Although many viewers are understandably becoming less and less enthusiastic about the modern Asian ghost film, with the genre long having become the exclusive domain of murderous long haired female spectres, there is still plenty of room for innovation in the form, as demonstrated here by the excellent Thai horror “Dorm”. Directed by Songyos Sugmakana, who was also partly responsible for the 2003 smash hit “My Girl”, the film rises above the usual clich’d drudgery to provide a genuinely chilling and affecting viewing experience. “Dorm’s” quality can be seen in the fact that it is one of the few ghost films to shake off the critical shackles of the genre, having been awarded the Glass Bear award at the recent 2007 Berlin Film Festival, with Sugmakana also garnering a Special Mention prize for his efforts.
The plot begins with a twelve year old boy called Chatree (young actor Chatree Trairat, also in “My Girl”) being driven to a new boarding school in the countryside by his parents, apparently as a result of his father’s desire for him to study harder. The young lad understandably has difficulty settling into his new life, not least due to the fact that the students who sleep in the massive dormitory have a habit of staying up at night and telling ghost stories by torchlight, much to the annoyance of the creepy headmistress Ms. Pranee (Jintara Sukapat), who seems to have more than a few screws loose. Chatree soon finds himself caught up in a real life haunting after he begins to suspect that his new friend Wichien (Sirarath Jianthavom) may be harbouring a sinister secret of his own.
The main strength of “Dorm” is that it is far from being a simple tale of the supernatural, with fears grounded in the anxieties of emerging adolescence, loneliness and guilt, all of which are played out against an effectively ominous and threatening institutional setting. Despite initial appearances, the film is actually far more akin to Guillermo del Toro’s classic “The Devil’s Backbone” than the likes of the Korean “Whispering Corridors” series, and is in essence a character driven affair whose horror elements are largely born from confusion, sadness and the anxiety inherent in the protagonist’s situation.
Sugmakana builds from a solid emotional foundation, with Chatree’s relationships with his friends, and more importantly his father playing every bit as important a part in the proceedings as the ghostly goings-on. All of this investment in character serves well to make the setting more believable, something which lends the film’s frights a real edge devoid from the vast majority of similar genre efforts.
As a result, the film is genuinely creepy, with an eerie atmosphere throughout and plenty of effective scare scenes. Although Sugmakana does to an extent rely upon a number of genre conventions, such as hands suddenly reaching from sinks, creaking doors and half-seen shadowy figures, these are expertly employed and never seem as tired as they might have. The film also features a number of original and inventive touches, such as a chorus of howling dogs, used initially as a signifier of doom, and later for surprisingly touching effect.
Sugmakana’s direction is excellent, and he gives the proceedings a grey, foreboding look which really brings the dormitory to life as a sinister character in its own right, helped by the notably high production values, something which sets the film apart from other Thai horror outings, which tend to be rather shoddy, low budget affairs. The film is well structured and paced, with the plot spurred on by a series of revelations rather than building towards the kind of big twist ending so popular in the modern ghost genre. The narrative does take a number of unexpected turns, and as a result is very engrossing, thanks in no small part to the emotional investment in characters and the painfully human drama at the film’s core.
“Dorm” stands not only as the best horror film from Thailand in recent years, being superior to the enjoyable though rather formulaic “Shutter”, but also as one of the best from any Asian country. Frightening and moving in equal parts, it is a film of considerable substance, and one which boasts a level of depth rarely seen in the genre. Although unlikely to revitalise the desperately tired form, it does at least serve to remind viewers that there is still life in the ghost film, at least when directors are willing to put in the same amount of dedication and effort shown by the talented Sugmakana.
Songyos Sugmakanan (director)
CAST: Charlie Trairat … Ton
Chintara Sukapatana … Pranee
Sirachuch Chienthaworn … Vichien
Jintara Sukaphatana … Pranee