Sunday, August 15, 2021

Phi Ao Ao (1984)

... aka: ผีเอ๊าะ เอ๊าะ
... aka: Phee Ao Ao
... aka: Teenage Ghost Girl

Directed by:
Naruecha (Pengphol)

As I've said elsewhere a number of times, nearly every country that had an established film industry had their very own version of the worldwide phenomenon that was The Exorcist (1973). Only this is a strange case where that version wasn't made until ten+ years after the fact. A little late to the party were we, Thailand? I guess they were too busy making crocodile and snake movies, endless Mae Nak sequels and disembodied flying heads with attached entrails flicks. So welcome to the club... finally.

This film has never been given an English-language title, so let's do something about that right now. I actually had a very difficult time coming up with a proper one. Using typical translators, "Goofy Ghost" pops up quite a few times, but I also got "A Ghost, Ah, Ah" (ah ha!) and "Ghost Eh" (eh?) I then had to separate words to find their true meaning. While the first part of the title has a ผี ("phi" or "phee"), which means ghost, the second part had me very confused. Doing a little more digging I found that เอ๊าะ is slang for a number of different things. It can mean something that isn't fully cooked, fruit that isn't fully ripe or a "pubescent girl" who is, as Britney Spears would put it, "Not a girl, not yet a woman." Thankfully, we don't have to settle for a title like "Pubescent Ghost Girl" as เอ๊าะ is also a generic term used to refer to a young lady who's between the ages of 12 and 15. Now we can just run with "Teenage Ghost Girl," though "Tween Ghost Girl" may be a bit more accurate and "Tween Possessed Girl" is even more accurate than that.

A family of three, including father Sankap (Krai Kanchit), mother Oon (Anchalee Chaisiri) and their young teenage daughter Kaew (Alisa Miller), plus their housekeeper (Narumon Supsamai), move into a large country home. An old, facially-scarred, hunchbacked, voyeuristic groundskeeper named Ting (Phit Inkhai) instantly gives them all the willies by constantly staring and lurking the grounds. Their intuition about him being bad news proves to be correct, but we'll get into that here in a little bit. Their first night in the home, everyone is startled in the middle of the night by sounds of banging, creaking, footsteps and screaming coming from the attic. The father goes to investigate and finds nothing. The following day, Kaew has a Carrie-style freak-out in the shower, so if you've ever wanted to see a girl get her first period set to an instrumental version of The Doobie Brothers' "I Can Read Your Mind," you're in luck! Apparently because the mom isn't doing her job, the housekeeper has to calm the girl down by explaining to her that this is all perfectly normal.

When he's not eavesdropping and peeping, Ting is busy casting black magic spells from a candle-and-skull-filled hidden underground room beneath the floorboards of his shack. As the family sit down for a wholesome Looney Tunes marathon on TV, Ting makes it show bloody clips from Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive instead, which makes the mom completely (and I do mean completely - right down to crying, screaming and getting the nervous shakes!) flip out. Hell, woman, I know Eaten Alive isn't quite up to par with Texas Chainsaw, but it isn't THAT bad. Later that night, Kaew is visited by a muscular though wrinkly-faced naked male demon in her bedroom, who immediately strips off her nightgown and goes downtown. The demon seems to be the same man in an old oil painting that was left behind in the home that Kaew has become recently infatuated with.

After Kaew's nocturnal nookie session ends, the servant finds her naked and lying on the floor. She attempts to destroy the painting, but Kaew awakens with a nasty case of Regan face, starts speaking in a deep male voice and tries to strangle her. The parents and housekeeper then do what any sane person in the same situation would do: Throw the girl down on the bed and tie her ass up! However, since she's possessed, she's still able to lash out using her supernatural powers. She first destroys the phone lines, which force the dad to drive into town to retrieve a doctor. While he's away, Kaew unties her ropes, laughs at and berates her mom, levitates and then starts to strangle the housekeeper again while the wimpy mom cowers in the corner screaming and doing nothing to help. The housekeeper is killed while the mom gets hit with a flying potted plant.

Sankap and the doctor finally arrive and have to sedate the now-hysterical Oon. When the doctor tries to examine Kaew, she smashes him with flying furniture, grabs him and flings him out of her window. Sankap's buddy Vichan (Porjed Kaenpetch) shows up the next day and finds the couple in a state of shock. Instead of going to the police, they drag the two corpses to the back of the house and cover them with sheets (?!) Vichan then begins to suspect Ting the caretaker has something to do with what's going on and begins to investigate matters.

This is pretty decent until about the 40 minute mark when it becomes a bit too sluggish, melodramatic and talky for a spell... but we'll just consider that a little intermission. You can use that time to grab your popcorn, folks, because this then rebounds in a pretty awesome way as it starts to move away from Friedkin and more into early Sam Raimi territory.

Remember in The Evil Dead when Ash traps one of his demon-possessed buddies in the cellar and chains it shut but the hatch is still able to be opened just enough for the demon to peek through and taunt him? Well, the director of this film certainly remembers it because he throws in lots of copycat shots when the possessed girl is locked up in a trunk and does the same exact thing. And remember how the demons could revert back to acting and sounding normal just long enough to trick Ash into letting down his guard? Well, the possessed girl does that here too to the point where the stupid mom lets her loose and she immediately jumps out and starts strangling the dad!

After getting slapped around and choked, Sankap finally loses it and just stabs his daughter with a sword. Oon (who spends most of her screen time screaming and crying) pulls herself together long enough to chop Kaew's arm up with a cleaver and then the dad dismembers her and chops off her head! But then the body reassembles itself and keeps fighting! Meanwhile, Vichan locates the caretaker's underground lair and hidden room, where his collection of skeletons turn into zombies and come after him. Comedic actors Lor Tok, Note Chernyim and Yod Nakhon Nayok have small roles as cops (first seen posing as farmers) and are involved in the perplexing final scene where they encounter a pair of living, talking skeletons (?!) in the caretaker's lair. I guess this was a last minute attempt at levity in what is otherwise a completely serious film.

It appears that the closer you get to the end of the 80s, the worse Thai genre films tend to get. Now we're just talking one decade here - of course Thailand has produced some great horror films since then - but most of the stuff I've watched from the later part of the 80s is absolute rubbish. These films tends to have production values so low they're almost in the negative, are typically shot in a couple of huts or in the surrounding woods, utilize dime store props and are filled with highly-annoying "funny" actors, excruciatingly bad gags, awful slapstick and more sped-up running in one movie than an entire season of The Benny Hill Show. If you're lucky, you may get some black make-up smears underneath ghost eyes, a tiny bit of blood or a couple of cheap laser fx thrown in. Now go back just a few years to the first half of the 80s and Thai horror films seem to improve significantly. This one has actors actually trying to give performances, make-up and gore effects (while they're not great, they're certainly at least adequate) and clear attention paid to the photography, sets, lighting, sound and other basics of filmmaking.

I did end up feeling a little bit cheated though. One of my absolute favorite aspects of cheap Exorcist knock-offs is the crude, vulgar and usually profanity-laden dialogue typically given to the possessed. I suppose the filmmakers assume audiences are going to be shocked seeing a young girl curse like a sailor and say all kinds of outrageous raunchy things, but I usually just find it hilarious in the copycat films because of how desperate they are to try to one-up The Exorcist, which usually results in loads of unintentionally funny dialogue. Sadly, since this one is only available in Thai, I could never make out what the demon-girl says! If her dialogue is as great as I imagined it was, I'd gladly boost the rating by a half star.

This seems like something that could potentially gain an audience if it were more widely available and had an English version on the market, but it runs into the same roadblock many other Asian films from this time do: Nobody bothered doing a music score! Instead, this steals all of its music from other sources. The primary stolen music here is Pino Donaggio's Carrie score, though other film scores are also pilfered. And that's a shame because this is grittier and far more effective than undeservedly more famous garbage like BEYOND THE DOOR.


Insomnie (1963)

... aka: Insomnia

Directed by:
Pierre Étaix

You won't stumble upon many other genre shorts with quite the pedigree this one has. The director was a multi-instrumentalist, magician, comedian (best known for his silent era / Buster Keaton-style slapstick), clown, mime, writer and actor who often worked with some of the most acclaimed European directors of the time (as well as Japanese director Nagisa Oshima). The same year he made this, he won both an Oscar and a BAFTA Award for the short Heureux anniversaire / "Happy Anniversary" (1963). That Oscar was shared with co-director / writer Jean-Claude Carrière, who also wrote this short.

Carrière would go on to even greater heights, with a highly-acclaimed career that saw him receiving three additional Oscar nominations for penning some of the most critically-lauded films of all time: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) and The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). In addition to that, he won a Grand Prize at Cannes for his short La pince à ongles / "The Nail Clippers" (1969), received a lifetime achievement Laurel Award from the Writers Guild of America for his screenwriting and was then awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2014 for his cumulative body of work. And that's just the tip of the iceberg as far award recognition is concerned. Early on, both men worked with Jacques Tati (a former mime himself) while Carrière formed a creative partnership with Luis Buñuel that lasted nearly two decades.

A man (played by Étaix under the name "Gabriel Blonde") lies in bed unable to sleep. You know the routine. The lights go off. The lights come back on. Drink of water. The lights go off. The lights come back on. A couple of sleeping pills. Lights off. Lights on. And then a book. Only this man unwisely picks up a vampire novel and starts reading. He then envisions what's going on in the book as he drifts in and out of sleep. We cut back and forth between scenes of the man in bedroom, which are in color, with scenes from the book, which are monochrome and effectively styled and (over)lit to look just like a silent film. The book scenes are set in a fog-bound castle late at night and touch on all the usual cliches (howling wolves outside, candlelight strolls through dark hallways, shadows cast all over the place...) as a young woman retires to her bedroom and her father hangs a cross on her door to protect her from a vampire. Down in the cellar, the vampire (also played by Étaix) awakens from his slumber, arises from his coffin Nosferatu-style and then then goes after the people upstairs.

Considering the later acclaim of the director and writer, this is an interesting footnote in both of their careers, though a minor one. Not that this is at all bad. It's not. The photography and Gothic atmosphere are excellent, and this does provide some clever moments (like when the vampire removes a spade hand from a clock and uses it to prick the neck of a sleeping victim) as well as a few chuckles, most especially how the insomniac's wife (who is fast asleep next to him the entire time) inadvertently keeps scaring him every time she moves.

This 16-minute, dialogue-free short later ended up as the opening segment in the four-part comedy Tant qu'on a la santé / As Long as You're Healthy (1966), which received a Criterion Collection release in 2013, along with a number of Étaix's other films. It's also available to view for free at archive.org. The original U. S. distributor was the International Film Bureau out of Chicago.

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