Internet - in a chat room for budding serial killers. Obviously, he, Internet weirdo and Sa will have to encounter each other in the dark.

The girl would have been tough enough to cope with one psycho, but two are a bit much for her, at least as long as she is still alive.

Haunted Universities' existence is certainly a by-product of the commercial success of the Thai anthology movie Phobia. Both films feature four tales of supernatural horror that seem inspired by the crosspollination between traditional Thai ghost stories and urban myth, but they still feel different enough that there's no reason to call Haunted Universities a mere rip-off. Frankly, it is also just too effective a film for that.

Instead of having four directors, Haunted Universities makes do with only two of them - Bunjong Sinthanamongkolkul and Sutthiporn Tubtim. It's not clear how the directing duties were divided between them, but I would not be surprised to hear that both were working together for the whole film. Of course, I have been known to be wrong quite frequently.

Be that as it may, the men's direction is what truly makes Haunted Universities work. The plots of the single segments (the highly peculiar last one excepted) are not exactly original, one could even call them rather thin, and the connections between the segments are not much to get excited about either, but Sinthanamongkolkul and Tubtim show a great sense for the proper timing of horror effects that just makes the stories work.

There's some rather exciting use of colour on display too, a very pleasant surprise after too many contemporary films insisting on looking all desaturated all the time, as if the only colours visible to the human eye were grey, black and a sickly yellow. Being a horror film, Haunted Universities takes much of its colour schemes from the less exciting parts of the spectrum too, but the directors get a lot of moody (and quite Bava) mileage out of techniques like contrasting strong green and red tones during the intrusion of the supernatural with warm yellows that suggest safety for the characters.

The more-than-real colouring in conjunction with the simple stories give the film a bit of a comic book feel. This is not a realist take on the horror anthology format, and does instead seem to stand firmly on the "pop" side of popular culture, which is a very fine place for a film to stand when it knows what to do there. And most of the episodes do know.

Of course, every anthology movie has to have a weaker segment, and it is more often than not the supposedly comical one that saps all energy and fun out of the film it appears in. As in the world of Amicus, so in the Haunted Universities. "Morgue" really isn't all that bad, it just isn't very funny (hint to directors: people being afraid of ghosts just isn't funny in a horror film where they have good reason to be afraid of them). Unfortunately, it is also the slowest segment of the bunch and drags the tempo of the whole film down a little. It's nothing proper use of the fast forward button couldn't cure, though.

Luckily, after they have bored us for twenty minutes, the directors are sending us out with the best and most odd episode. Where the first three segments deliver about what one expects of them, the fourth one is quite peculiar in its plot and its delivery, culminating in the promise of a confrontation between everyone's favourite monsters: female long-haired ghost and serial killer. Despite its theme, "The Stairway" is no less comedic than the film's third segment, its humour is however of a decidedly blacker type. I always had the feeling that the story would turn on me and get nasty just after the next grim joke, and in the end, it got even nastier than I expected before the film ended in a very ironic sort of happy end.

Now, if a nice Western DVD label would take it upon it to publish a subtitled DVD of Haunted Universities, friends of Thai cinema like me would happily drop some money in its lap. I'd highly recommend it.

No comments: