Sunday, October 6, 2013

Horror Film Review

23:59 (2011):  Singapore horror.  It's got a nice ring to it, don't you think?  This is the first film I've seen from that particular city-state and hadn't the tiniest notion what to expect.  Well, since it's Asian, odds were in its favor that, at the very least, it wouldn't suck.  And what do you didn't.  I won't go as far as to say it ranks up there with Shutter, but compared to the majority of crap being vomited out of Hollywood, it's an absolute masterpiece.  Oh, by the way, deal with the subtitles.

Timid Tan (Tedd Chan) and jock Jeremy (Henley Hii) are childhood best friends nearing the end of their military training on an isolated island.  The platoon douchebag, Dragon (Lawrence Koh), tries to freak everyone out with a story that's half ghost, half local legend.  A demon possessed a local medium, mutated her unborn daughter into a monstrosity.  Mama lost some marbles and her daughter wasn't exactly all there herself.  Scorned, shunned, feared...what sort of a ghost comes from that?  So now, at 23:59 every night, something visits the troops in their barracks and it ain't there to thank them for their service.  Tan is properly freaked, thinks he's going to die, which prompts ridicule from his fellow recruits.  It's just a story, right?  During a nighttime march, Tan goes missing, they search, Jeremy sees an older woman next to a twisted body by the river.  Yes, it's Tan.  He's well and truly dead.  Jeremy thinks the woman did it but she vanishes.  Later, fellow recruit Chester (Josh Lai) becomes demon possessed himself.  Growling, spitting...the works.  They tie him to his bunk, the platoon sergeant (Mark Lee) calls in a Buddhist exorcist who throws, not holy water, but blood on him.  Does the trick, but doesn't save him because later he wanders into the forest and ends up like Tan.  This time, however, Jeremy had followed.  He sees Chester's body twist up into a pretzel, sees the old woman again, flees in terror to an old house and hides.  It's the woman's house, unfortunately.  But after a few scary minutes, Jeremy learns she's not doing the killing and also that she feels mighty guilty about who is.  Jeremy helps to ease her guilt (albeit against his will) in what is actually a very tender moment.  Creepy and weird, but tender.

I have a criticism or two.  First, it's hard to imagine these guys are days away from being full-fledged soldiers.  They all look like teenage boys and are about as disciplined.  For a moment, I let my mind wander and pictured the barracks belonging to a platoon of U.S. Marines...and felt sorry for the demon.  Second, the sergeant's superior officer (Benjamin Lim) speaks nothing but English.  Why?  Everyone else speaks Mandarin.  Strange.  Third, while every other recruit is either scrawny or tubby, Jeremy looks like an underwear model.  Full, pouty lips, six-pack abs, etc.  OK...not really a criticism.  More of an observation. 

A few things I really liked.  In the opening scene, the door creaks open and a pink rubber ball comes bouncing into the barracks.  Nice homage to The Changeling.  Also in the first scene, Tan comes face to no-face with the angry spirit.  I say no-face because there's a gaping, bloody, ragged, nasty gouge where it should be.  Groovy. 

The Skinny

Acting:  If I'm honest, it's uneven and more often than not, rather stilted.  Stand outs are Lee as the sergeant and Chan as Tan.  Lim as Captain Hong is just this side of annoying.
Story:  Setting a vengeful spirit tale in the midst of a military enclave is hardly new.  Blending it with local lore and a demon from hell, however, is hardly cliché.  Shouldn't work but does.
Direction:  With a running time of under 80 minutes, there are no wasted shots or unnecessary exposition or second-act lag.  It's not fancy but it's solid.
Production Values:  I hear tell they had a $600,000 budget.  Again, nothing fancy.  Although as with most Asian flicks, it's on quality film and care is taken with sound, lighting, and music. 
Gore/FX:  Well, there's the woman with that wicked hole in her face.  That qualifies.  Not a bunch of actual blood, though.  The make-up for the deformed daughter is as good as it is heart-breaking.  CGI is next to non-existent. 
Scares:  There are, yes.  There's a thing with Jeremy and a mirror that got me.  It's quiet and subtle and therefore twice as effective. 
Ending:  The first ending is the wrap-up of a subplot with Jeremy and his dad.  It's bittersweet and well done.  The last ending is the silly cliché:  new recruits sitting around in the same barracks starting to tell a ghost story when the door creaks open.
Verdict:  Should you see 23:59?  You should.  Not for the Singapore novelty, but because it's an above average ghost flick. 

Rating:  3 out of 5

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