Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Baan phi pop (1989)

... aka: บ้านผีปอบ
... aka: Baan Phee Pob
... aka: Baan phi pop 1
... aka: Ban phi pob
... aka: Ban phi pop
... aka: Goblin House
... aka: Home Ogre
... aka: House of Phi Pop
... aka: House of Pop, The
... aka: House of Pop's Ghost, The

Directed by:
ศรีสวัสดิ์ (Saiyon Srisawat)

Breaking apart the original Thai title leaves us with บ้าน (home) + ผี (ghost) + ปอบ (pop). We all know what home, ghost and pop are, but the pop here isn't a light explosive sound, or Pepsi or Mt. Dew, it's a word for a specific type of ghost. The "pop" or "phi pop" or "phi pob" or "phi poeb" (I've seen it spelled many different ways) is a big part of Thai folklore that first originated from an old legend about a Prince interested in magic who learned how to transfer his spirit to other human or animal bodies to control them. As the story goes, the Prince's sneaky servant learned how to perform the same magic spell and attempted to take over the identity of the Prince for his stature and wealth. After losing a fight over the Prince's body, the servant's body was destroyed and the servant was then cursed to be a drifting, parasitic entity who could only temporarily possess a host body before being forced to move on. The "temporary" part is due to the spirit devouring the intestines of whomever it occupies from within. While the pop shares a similar characteristic for possessing humans with other ghosts it is differentiated by its craving for raw meat and organs; most specifically those yummy human chitterlings!

If I've learned one thing doing recent research into Thai culture, it's that belief in ghosts is widespread. Wikipedia lists well over 30 different Thai ghosts, each with their own specific characteristics, though the actual number is over 100. An annual Ghost Festival is held every year in the small Northeastern town of Dansai. Ghosts are frequently blamed by villagers for both human and livestock deaths, as well as illness, bad fortune and a variety of criminal behavior. If "The Devil made me do it!" here in the U.S., then I guess "The [fill in the blank with evil ghost] made me do it!" is the Thai equivalent. Each year, police have to investigate multiple haunting reports as well as multiple "mysterious death" reports attributed to ghosts. Just last year, the Royal Thai Police Force were dispatched to a village located in the Amnat Charoen province to keep locals from panicking after months of phi pop sightings.

Not surprisingly, ghost movies tend to be one of the most popular box office draws there, too. Even though most of their pre-2000 ghost movies never made it to the U.S. and still aren't available in English, some of their better more recent films have actually stood a chance at international success. A film like Shutter (2004) can succeed through word of mouth to the point where even Hollywood has to stop and take notice. Of course they then decide to finance a terrible remake to cash in, but even that practice prompts people to seek out the original for comparison purposes and the original still benefits. The same cannot be said for the older films, which have pretty much just been allowed to languish in obscurity.

Baan phi pop / บ้านผีปอบ / The House of Pop (and recipient of a zillion different English-translated titles depending on where you look) appears to be one of the very first films to specifically tackle the phi pop ghost. It may actually be the very first but don't quote me on that. According to the invaluable ThaiWorldView, the film was basically disregarded as a cheap, disposable B-movie in urban areas like Bangkok but was hugely successful playing in rural areas where people would be more prone to believe in such things. It was shot in a week on 16mm with no sound (which was all dubbed in later) on a budget equivalent to around 12,000 U.S. dollars.

The film opens on a wonderfully atmospheric note; a note that the rest of the film is unable to sustain, with opening credit music featuring bells, a heartbeat, howling and chanting. We then get a looking-up-from-the-ground POV shot as a young man digs a hole in a field accompanied by the sounds of a wailing woman giving birth. Once the baby is born, two older women remove the umbilical cord and put it in a clay pot, which they then plan on burying in the hole. This isn't part of some symbolic birth ritual, it's a way to keep the dreaded phi pop ghost, who'd view the cord the same way a 5-year-old would a Pixy Stick, away. Before the pot can even make it to the field, a hand busts through the floor boards and grabs it. One of the men manages to get it back and goes to bury it and that's the last time anyone sees him alive. The following morning, the pot is found empty and the man is found dead with his chest ripped opened and some of his vitals missing. The villagers now know what they're up against.

Because the ghost needs a human host to do its dirty work and thus is already inhabiting someone's body, most of the male villagers start accusing an old spinster usually referred to as Yay (or "Granny") of being the culprit. Even though she's elderly and sickly, her consistently odd behavior and bad habit of wandering the woods at night makes her suspect. Kindly, beautiful village girl Plapleung (Trirak Rakkarndee) doesn't listen and continues to take care of the old lady but, in this case, the men happen to be right. A group of big city physicians, led by Dr. Khun Ret (Ekapan Banleurit), show up to administer medical care to the locals. While camping in the woods one night, they're awakened by strange howling sounds, go to investigate and run across Yay out licking her lips looking for meat. But, as she always does, Plapleung shows up to take the old woman home.

Fed up, the village chief and some of his goons go find a white-bearded exorcist to take care of the problem. He shows up at Yay's, throws something on her and starts beating her with a stick. Not yet believing in local superstitions, Khun Ret and one of his colleagues stop them before they can complete the ceremony. Later on that night, the exorcist is killed and has his guts pulled out and eaten. After his death, a mercenary is retrieved to try to help (hint: he doesn't) and additional conflicts arise in the form of a love triangle. The young doctor falls in love with the nice / pretty village girl, but the village chief's daughter also has the hots for him... and is something of a psycho! During one scene, she lures the doctor's female assistant into the woods and then stabs her to death.

While this is somewhat enjoyable, far too much time is spent following around the chief's bumbling assistant (Tongchai Prasongsanti) and a trio of "funny," cowardly, drunken (I think), long-haired village idiots. They joke and laugh and mug, run around frantically at the first sign of horror in scenes sped up to try to make them funnier and get on each other's shoulders, wrap themselves in a sheet and fake being a tall ghost to scare someone. As was typical in the 80s, some of the "boys will be boys" antics don't really fly nowadays as comedy, especially a scene where they break into the village chief's home and one proceeds to try to feel up the daughter while she's sleeping.

Amazingly, this silly film laid the groundwork for one of the most enduring franchise's in Thai film history. There were at least 12 official sequels made from 1989 to 2011, along with who knows how many ripoffs and offshoots. It's so confusing that I first ended up with what I thought was this movie which instead ended up being something called Phan Phi Pob 1 from 1991, which also has a bunch of sequels. Hopefully we'll work all of this out here eventually. No English version was ever released but it wouldn't be the worst thing ever if one were just for the cultural significance factor.

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