Whether youíre talking about the original EC Comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Haunt of Fear or cinematic re-imaginings like Creepshow (1982) or the more recent Trick rí Treat (2008), horror anthologies are usually inconsistent. Even well-received Pan-Asian horror omnibuses like Three and ThreeÖExtremes boast at least one weak link amongst their assortment of twisted tales. With that genre truism in mind, itís no surprise that 4BIA Ė the 2008 Thai horror anthology featuring four stories helmed by four different directors Ė isnít exactly consistent. Even so, at least two of these tales are strong enough to warrant a viewing by any fans of the horror genre.
The anthology gets off to a great start with the first segment, "Happiness." Written and directed by Yongyoot Thongkongtoon (The Iron Ladies), this chilling tale centers on a young woman named Pin (Maneerat Kham-uan) whoís become a veritable shut-in thanks to a broken leg. While recovering from her injury, she starts receiving text messages from an unknown sender. Bored by her now-sedentary lifestyle and intrigued by the prospect of a secret admirer, she begins a text message flirtation with her anonymous suitor. The guy seems friendly at first, but the situation takes a dramatic turn when the two of them decide to exchange photos. To say anything more about the plot would spoil all the fun. Letís just say that a vibrating cell phone has never sounded more terrifying.
Of the four films in this anthology, "Happiness" is the creepiest and, by far, the most effective. The way in which Thongkongtoon creates intense, almost suffocating suspense with nothing but a woman, a cell phone, and a single apartment location is absolutely masterful. Donít be surprised if you find yourself hiding your eyes when Thongkongtoon lingers a bit too long on a particular scene. Also, while films like the One Missed Call franchise have tried to exploit the cell phone as an object of terror, Iíd argue that none of those films have done it as effectively as this one. And one canít ignore the filmís zinger of an ending, which ties everything together nicely (Well, maybe not "nicely"), making "Happiness" the standout piece in the entire anthology.
Sadly, 4BIA takes a significant downturn in "Tit For Tat", a supernatural revenge story from Paween Purikitpanya (Body) about a gang of bullies who take their schoolyard taunting too far and end up paying the ultimate price. Whereas "Happiness" transcended its budgetary constraints to create a suspenseful horror film, "Tit for Tat" falls flat, despite an interesting visual style. Worse, the plotting seems a bit haphazard, the gore doesnít really register, and the overblown, slightly amateurish CGI is a bit too cartoonish to be scary. Itís probably not fair to slam "Tit for Tat" for its use of not-so photo-real computer graphics, but really, the film wouldíve been better served by the use of some practical special effects work (i.e., men in suits), especially during the finale. But even ignoring the overreliance on CGI in the climax, "Tit for Tat" isnít exactly a strong film.
If "Tit for Tat" dips the film to its absolute lowest point, then itís the next episode, "In the Middle," that skyrockets the whole affair back to the top. Directed by Shutter co-director Banjong Pisanthanakun, "In the Middle" centers on four friends who head to the jungle for a whitewater rafting trip. When camp is set up, they canít resist telling ghost stories and scaring each other half to death. Things turn serious, however, when one of their friends disappears after being thrown from the raft. However, the missing friend mysteriously returns, causing his friends to wonder if their old pal isnít quite himself anymore.
If not for the creeping dread that pervades "Happiness," Pisanthanakunís "In the Middle" would be the best film of the anthology. The plot or the scares aren't all that revolutionary, but part of the fun resides in the fact that the characters are self-aware jokesters who act and react like many people would in a scary situation. The camaraderie amongst the actors is palpable, and the groupís propensity to spoil the endings for horror movies like Shutter, The Sixth Sense, The Others, and even non-horror films like Titanic is hilarious, if not strangely endearing. As much a commentary on modern Asian horror movie clichťs as it is an uproarious horror comedy, "In the Middle" is by far the most amusing film of the lot.
The final film in this quartet of terror comes from the other Shutter co-director Parkpoom Wongpoom. The narrative of "Last Fright" revolves around Pim (Laila Bonyasak), a stewardess handpicked by a princess to serve on her exclusive flight crew. It seems that Pim and the princess share a connection, which "Last Fright" explores at length. Unfortunately for the princess, however, she soon kicks the bucket when she succumbs to a fatal food allergy. When the princessís body is set to be returned to her native country for proper funeral rites, Pim finds herself serving the princess once more, as her body is transported back on the same plane as before. Pim is a little creeped out, but figures thisíll be the easiest flight of her life. Of course, sheís dead wrong.
One might expect an anthology film like 4BIA to "save the best for last," but unfortunately, Last Fright, turns out to be somewhat of a disappointment. To be fair, itís not terrible Ė the film is well-made and the "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" plot comes straight from those fun, old Tales from the Crypt comics. The main problem is that it just isnít scary enough. Further, the unique setting isnít exploited to its full potential, nor is the secret history shared by the two main characters. Instead of turning the banality of an airplane into a place of eerie doom, director Parkpoom Wongpoom relies on clichťd horror movie lighting to convey fear, even though it seems ridiculous that that the inside of an airplane would ever look like that. It also seems to be a stretch that the princessís body would be transported in the cabin, but I wonít quibble about minutiae.
In the real world, a fifty percent success rate means a failing grade, but in the context of this film, the two stronger narratives are able to make this a horror movie worth recommending. Ranking the films, I would say that "Happiness" and "In the Middle" soar, "Last Fright" is somewhat average, and "Tit for Tat" could use a lot of polish. If youíre looking for some Asian horror thatís much different from the various Ring rip-offs of the past decade, you could do a lot worse than Thailandís 4BIA. Without a doubt, "Happiness" and "In the Middle" are loads more fun than a plenty of full-length, bigger budgeted horror movies released in theaters today.
(Calvin McMillin, 2009)