It’s no secret that we’re in the middle of an apocalypse of wet, stringy-haired girl ghosts who threaten the very fabric of our universe with their refusal to stay in the tub, the well, or whatever the hell else they may have been stuck in. And it’s no secret that it’s starting to get rather dull. Sure, back in the day when “Ringu” was only whispered about in secret stateside, the image of a spooky girl walking in reverse and staring at you through a matted wad of black hair was pretty weird. Now it seems like these ladies are everywhere, and as a result they’re about as scary as hair in a shower drain.
So when the Thai horror film “Shutter” (which promises its fair share of matted locks) appeared on the scene, I was a bit apprehensive. Do we really need another “One Missed Dark Grudge Phone Ring”? Much to my delight, “Shutter” managed to sidestep its trappings and come out on top as both a scary thriller and intriguing mystery with an ending that will shock even the most jaded genre fan. Sure, a good part of the film is standard stuff, but the big difference between this film and others like it is that instead of random things happening to random people, in “Shutter” the victims are directly tied to the ghost, and may even deserve what’s coming to them. This makes for far more engaging stuff than the now played-out “if you buy the wrong candy bar at the gas station you’ll die in 4 days!” routine.
Tun (Ananda Everingham) and Jane (Natthaweeranuch Thongmee — try saying that five times fast…) are a young Bangkok couple who are en route to falling deeply in love when a woman suddenly steps in front of their car. Literally — they mow her down in the middle of the night, and flee the scene in a panic. Before you can say “I Know What You Did Last Time You Went to Thailand,” the two lovebirds are scouring the papers and calling hospitals for evidence of a vehicular manslaughter, but nothing ever turns up. Did they kill someone? Or did the woman walk away? Wracked with guilt, both Tun and Jane start having nightmares about the girl, and what appears to be a straightforward revenge-ghost story kicks into gear.
But that’s when things get really interesting. Tun, a photographer, has noticed that mysterious white streaks have been appearing on his photos (the photos he took at the graduation ceremonies at their college even feature what looks like the face of a woman floating among the graduates). Terrified, the two take the photos to a local magazine that specializes in ghost photos, and there they learn that A) most of the photos are fake (there’s a hilarious bit where they watch an editor Photoshop a ghost into a vacation photo), and B) the only pictures you can really trust are Polaroids, because they can’t be doctored. Armed with this knowledge, the two plucky kids set out to snap themselves some ghost and get to the bottom of the mystery of who their victim may have been.
Jane notices that the streaks in the photos tend to be over one set of windows of the building behind the graduates, and she decides to investigate. It turns out that the room is the building’s biology lab, and in a creepy sequence, she learns that the dead woman is likely a former student, Natre (Achita Sikamana). Jane brings this info to Tun, who reacts strangely: it turns out that he knew her. In fact, he dated her, and their relationship ended badly. Jane is understandably confused: what went wrong? When did it happen? And what exactly did Tun’s friends do in order to “teach her a lesson” and get her to leave him alone?
Things get much more interesting when they visit Natre’s mother at their home and find that Natre is there. From this point on I really can’t reveal too much, as it is way too much fun to experience on your own, but I can give some highlights: multiple suicides, photo shoots, transsexual hookers, thunderstorms, massive head trauma, lies, ghost attacks, and more spooky photos. Basically, everything you could ask for in a horror film.
The film is directed with a fairly assured hand by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, who rely a bit too much on music cues (there are a few jump scares that are deafening) but for the most part play fair and do a fantastic job with what is ultimately a very clever sleight-of-hand. This kind of film begs a second viewing, as many of the setup elements are cleverly disguised as background color, and don’t really attract attention to themselves — in fact, one of the major plot elements turns out to be a gigantic maguffin that ultimately has nothing to do with the real story. That the filmmakers are able to pull this off without pissing off the audience is a real credit — especially since so many forced twist endings are unable to come off as an organic part of the movie, rather than the cheap tricks they really are. Here the resolution is satisfying and appropriate, and the film is stronger because of it.
I wish I could go into more detail about the ending, but that wouldn’t be fair — let me just say that it’s good, and it’s an idea I’ve not seen before. Two girls behind me at the screening at the Tribeca Film Festival were literally shaking and muttering to themselves when the lights came up. If you’re in the market for a clever mystery that takes the familiar elements of recent genre fare and actually puts them to good use — and don’t mind a few good jumps along the way — “Shutter” is just the ticket.
“Shutter” is screening as a part of the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 19th to May 1st in New York City. For a full list of screenings, check out the fest’s official website.