The portmanteau film has been a horror mainstay for many decades, with numerous territories capitalising on its short, sharp shock structure. Given the emergence of Asian horror over the past ten years it was only a matter of time before some additions to the Eastern canon made it to Western shores. One such example is Phobia, bringing together four horror stories from four rising or accomplished Thai directors - it’s also known as 4BIA, natch.

From Amicus’ Tales From The Crypt to Carpenter and Hooper’s Body Bags, these films can deliver a mixed pit of offerings and Phobia is no different. The quartet underlines both the strengths and weaknesses that horror brings to the short film format and, while never reaching superlative feature-length chills, mixes its clunks with a few tricks and smart starts for the aficionados.

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First up is Happiness, from Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, with a girl whose broken leg has stranded her alone in her apartment. After texting a few friends to break the monotony she starts to receive SMS messages from a stranger. Initially beguiled by the thoughts of a mysterious beau, she strikes up a fluttering repartee, but gradually the truth about her admirer is revealed. This is a tidy, structured and slow-burning piece, efficiently directed by Thongkongtoon (of Iron Ladies repute), who makes great use of the lack of dialogue and relies on keypadded texts for the significant exchanges. It rests on visual story-telling, reinforces the girl’s isolation and ups the tension adroitly, making this the best of the four.

Tit For Tat follows next, with Paween Purikitpanya (Body 19) taking us in a wildly different direction. A gang of thoroughly dislikable delinquent school kids beat up a fellow weakling pupil, only for the worm to turn on them, armed with a black magic curse. Soon they’re reaping a gory whirlwind in vaguely inventive ways. Strictly for genre fans, this has pale memories of better Asian ghost revenges lurking somewhere in the shadows, while up front the MTV editing, high-pitched screeching, frenetic pacing and swirling CGI keep it rocking along. Unfortunately, with so little character investment there isn’t really anyone to identify with, care about or get frightened for amid the barrage of flash and noise.

In The Middle is a simpler ghost story from Banjong Pisanthanakun, with four lads out on a kayaking adventure, getting spooked while camping in the woods. It’s almost comforting in its familiarity and reveal and Pisanthanakun wraps it all in a summer season sleeping bag of heavy irony. With tongue nearly popping through fetid cheek, he litters his script with direct references to many contemporary films and modern Asian horror archetypes, while playfully cutting into his own Shutter down to size.

The anthology concludes with Wongpoom’s Last Flight, wherein a solitary air stewardess must tend to a passenger jet’s only fare, a stuck up and rude princess. When her service conspires to reduce said royalty to a corpse, the stewardess’ nightmare journey really takes off. Any screecher set on a plane, even one as strangely deserted as this, conjures images of John Lithgow in the Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, Last Flight has less overtly comic elements and goes for all out scares, jumps and jolts, with only mild success. As far removed from the first film as possible, it’s a turbulent ride with an abundance of screaming.

A nice riff on Asian horror’s ethereal connections subtly loops the episodes together, but the simple morality tales make for an uneven whole. More of a promise of better, full features to come in the future, rather than the threat of shock it hopes to deliver on now.

Reviewed on: 06 May 2010
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Portmanteau horror.
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Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun, Paween Purikitpanya, Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, Parkpoom Wongpoom

Writer: Banjong Pisanthanakun, Paween Purikitpanya, Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, Parkpoom Wongpoom (segments)

Starring: Laila Boonyasak, Maneerat Kham-uan, Apinya Sakuljaroensuk, Witawat Singlampong, Pongsatorn Jongwilat, Chon Wachananon

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Thailand


Terracotta 2010

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